Inside track by Mark Wingett “You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society.” So said Prime Minister David Cameron last July. Eight months on and rather than the usual political gesturing before a general election, it seems that the Prime Minister remains deadly serious about his vision of a more socially active Britain. Last week, Cameron reiterated that it was his “mission” to make the Big Society succeed. He also added more fuel to the idea that he was sympathetic towards minimum pricing, a position in direct opposition to some of his own ministers, while outlining plans to attack what he called the “scandal of society” - binge drinking, as part of the Government’s eagerly anticipated Alcohol Strategy, which is due over the next few weeks. It is thought, although yet to be confirmed, that pubs and bars are unlikely to face new legislative action under the long-waited new strategy, although voluntary agreements currently in place could be extend. It is not everyday that the Government indicates that for once any new legislation surrounding alcohol may not be heavily weighted against the on-trade, but perhaps Cameron has realised that the local pub actually has one of most important roles to play in making his Big Society a reality. Let’s look at this from a basic principle, what is the pub. It is a place where people from all walks of life gather, socialise and debate national and local issues. It can act as a lightening rod for communities to come together not just for social reasons but also wider community issues. It is a social hub and in many cases charity fundraiser. On top of this pubs highlight and maintain responsible drinks retailing, providing a more controlled environment for the consumption of alcohol. They also use and promote British (local) produce. They are not just part of but it could be argued the essence of the Prime Minister’s ideal. Figures produced by Pub is the Hub, which helps pubs to diversify their offer in rural area so they meet more needs in the community, back this up. Its research found that 100% of respondents agreed that their local Pub is the Hub scheme was either “very important” or “important” to the community. Over four fifths of respondents agreed that the scheme improved their access to a key service and helped overcome local deprivation issues. Virtually all of the respondents believed that the scheme supported local suppliers and businesses. Licensees also frequently cited that they use a wide range of local suppliers to stock their scheme. And for those looking at the bottom line it also found that over one half of licensees stated that their Pub is the Hub scheme had increased the number of customers to the pub. So here we have engagement with hard-working licensees and local communities and empowerment allowing them to work together as well as take ownership of local issues, while also producing successful businesses. Surely the Big Society in a nutshell, wouldn’t you agree Mr Cameron? Head of the class A strong management team was the main attribute a company needed to attract the interest of investors, according to a survey of bankers and lawyers carried out last week by Ernst & Young. It maybe an obvious point, but one that was underlined by two examples last week. First was the news that Steve Richards, chief executive of Novus Leisure, had reportedly rejected a possible move to Mitchells & Butlers (M&B) to become its latest chief executive. Having worked with M&B chair Bob Ivell at Scottish & Newcastle, and overseen the impressive growth of the Tiger Tiger operator since 2005, Richards would have seemingly been a perfect fit. And still could be depending on timing, especially with Novus now in play and the shadow cast by M&B majority shareholder Joe Lewis lengthening as April’s Takeover Panel deadline approaches. Richards is believed to be keen to oversee an exit for the late-night venue operator’s investors, while at the same time who wouldn’t want to wait to assess the fall out of what seems an inevitable further approach from Lewis before moving to M&B? For M&B and Richards it maybe worth the wait. Richards won’t be short of suitors if he does seek a new challenge. The other example was the appointment of James Horler as non-executive chairman of Ping Pong, the dim sum chain led by Jean-Michel Orieux. The business currently operates 11 sites in London, five throughout the USA, Brazil, and Dubai, and one unit under its takeaway format Now, opposite Liverpool Station. However, for many it seems to have been treading water in the UK for the last two years. Horler built the La Tasca chain up to 74 restaurants over a period of six years, before overseeing the sale of the business to Bay Restaurant Group for £134m in 2007. He is perfectly positioned to move Ping Pong on, whether through the acquisition of more sites or more importantly raising new funding, something the group has been working on for the last 12 months. As Orieux pointed out Horler will add a “different dimension” to the group’s thinking. With Tasty deciding that Wildwood is its core brand over Dim T, there remains an opportunity for Ping Pong to be the key brand in the branded dim sum category, not just in the capital but nationally. The strengthening of its management team added to the base it already has means it still has a great chance of seizing this opportunity.