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
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Christine McCleave: FP&A Analyst

£36,000 - £40,000: Christine McCleave: Are you looking for a new opportunity a...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Austen Lloyd: Law Costs HOD - Southampton

£50000 - £60000 per annum + Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: An outstanding new...

SThree: Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £21000 per annum + uncapped commission: SThree: As a graduate you are...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn