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

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The Independent Online
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.