Dominic Walsh bids farewell to outgoing Marston’s CEO Ralph Findlay after 20 years at the helm, and pays tribute to the ongoing success of the Franco Manca sourdough pizza brand

Later today (Thursday) I am lucky enough to be invited to a farewell drinks party for Ralph Findlay, the long-serving Marston’s chief executive. I, for one, will be sorry to see him step down next month, not least because he has always been friendly, helpful and easy to get hold of when I need a quote or an explanation of some tricky area of pubs and brewing.

He leaves behind a company (in the capable hands of CFO Andrew Andrea) that has changed significantly during the 20 years he has been at the helm. It is easy to forget that he was anointed as chief executive of what was then Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries after a profit warning over retail margins sent its shares plummeting to the lowest level since the 1987 stock market crash.

The share price fall attracted bid interest from the late Robert Breare, with Pubmaster then stepping in. However, with Findlay taking the reins from David Thompson (who moved up to chairman) in the middle of all this, John Sands’ offer fell short by the narrowest of margins.

I have previously written about Findlay’s achievements as chief executive, so won’t go over the same ground again. The sadness of this week’s drinks do, to bid him farewell, is that Thompson, who passed away in the summer, did not live long enough to see his former protégé retire and hand the baton to Andrea. It is sad to think that Breare, Sands and Thompson – three larger than life characters from my early days on The Times, have now passed away.

Of course, as we discovered the other day, Findlay will not be cutting his ties with the industry entirely. The Scot with a penchant for old fossils (he studied geology at university) is set to become chairman of C&C Group, the Tennent’s lager and Magners cider owner, from March next year. Which means that, having presided over Marston’s effective exit from brewing via its joint venture with Carlsberg, Findlay will be back at the helm of a brewer.

He will be chairing a company that not only sells drink but also jointly owns Admiral Taverns, newly expanded to about 1,600 pubs following the acquisition of the Hawthorn estate of 674 pubs from NewRiver. Not only that, but NewRiver started building a pub business in 2013 when it acquired 202 pubs from – who else? – Marston’s.

When he takes the C&C Group chair from Stewart Gilliland, Findlay will require very little in the way of an induction course.

Sourdough success story

For a relatively small company, Fulham Shore punches well above its weight on press coverage. And I’m not just talking about my own organ. Just last weekend my counterpart on the Sunday Times wrote a very good piece on the company’s recent success, in particular the step-up in expansion of its Franco Manca pizza brand.

So why does a business with 75 restaurants get so much coverage compared with much bigger casual dining chains? Well, first of all, it’s a very successful business, which has not had to go through a CVA, administration or any other type of insolvency procedure or painful restructuring – unlike so many of its rivals. Franco Manca serves great pizzas in pleasant surroundings and at a very good price compared with many close competitors. The low price is a symptom of off-piste locations, simple fit-outs and direct sourcing of many food and drink items.

Also, in an overcrowded Italian-themed market, Franco Manca stands out for the quality of its pizzas plus the use of sourdough bases – another key point of differentiation. The group also appears to be very good at delivery and takeaway, enabling it to turn in some impressive sales figures when eating-in fell victim to lockdown.

The other factor is the experience of David Page, the group’s chairman. As a former worker, franchisee then chief executive and chairman of PizzaExpress, there cannot be too many people who know as much about the mechanics of turning dough into, er, dough. He may not be a chef, but he knows how to make money out of food, whether it’s pizza, gourmet burgers or Greek salads.

One other factor, which should not be dismissed lightly, is Page’s charisma. He may know his onions, but he refuses to take himself remotely seriously. Dealing with him as a journalist is always a pleasure. He scatters jokes and scurrilous tales through the conversation – most of them aimed at himself – and he’ll usually drop the odd exclusive or titbit of new news into the mix to make sure he sends us journalists away happy.

■ Dominic Walsh is a business reporter at The Times