'My only experience was drinking three pints a night'

JD Wetherspoon has grown from a single pub to Britain's biggest chain by volume of beer sold. Founder Tim Martin explains how he turned it into a thriving business valued at pounds 342m.
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The Independent Online
Everyone in Britain knows how to do three jobs - their own, managing a football club and being a landlord. When I bought my first pub the only experience I had was drinking three pints a night of Abbot. I almost made a Horlicks of it simply because I didn't know what I was doing.

I'll always remember the first morning at the original Wetherspoon. I couldn't unlock the doors to let the cleaner in and by the time the locksmith had opened them it was 11 o'clock, customers were arriving and it was still a mess from the night before.

Some retail companies open their first outlet in South Kensington and it's like lighting the blue touch paper. It wasn't that way for me. I had quite a few years of not being a success before it worked. But looking back, I think the lack of immediate success was quite good for me.

I have been described as a Kiwi barrister who liked his local so much he bought it. That's not entirely true. I was raised in New Zealand, but I was born here. I did study law, and passed my bar exams, but I never practised. And it wasn't my local - it was miles away.

And that's the point. I thought the pubs near where I lived - in Wood Green, north London - were poor so I started going to one in Muswell Hill that had been converted from a betting shop. Unlike most London pubs then, it sold a range of regional beers. As soon as I saw it I was convinced that if you put a pub like that in every suburb they would all do well.

I had bought a flat with a 100 per cent mortgage as a student, and was able to sell it when the market was high in 1979. I used the pounds 10,000 I made from that as a deposit on a pounds 70,000 lease for Wetherspoon. My solicitor told me I would be able to renew the lease when it expired eight years later, but that wasn't true. The pub wasn't worth half what I'd paid for it. I was technically insolvent unless I could extend the lease. I had to refinance the whole business to get out of that mess, although I was able to get back pounds 20,000 by suing the solicitors many years later.

Wetherspoon was different from the beginning because it sold a range of regional beers. That was about the time that Camra - the Campaign for Real Ale - got going and people were beginning to demand more choice.

As time has gone by we've modified the pubs in hundreds of thousands of other mundane ways. For example, we cut prices to 50p a pint less than our competitors were charging, turned off the music so that people could talk, and started serving food all day long. Other pubs all had pool, darts and juke boxes but ours didn't.

The main problem with the pub in Muswell Hill was that it wasn't big enough. It had about 500sq ft of customer area, about half the size of the average local. The brewers were not selling properties in those days, so I began buying other retail sites, getting planning and licensing approval, and then converting them.

Getting the second pub open in 1981 was a real horror story, though. It was in a motor showroom in nearby Crouch End and was about 50 per cent bigger than the first. The contractors didn't finish until two to three months after they were supposed to and costs spiralled. When it opened it had a tarpaulin for a roof.

I think one of the problems was that I went down there too much - a lot of things went wrong in the early days because I was charging in with no experience. I've now learned to listen to the professionals, staff and customers.

By 1983 I had four managed pubs, and I bought another four existing pubs that summer. Wetherspoon made a pounds 180,000 profit during that financial year. Had I stopped there I could have said this was a successful business. Instead, Wetherspoon went hell for leather for expansion, adding 40 to 50 per cent to sales each year. It's not that we built lots of pubs, but we built big ones.

There's always a concern when you grow that fast about over-extending yourself. You have to tread a narrow path between pushing it along and stretching your cash flow to the point where there's some sort of implosion. I became used to sitting in long meetings with bank managers, convincing them that my latest pub in Holloway Road, or wherever, was a better home for their money than Buenos Aires or Venezuela.

That kind of growth can create internal management problems. You're constantly passing through watersheds as you discover one system or another is unable to keep up.

When you start a new business you have to become an expert in a wide range of fields, a jack of all trades, because you can't afford to employ specialists. But as you get bigger you have to hand over some of these responsibilities to real experts. By far the most important thing I've done is to develop a management team that can compensate for the shortcomings of the founder.