People & business: Traditional boozers turn into a Wizard success

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The Independent Online
THE MAN who wrote a best seller titled The Death of the English Pub is now set to make a fortune - from his booming English pub business.

Christopher Hutt is taken aback to be reminded of his book, which he wrote when he was national chairman for the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra).

"It's a long time ago - the book was published in 1973," he says. "It was a diatribe against the policies the national brewers were pursuing at the time."

Having just opened the 10th pub in his Wizard Inns chain, and with a total of 30 planned by the end of the year, Mr Hutt is in danger of becoming a "national pub owner" himself.

Wizard is backed by Nomura International and the Royal Bank of Scotland to the tune of pounds 32m. In January it bought 37 pubs from Phoenix Inns in a deal worth pounds 11m. Mr Hutt says: "We opened our first pub in February. We aim to give the `local' back to the locals."

Not for him the razzmatazz of themed pubs. "Most of our competitors are concentrating on a lemming-rush to branded and themed outlets. We prefer to work with well-located local pubs which have fallen on hard times and which we can breathe a bit of life back into."

Wizard is just the latest in a long line of boozer ventures for Mr Hutt. He's been involved in three pub companies that he's subsequently sold. He started with Midsummer Inns in the 1970s, then there was Unicorn Inns which he sold to Morland in 1995 for pounds 12.3m, and after that he sold two pubs to Surrey Free Inns, before setting up Wizard.

Mr Hutt has a chilling warning for the themed pubs. "None of them have been tested through a recession. I wonder how many of them will survive the next one."

Worrying times, indeed. Make mine a pint.

ALAN BUDD, member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), has added his voice to the growing row between the City and the MPC over interest-rate policy.

Geoffrey Dicks, economist at Greenwich NatWest, quotes Mr Budd in Greenwich's latest note on the UK economy. The quote comes from a speech Mr Budd gave to the Institute of Economic Affairs earlier this month. "Most of the comment on our (the MPC's) actions comes from the economic correspondents of the press and television and from that superb body of men and women, the City commentators."

Mr Budd went on: "The behaviour, in general, of the latter group has sometimes puzzled me. I have always assumed that, in relation to the actions of the Government and the Bank of England, their task is to predict what they are going to do."

The MPC guru continues: "I have two theories. The first is that their activities add glory and weight to the institutions for which they work... The second is ... it is always difficult to admit you have made a mistake so naturally they don't say that they are wrong, they say that the MPC was wrong."

This is all good, pungent stuff. But hang on a minute. Is this the same Alan Budd that used to be former chief economist of the Barclays Bank group, and as such, one of the biggest "City commentators " of them all?

FIRSTPLUS, an American mortgage lender, has just established a pounds 10m head office in Cardiff to kick-start its drive into Europe.

The press release from the institution marking the launch mentions that "Firstplus's profile is strong in the US. Former US Vice-President Dan Quayle was elected to its board of directors in March, and Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino stars in Firstplus's TV advertising."

Marino, fair enough; he's a damn fine footballer. But I would have thought Firstplus would have been much better off keeping the Quayle connection under wraps. He is, after all, the man who mis-spelt "potato" in a visit to a school, among hundreds of other televised gaffs.

SPARE A thought for Will Whitehorn, Richard Branson's omnipresent press spokesman.

Will was all lined up to get shares in London & Continental, the project to build a fast link from the channel tunnel to central London. In fact, he could have trousered millions - considerably more than the average PR person can look forward to.

Then the L&C project went phut earlier this year. Now Stagecoach's Brian Souter has come along and bought 49 per cent of Virgin Rail in a surprise pounds 140m deal.

Will must be cursing that he wasn't due to pick up some shares in the latter venture instead.