Make mine another pub Profile: Giles Thorley
Dan Gledhill meets a former barrister who was sentenced to life behind bars - all 2,750 of them
"I suppose I really am a pub bore," he concedes. "When I enter a pub, I look at the cleanliness, the type of beer sold, the layout of bar, the price of food, whatever."
As if to prove the point, his conversation is punctuated by references to his personal organiser, where he has logged details of the 2,750 establishments he manages as head of the Unique Pub Company, a position which makes him one of Britain's biggest and most unlikely landlords. His scholarly appearance provides a clue to his background as a barrister, a career which he gave up in 1990 in favour of the more lucrative pursuit of corporate finance at Nomura, the Japanese bank.
It was at Nomura that a fateful encounter with Guy Hands, the bank's principal finance guru, sentenced Thorley to a life behind bars. Hands had hit upon the idea that Britain's neglected pub estate represented a wonderful investment opportunity and identified a kindred spirit in Thorley. The rest, as testified by the pounds 30m annual salary which Hands is believed to earn, is history. Hands went on a buying spree which saw him accumulate 7,400 establishments. When the time came in December last year to spin off 2,500 of them, he turned to his trusty lieutenant Thorley to manage the new venture. These days, Thorley is a general in his own right and Nomura is nothing more than a "distant shareholder".
"The pub market was mis-priced and Guy, Hugh and I spotted it," says Thorley.
Hugh, of course, is Hugh Osmond, the 37-year-old boss of Punch Taverns who has masterminded the pounds 2.7bn acquisition of Allied Domecq's 6,000- strong estate. Hands has subsequently turned his financial whizz-kiddery to other products. In his wake, Osmond and Thorley are the entrepreneurs with most influence over the nation's favourite distraction.
The audacious triumph which saw Osmond pinch the Allied Domecq estate from the clutches of mighty Whitbread has made him a media star. Thorley is a very different character, living quietly in Islington, north London, with his wife and two young children and declining until now to submit to a journalistic profile. Unlike Osmond, who is based in the bustling heart of the capital's West End, Thorley commutes on weekdays to the serenity of Thame in Oxfordshire where he has been recognised only once.
"I am a workaholic, not a great socialiser on the London scene during the week," he says.
Thorley's low profile is an asset when it comes to his regular visits to Unique pubs. Travelling incognito, he is unlikely to receive special treatment from bar staff. Left alone, he is free to indulge his passion for spotting what's good or bad about an establishment. He treads the line between the habits of the "Beerage", those remaining members of the beer industry's dynastic controllers like David Thompson of Wolverhampton & Dudley, much of whose life is spent visiting pubs, and relative newcomers like Ted Tuppen of Enterprise Inns, a qualified accountant more likely to be found in the office. Osmond, by contrast, is unlikely to be able to visit one of his premises without the red carpet being laid out.
"When I see something in a pub that's good, I will compliment it," says Thorley. "But I wouldn't usually single anything out for criticism. The British public don't tend to compliment - or complain - about anything."
The latter point may explain why there has been such scope for Hands, Osmond and Thorley to build such thriving businesses. For decades, Britain's big brewers also owned most of the nation's pubs and treated them as nothing more than a place to sell their beer. The interests of the punters were secondary.
The Beer Orders of 1989, which put a cap on the number of pubs which brewers could own, forced them to put thousands of pubs on the market. The result has been the creation of a new breed of pub company whose priority is to improve quality and service.
"There is no question that the quality of pubs has gone up," says Thorley, meaning that today's drinkers are able to enjoy a choice of drinks and a varied food menu in a more friendly and hygienic setting than 10 years ago. The aim is to banish the days when punters had to settle for tattered seats, greasy food and dirty toilets. He has little time for the critics who blame him and his like for the decline of real ale brands.
"If Unilever brought out, say, a lemon- flavoured washing powder and it failed to sell, they would abandon it. But just because this is the beer industry, there is a huge fuss when brands which hardly sell disappear."
Perhaps some of the resentment among the hirsute stalwarts of the Campaign for Real Ale is motivated by the combination of sharp suits and clipped accents which characterise these youthful pub bosses. Certainly, Thorley admits that the lofty position he has reached so soon owes much to the fact that Unique is a private concern.
"I know that I wouldn't be running a public company at my age," he says. "It would take a brave board to hire someone like me with no track record. But in some ways running a private company is harder. The return has to be higher than for a quoted company, so you have to drive the business more aggressively."
November's maiden results, which are expected to show annual profits pushing pounds 90m, should provide ample evidence that Thorley's youth is an irrelevance. Not that he is complacent. Now that the bargains which littered Britain's pub landscape after the bombshell of the Beer Orders have been all but snapped up, the opportunities for pub companies are becoming ever- thinner on the ground.
"Hugh, Ted [Tuppen, of Enterprise Inns], John [Sands, of Pubmaster] and I are champing at the bit to buy pubs, but nowadays we are in danger of pushing up prices," he says.
Hence his policy of growth by small acquisition, which may be as indicative of Thorley's understated personality as the blockbuster deal is of Osmond's larger-than-life character. For a man who spent four and a half years training to be a barrister only to quit after just six months at the bar, his cautious prognosis might suggest that Thorley is already considering a new challenge. Then again, you only have to hear him waxing lyrical about a Glaswegian pub he recently visited to realise that it will be many years before he becomes bored of pubs.
"The Ying Yang bar is fantastic," he raves. "The owner has set up a series of partitions which he removes as the pub fills up. That means it always seems full even on a Monday night. Brilliant."
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