Dominic Walsh reflects on the colourful life and language of Luminar founder Steve Thomas following his untimely death last week

My first dealings with Steve Thomas were not auspicious. It must have been about 1990 when I phoned the boss of the fledgling Luminar to ask him if rumours that he was quietly trying to sell the business were true. You can probably guess the response I got: plenty of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary mixed in with more than one categorical denial – “complete bollocks” was one phrase he used, as I recall.

As somebody who appreciates such straight talking, I was delighted with my first encounter with Stephen Charles Thomas and I am pleased to say that we became good friends and remained so until his untimely death last week at the age of 68. Just a few weeks earlier we had been talking about his latest comeback and I had written a piece about his ambitious plans.

Ambition was Steve’s middle name (apart from Charles, obviously!). He had begun his career as a bouncer in Cardiff, a role for which he appeared uniquely well qualified from the point of view of both his build and his looks. He was not a man you would want to fall out with. But stopping local likely lads from coming into the clubs he started at was never going to be enough for him.

In 1988, he started Luminar from a site in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, with a £22,000 bank loan and built it into a business that, at its peak, had more than 300 venues up and down the country and had a market value of more than £800 million.

Not that Steve enjoyed unbroken success. Who does? He had a more than decent run at Luminar, successfully transitioning from entrepreneurial start-up to listed corporate behemoth, which in itself is a rarity. Tim Martin, at Wetherspoon, is another example, and putting Steve in the same bracket as Tim is a fair comparison. But good things don’t last for ever and after 22 years he quit his beloved Luminar, leaving it in a somewhat parlous financial position, although it was almost two years before it finally went bust in 2011.

Not that he would accept all the blame. For a start he was convinced that if he hadn’t bowed to pressure from his finance director to return spare cash to shareholders, the company would have remained debt-free and in a stronger position to withstand the financial crisis. It was left to Peter Marks to put together a consortium to rescue Luminar and put it back on solid foundations, although we all know what happened there thanks to the pandemic.

Not being the sort to sit around twiddling his thumbs, after leaving Luminar Steve tried to resurrect his career more than once, although recapturing the success of the glory days at Luminar proved elusive. With Fitness First founder Mike Balfour he founded a late-night operation called No Saints (a nomenclature the duo revelled in) while he teamed up with Christian Arden in a bid to revive the Chicago Rib Shack restaurant brand.

Neither flew, and in early 2018, after HMRC filed a petition against him, over the Ingenious film partnership scheme, he was declared bankrupt. This was a subject that deeply upset him and although he quickly emerged from bankruptcy, anybody brave enough to ask him about it would be treated to a tirade against HMRC containing a wide selection of his Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.

The last time I spoke to Steve he was – typically - busy trying to get his next venture off the ground. This time he was working with Hugh Osmond, his old shooting pal, and to kick it off he acquired two former Luminar sites in Peterborough. His plan for Dance Drink Entertainment was simple: to build a business of 10-15 late night venues where people could have fun dancing, drinking and being entertained. It’s hugely sad he didn’t live to see it through.

Despite his intimidating looks, Steve was a tremendously warm character who loved a good laugh. Some of the tweets that were posted after I tweeted the news of his death bear repetition:

Brian Hawkins: “Really sad to hear this news. Between 2001 and 2008 I worked with him designing 13 Oceana nightclubs. He pushed everyone on the team to create some incredible venues. A true character and an inspiration to many.”

Peter Marks: “The foundations of the business I run today exist because of Steve. He grew and incredible company from £22k to one worth over £800m. A great character.”

Andrew Latham: “A unique character in our industry. Never a dull moment with Steve!”

Steve Perez: “He was a legend. But those who knew him, behind the man he was a caring, kind, generous man. End of an era. I will miss him greatly.”

The King of the Dancefloor will be much missed, but one thing he said to me a few years ago will stay with me. “You don’t need me to tell you how tough it’s been for the late-night market, but we keep on fighting.”