You don't have to be mad, but it helps

WACKY ideas can be good for business. But business people who gain a reputation for wackiness sometimes have trouble getting sober and clear-headed financiers to take them seriously. So Colm O'Rourke, known throughout much of the West Midlands as "Mad O'Rourke", was delighted to be told by an executive of the Allied Irish Bank: "Your business should never work in theory, but it works quite well in practice."

Mr O'Rourke's Little Pub Company has proved to be more than a passing phase. What started as a one-pub operation has grown to an estate of 14. Turnover is more than pounds 3m and plans are afoot to open another five. Meanwhile, he is about to clinch a deal to run the catering and drinks operation at Coventry's Belgrade Theatre.

Entertainment in the bars and restaurants is likely to rival that on the stage. Mr O'Rourke's ideas of interior and exterior design are nothing if not theatrical. This is the man who built the country's only inland lighthouse at a Victorian pub of sober red brick in the back streets of Kidderminster. The Little Tumbling Sailors went on to win the Consumers' Association 1990 award for best theme pub in Britain. At the Little Dry Dock in Netherton, he removed the front of the building to install a 30ft narrowboat. Drinks are served through its windows.

Not surprisingly, his ambitious projects have brought him into conflict with local planning authorities. But the same councils' tourism departments tend to look on his pubs in a more favourable light. The Black Country Tour features five, including Mad O'Rourke's Pie Factory at Tipton, home of the gastronomic assault course known as the Desperate Dan Pie.

Food is a key element in the O'Rourke formula, accounting for more than 50 per cent of turnover in many of his outlets. He started his working life as a chef on trawlers sailing out of his native Howth, near Dublin. Later he worked in hotels on either side of the Irish Sea before setting up a cafe in Princes Risborough, Bucks, with Sheena, his wife and partner. They moved to Bewdley in Worcestershire and opened their first pub, the Little Pack Horse, in 1982.

This year they have taken on a finance director, Arthur Baker, and published a marketing strategy. The more you read it, the more you realise the company is dependent not on any rigid formula but on the ideas that fly like sparks from Mr O'Rourke's fevered imagination.

At 44 he still exudes a manic energy. Sitting down to answer questions, he furiously rocks to and fro in his chair, both hands clasped around one elevated knee. But beneath the wildly tousled hair is a sharp brain that has spotted and exploited opportunities in the increasingly niche- orientated pub market.

"The whole market is becoming more exciting," he says. "There's a new type of customer out there. During half-term, I stood in a pub in Bromsgrove that was full of children and grandmothers. Almost everyone in there would not have been on licensed premises 10 years ago."

Perhaps the biggest change in the industry in that time is the loosening of the grip of brewing combines on their tied houses. The least profitable have been "parked" with holding companies, often run by former executives of big brewers, which keep 15 per cent of the shares. Mr O'Rourke's strategy is to negotiate for these pubs, then turn around their trade. The latest is Trotter Hall, near Droitwich, a great red-brick barn now a venue for Irish medieval banquets.

In appearance and design it is very different from, say, Mad O'Rourke's Kipper House in Willenhall or the Little Sauce Factory in Worcester. Themes vary from pub to pub, but they all have something in common: a range of O'Rourke merchandise, for instance - mugs, plates, dishes, shields.

All outlets serve Lumphammer Bitter, dispensed from a hammer-shaped pump. The Lark, a not entirely serious newspaper, is on sale at every bar. Staff are carefully monitored for a sense of irony. "You can train people to keep beer and produce good food and service," says Mr O'Rourke. "But you can't change personalities. That has to be right from the start."

He likes to visit every pub in his estate at least twice a week. Keeping the company regional enables him to keep control. "We don't intend to go much beyond 20," he says. A Little Pub Company can only grow so far.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Sales Assistant / Buyer

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company offers a range of ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisors are r...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree were established in 1986....

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Manager

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Compliance Manager is require...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy