M&C Report talks to Stephen Oliver, managing director of Marston’s Beer & Pub Company, about his best and worst business decision and what is the best piece of advice he has ever received. What’s the most important action the industry can take to encourage the consumer? For pubs, it must be to make every visit special, to provide a thoroughly positive customer experience. Give customers a reason for getting off their backsides and out into the pub, rather than staying at home in front of the telly or (if we have any decent weather at all) having a barbie instead of a pub meal and a pint. What single action could Government make that would make a difference? Amongst the many possible things the Coalition could do to help us, including sparing us further rises in duty, cutting back on red tape, providing incentives for employment, especially amongst young people, the biggest single thing they could do to help would be to reduce VAT on out-of-home drinking and eating. Won’t happen though. What is your top priority? To recruit better quality, fully funded and business-savvy tenants, who are able to pass the rigours of the Code of Practice. What has been your best investment? (site) I’m not going to single out an individual site; we’ve many good investments. The best investment in terms of branding, though, is the money we put behind Marston’s Pedigree and our cricket sponsorship in conjunction with the England Cricket Board. Great value for money and a high profile for the brand. What has been your best business decision? The investment in our bottling line at Burton. This was a very large capital sum and one of the first decisions I made when I joined Marston’s in 1995, but it’s repaid the investment handsomely and has helped us to grow our leading position in premium bottled ales, as well become a key contract services player. How much has your business changed to combat the recession? We’ve undergone a continual process of evolution, of changing our processes and systems to respond more flexibly to customers’ needs. We’ve looked hard at all cost lines and driven value hard. More effort, time and investment has gone into training our people and we’re constantly looking at innovative products, services and agreement formats, such as our Retail Agreement. Who is doing something special in the industry? I admire the way that Fuller’s continue to make good progress on all fronts. They’ve been particularly acquisitive, including buying some pubs from us. Their managed house division is performing well and beer goes from strength to strength. 2012 and the world’s focus on London represents a great opportunity for them. A really well-run , progressive business. Most admired brand? Heineken. It’s not only a great lager (and I say this as a cask ale drinker) but it’s a beer with a compelling brand proposition. The brand has successfully reinvented itself in the UK as a premium product. A visit to the Heineken experience in Amsterdam demonstrated to me their single-minded focus on the brand. Who has been most influential in your career? I’ve looked to learn from as many people as I can but undoubtedly Ralph Findlay, CEO of Marston’s, has been a very supportive boss. Derek Andrew, my former colleague, who headed up Marston’s Inns & Taverns, was also a rich source of wisdom. What is the best piece of advice you have ever received? Always make time for people. Without others helping you, you’re nothing.