Inside Track by Peter Martin
It has not been the greatest of times for the Laurel Pub Company. It missed out in the Scottish & Newcastle retail auction, had an embarrassing fall-out over a joint venture with a vodka bar chain and now is the subject of speculation that it might be up for sale itself. It also has to live in the shadow of the Spirit Group, the other big private equity backed managed pub player and the one that did win S&N. But last Monday evening at the upmarket Landmark Hotel in central London, Laurel showed off what is perhaps its greatest underlying strength. The event was its own Laurel League of Champions, an awards night that out-glitzes even the big industry prize-giving nights. It is held to reward Laurel’s own team – its bar staff, managers and BDMs. As a confidence and commitment builder it takes some beating. It is easy to be dismissive of "investment in people", but Laurel seems to do it well, and, on the face of it, gets the return in real enthusiasm, loyalty and no little ambition. The buzz from the 300 top Laurel people either winning trophies or cheering the rest on was infectious. If this is repeated across the 625-strong estate, Laurel has a real operational asset. In its chief executive Ian Payne – a man who has attracted a fair amount of flak this past year – it also has a natural leader, not to mention showman, who appears to attract real personal loyalty as well. In that respect, the company is a reflection of him. If Laurel is to become a bid target, there is value to exploit out in the pubs. Or will Payne and his team still get the opportunity to harness that grassroots asset themselves as part of a greater strategic play? The ambition is there. The company can innovate, as it has shown with its pioneering stance on no-smoking pubs. It also says it wants to do deals, and is interested currently in the Wizard estate. What Payne perhaps needs most is a foil to his own, and his company’s, people-led strengths, who can help to really focus those assets. It’s about finding the right people again – at all levels of the company.