After two decades at the helm, Ralph Findlay is stepping down from Marston’s. With mixed emotions, Dominic Walsh reflects on the achievements of one of the ‘nicest people in the industry’

When Ralph Findlay announced he would be stepping down as chief executive of Marston’s at the end of September, after 20 years in the role, I experienced a number of emotions.

The first emotion was disappointment that I hadn’t got the scoop, despite having spent the past three or four years asking him whenever I spoke to him whether he was leaving any time soon. Which was, of course, very rude of me, but asking rude questions is part of being a journalist.

The second emotion was regret that the news broke on a day when I wasn’t working, so that I was unable to bring down the curtain on our 24-year association by writing a story that gave due credit to the contribution of one of the longest-serving pub sector bosses.

The third emotion was one that many of Findlay’s friends, colleagues and peers will have shared: sorrow that one of the nicest people in the industry – somebody who shows that you don’t have to have a nasty streak to succeed in business – would finally be retiring.

Not that he doesn’t have a tough side. He was promoted to CEO two decades ago specifically to bring some heft to the defences of what was then Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries as it sought to fight off the unwelcome advances of Robert Breare’s Noble House group, then John Sands’s Pubmaster business, backed by Robbie Tchenguiz.

The shareholder vote famously went to the wire, but the defences held good – just – and so Findlay was able to turn from hunted to hunter, landing a succession of clever deals that turned Marston’s, as it became, into one of the leading brewers of quality ales as well the operator of one of the country’s top pub estates.

He did not spend his last years sitting on his hands, however. One of the big issues he had failed to grasp fully was that of debt. He used to argue until he was blue in the face that the company’s debt mountain was cheap and manageable, but the market’s aversion to large amounts of debt meant he spent most of his time banging his head against a brick wall. He made a dent in its borrowings by selling bottom-end pubs and reducing expansionary capex. But it still wasn’t enough for many shareholders.

This is where he pulled a very large rabbit out of the hat. The other big issue he had to deal with was the market’s failure to place a fair valuation on the brewing business. By agreeing a £780m brewing merger with Carlsberg UK, he secured a hefty £580m valuation for the Marston’s Beer Company, plus £273m of cash to make a sizeable hole in its debt and a 40% stake in the Carlsberg joint venture – with an option to sell the remaining stake to his new Danish friends down the line. In other words, he had killed two birds with one stone: cut debt and proved the value of the brewing business.

By a strange twist, just as Findlay had become CEO in the middle of takeover activity, so he spent some of his final months in the role fending off another unsolicited bid approach, one worth £690m, or more than £1.8bn including debt, from Platinum Equity Advisors. Again, it was rebuffed and Platinum walked away.

As things turned out, the Carlsberg deal also bolstered the company’s balance sheet just as the coronavirus pandemic was starting to spread.

Marston’s is one of the few pub companies not to have to go cap in hand to its own shareholders or City investors and by the time Findlay steps down at the end of the current financial year the group’s 1,500 managed, franchised and leased pubs should be up and running again.

During the crisis, the Scot has been an eloquent and forceful advocate of the industry and, if things go to plan, when he finally steps down he will be calling time on a pub company that is back doing what it does best – serving good food and drink to paying customers.

End of an era

The impending exit of Findlay from Marston’s is the end of an era in more ways than one. Not only does it presage a change of leadership after 20 years at Marston’s, with most observers predicting an external appointment, but it marks the completion of a changing of the guard of a remarkable group of men who led some of the UK’s biggest pubcos.

Findlay’s two decades at the helm of Marston’s were more than matched by Ted Tuppen’s 22 years as CEO of Enterprise Inns, while Rooney Anand ran Greene King for 14 years. Remarkable individuals all, although all have been shown a clean pair of heels by Tim Martin. The Mullet founded Wetherspoons back in 1979, which means he’s run the company for 42 years – and counting. And before you say it, yes I know Martin is chairman rather than CEO, but that’s just a job title and I suspect even John Hutson would concede that the business is run by the founder.

■ Dominic Walsh is a business reporter at The Times