Mel Flaherty talks to Oakman Inns & Restaurants founder Peter Borg-Neal about the growth of the company and what the future holds for the award-winning business, while the man himself dismisses the notion that it is impossible to be master rather than just jack of all trades
“Whenever someone comes in and looks at our business they say: ‘You do too many things.’ I think that is utter bullshit,” says Peter Borg-Neal.
Such criticism does seem at odds with the growing numbers of customers of his eight-strong Oakman Inns & Restaurants business, which now turns over £9m after posting an lfl sales increase of 18.8% for the year to 31 March. And it clearly has not influenced industry award bodies either – the group picked up Pub Company of the Year gongs at both the Eat Out and Restaurant R200 ceremonies last year.
Having said that, the straight talking Borg-Neal is constantly aware that in order to keep his all day, multi-purpose pub/restaurants (which are often credited with redefining the traditional pub model) in this position, the company has to keep working to become better than the competition in all areas.
“We have to be better at coffee than Costa, better than Byron at burgers, and so on….to give people a reason to walk that bit extra to come to us,” he says.
The spacious, comfortable and characterful surroundings offered by his venues do offer incentive to many, Borg-Neal says, but right now the company is focussing on finding its real USP, especially for day trade.
“We recognise that fast casual is a particular growth area during the day and that people are time poor but still expect quality. That is what we are looking to address,” he comments.
Tea is one area of potential, Borg-Neal says.
“It’s a bit of a bête noir that nobody seems to bother with. There is a lot of fuss made about coffee but when you order tea, someone just shoves a bag in a cup and charges £1.70 for it.”
This is just one example of his quest for innovation to keep ahead of the curve as consumers’ base expectations rise – he cites the ubiquity now of quality coffee and free Wifi as cases in point.
He also strongly believes that those who jump up and down about the numbers of pubs that have closed are missing the point.
“The square footage of overall leisure space is increasing and what is out there is bigger and better. It is what was needed and the industry now is better than it has ever been – it is a great time to be a customer and a great time to be an employee.”
The quest for Oakman’s so far elusive trademark “thing” means Borg-Neal and his team are currently spending a lot of time out in the market, looking at various ideas to trial at some of the sites. The ninth restaurant, The Beech House, the second unit under this branding which has evolved for the outlets in more modern converted buildings, due to open in July, will be the test bed for some new smaller concepts, he says.
Experimentation is nothing new for the group and Borg-Neal admits he is “less creative, more of a thief”, but likes to enable his team to try out different things. He is happy for everyone to learn from their mistakes - the farm shop trialled at the Cook & Fillet in Aylesbury, Buckhinghamshire, has been one such “failed experiment”, he admits. It will close to make way for more dining space and Borg-Neal says he has learnt that such retailing is best done as “a stand alone operation by someone who knows what they are doing.” But sometimes mistakes bear unexpected successes - as he points out, Viagra was a failed heart drug.
Borg-Neal says he has certainly learned a number of useful lessons from his experiences of things not going to plan in his so far 37 years in the hospitality industry. His own career path has zig-zagged between corporate life and entrepreneurship, starting as an ambitious cellar boy at Bass Taverns (- “at that point my biggest ambition was to be an area manager because my area manager wore a suit and drove a Cortina”) and including a stint at Allied Domecq’s Taylor Walker, his ousting from which, when the division was closed, was a wake-up call to work for himself.
Setting up his first business, Green Belt Inns, was not only harder than he could have ever imagined, he recalls, but its eventual merger with Taipan Taverns and his fall out with that firm’s founder, Tony Carson, gave him “a harder commercial edge”, which he now appreciates. After that experience he consulted at Mill House Inns then joined Whitbread Inns where he was able to study for an MBA and worked with the likes of Mike Tye and Bill Shannon. Borg-Neal is as quick to heap praise on such contemporaries as he is happy to discuss the inadequacies of some others he has worked with, whom for obvious reasons it would be unwise to name in print.
When Whitbread got out of pubs Borg-Neal started Forno Vivo, a premium neighbourhood pizza restaurant in Tring, Hertfordshire that he says was so authentic that Italians used to travel out from London to eat there. The idea was borne from a desire to create something replicable and to tap into a less mainstream niche of a UK pizza restaurant market that he recognised had massive potential when compared to the much higher penetration rates in the United States.
Yates’s bought the concept and intended to roll out within its pubs in the South. However, Laurel Pub Company’s purchase of Yates’s put paid to that plan although it did allow Borg-Neal to work with Ian Payne another person he greatly admires.
He has some regrets about selling that business but he did buy back the concept and would like to revive it some day, still convinced that there is untapped space at this end of the pizza market.
Forno Vivo’s rebirth is certainly not imminent, however. The focus now is on Oakman trying to keep itself at the top of all of the games touched upon by its broad appeal format. One priority is investment in training to formalise the expertise that staff gain as they work in each area of the business.
Due to be launched at the company’s conference in May, the “Openology” (named with a nod towards Maureen Lipman’s proud Jewish grandmother in the 80s BT television commercials), will allow employees to collect qualifications in everything from barista skills to cocktail making.
IT will also be an area of significant investment for Oakman this year. Borg-Neal says current systems have been built as the company has gone along but that it’s now time to take a step back and makes sure that what is in place is the best it can be and that it can also be further developed as the business grows.
All of this is part and parcel of Oakman’s development as a brand.
“We never wanted to feel like a chain but we now realise having a meaningful brand is important – to investors, to the trade and most importantly to employees,” Borg-Neal explains.
The IT and training plans follow the recent completion of the senior team after the appointment of an operations director, Alex Ford, ex operations manager at Greene King and one time student holiday barman at Forno Vivo.
Borg-Neal says he feels very relieved to have got to this stage.
“It has been mental and I am very tired,” he admits. He adds there have been some “dark times” during the Oakman story so far, particularly in the early days. The first site, The Akeman, in his home town of Tring, Hertfordshire, took two and half years to open. He bought the site without planning or licensing and at one point ended up selling his car to get more money for the project. It hasn’t been constantly like that, of course, but he feels very ready for the recharge holiday he has booked.
The company will have a fresh injection of energy too. As well as the new IT and training, Oakman is close to completing a financial restructure that will see it raise a further £2m under the Enterprise Investment Scheme (the firm raised £5.5m via this route late last year). This will enable the opening this year of three more sites, in addition to The Beech House at St Albans. Oakman also plans to return to senior debt this year, but any bank borrowing will be kept at as low level as possible to minimise risk.
Discussing an exit strategy is anathema to Borg-Neal. When he’s in something, he gives it his all with his eye on one thing – growing the business. Which is not to say he’s no multi-tasker; far from it. He is about to retire from his four year chairmanship of Tring Rugby Club and has previously spent 15 years as a trustee for the National Autism Society (the eldest of his four sons is autistic and Borg-Neal said his involvement in the organisation helped him both personally and professionally – he believes board members at all large corporations should be encouraged to sit on the boards of charities).
While he was setting up Oakman, he was also running an international business for Grass Roots Group, the employee and customer engagement services consultancy – he explains that this meant he didn’t have to pay himself from his own fledgling company and he’s also found that keeping busy with other things helps make him feel less stressed with whatever else he’s working on. He believes his ability to adapt comes from his upbringing, until the age of ten, in Singapore (his father was in the Armed Forces), as does his interest in food – from a young age he was exposed to far more exotic dishes than the average person.
Given all these ingredients that make up this complicated yet open character, it is perhaps little wonder that he has become synonymous with the all-day, multi-facetted reincarnation of the Great British pub.