Inside Track by Peter Martin
Tim Martin has yet again shown himself to be the pub industry’s most high profile and probably most effective advocate. The Wetherspoon’s chairman was making headlines again this week by taking a hefty swipe at the government over rising costs and taxes. Martin is one of those quirky, shoot-from-the-hip entrepreneurs that the media, especially TV and radio, love. One hates to employ that overworked epithet “larger than life”, but there you have it. His round of studio interviews, on the back of Wetherspoon’s latest trading update, culminated in him appearing as a guest contributor to This Week, BBC 1’s heavyweight political show, alongside regulars Andrew Neill, Michael Portillo and MP Diane Abbott. This gave him the perfect platform to cut loose on Gordon Brown’s administration over climbing energy, food and fuel costs, not to mention escalating wage and tax bills. He also put in a big plug for visiting the pub. This was all done with his usual intelligence and good humour. It was a big plus not just for Tim Martin and Wetherspoon’s, but the pub market as a whole. But the real story for those in the industry was not so much his attack on Labour policies, but the underlying performance of his pub group. Being successful helps when trying to be heard, and JDW is demonstrating that it is just that – a profitable, well-run operation, doing better than most in difficult times. Despite the considerable gloom enveloping the market, Wetherspoon’s was able to report like-for-likes ahead 0.4% for the 11 weeks to 13 July, against an expected 3% decline for the quarter, with overall sales for the period up 2.2%. Considering the climate, and particularly in the light of Martin’s comments, these were sparkling figures and a badly needed boost for the sector. The reason that JDW was able to do so well was put down to increased marketing and new food and drink deals. That’s undoubtedly true, but it is also because Wetherspoon’s is an efficiently-managed business, that focuses on operational excellence, of which marketing is just a part, albeit a vital component. Its move from primarily a drinks retailer to a mainstream player in eating-out is evidence of that. It is now as popular a food venue as Burger King and KFC, with Saturday lunchtime its busiest trading period. In tough times like these, JDW is one of those companies that can be a blueprint for the rest of the market. But understanding how JDW works can’t be done by simply analysing the figures back at the office. There is no substitute for going out and seeing what is happening down on the ground. With the focus now well and truly on operations and making money site-by-site, it is not just a time for management to be out in their own pubs and restaurants, but to be seeing first hand what the competition is up to as well – which may mean a few more visits to the local Wetherspoon’s, among other places. Peter Martin is co-founder of M&C Report and founder of the Peach Factory consultancy