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.

Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
VIDEO
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environmentGardeners rally round the endangered bumblebee
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
musicBest exclusives coming to an independent record shop near you this Record Store Day
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Arts & Entertainment
Comedian Lenny Henry is calling for more regulation to support ethnic actors on TV
tvActor and comedian leads campaign against 'lack of diversity' in British television
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Telesales & Sales Support Apprentice

£221.25 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a well established Inter...

Client Relationship Manager - SQL, Python

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Client Relationship Manager - SQL...

**Financial Services Tax**

£35000 - £50000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: Take your chance to join the...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit