Red Mist Leisure, the Surrey-based pub group, is about to reach the landmark of 10 sites and take on its biggest project yet. James Wallin met co-founder Mark Robson to discuss the group’s guiding principles and the challenges and opportunities it sees ahead

“We’ve never been the type to shout about what we do, but perhaps the time has come to at least raise our voices.”

Mark Robson, managing director of Surrey-based pub group Red Mist Leisure, has little reason for reticence. The company he founded 13 years ago with university friend Mark Williams, is about to reach double figures in terms of site numbers and take on its most ambitious project yet.

While he may not have courted publicity for his achievements over the past few years, Robson has been busy strengthening his senior team for future growth and is only now reaching a size that fully utilises his head-office resources.

Talking to Robson at Red Mist’s most recent opening, the Red Lion (previously known as Nextdoor), in Odiham, Hampshire, he sounds at points like the third or fourth generation of a family brewer rather than your average multiple operator. He is not afraid to walk away from a deal and gives no sense of seeking growth for the sake of it.

Asked to define the company, Robson says: “The words that were printed at the bottom of our first menus – fresh, local and seasonal – are still our guiding principles. We’ve never set out to redefine the pub or create a concept no one has ever seen before. It’s about doing the important things properly.”

Estate dreams

The two Marks met at Sheffield Hallam University while studying hotel and catering management and then lived together when they took on their first hospitality jobs before deciding they wanted to move in to pubs. Despite their generally cautious approach, they appear to have been bullish from the start that they would build an estate.

The group started with Punch lease the Half Moon, in Charlwood, Surrey, which is no longer part of the estate. Over the next five years, the group took on three more Punch leases before buying freeholds in 2009 for what now seems like a generous £1.9m.

Robson says: “We knew we didn’t want to be single-site publicans so we set out from day one with the idea of building a company. We made our fair share of mistakes but we never forgot them and steadily built up the estate. What makes us different is we invested in the infrastructure from day one.”

One area in which the group has always been progressive is in its development of people. It has created bespoke training programmes, takes team members on trips to French vineyards to meet suppliers, operates a profit share scheme for senior members of its pubs teams and created its own Red Mist Academy. Having breached the £3m payroll turnover to be eligible for the apprenticeship levy, the group has taken on its first head of people and recruitment. Vanessa Mulholland joins next month from TUI.

Williams has also moved to a fully centralised role of operations director after years of having close involvement in the running of certain sites.

Pipeline delivers

The developments come as Red Mist secures two more sites. After a competitive tendering process, the group has been chosen by the Duke of Wellington’s estate to take on the Wellington Arms in Stratfield Saye on the Hampshire-Berkshire border. The site, previously leased to Hall & Woodhouse, consists of a 200-cover pub, large outdoor space and 140-cover function room. It also boasts 27 bedrooms – more than doubling Red Mist’s accommodation offer.

As MCA went to press, the group was also finalising a deal to take on Fuller’s pub, the Temple Inn, in Liss, near Petersfield.

The new additions are likely to see the group grow turnover from £9m at present to £12m-£13m next year.

Other directions for the group include the launch of its own brewery earlier this year. The group first experimented with brewing when it launched Red Mist Ale to celebrate its 10th anniversary. The beer was created with Andwell Brewing Co to a recipe created by Red Mist staff, and has since proved one of the group’s most successful products – with 5p from every pint going to charity.

It is moving production of the beer over to its two-and-a-half-barrel Tilford Brewery, which sits within its Duke of Cambridge site, near Farnham, Surrey. The brewery now produces several ales, including Rushmore Ripper, which are distributed across the estate and plans to collaborate with established brewers, including Hog’s Back.

Fundamental reform necessary

Robson says that despite the subdued summer weather, trade across the estate has been strong this year, with dry and wet sales both in growth. However, the board is well aware of the serious headwinds facing them in 2018. Chief among his concerns, as for many in the industry, is business rates.

He says: “There is a danger that us moaning about it becomes white noise but the whole system is an absolute shambles. It needs fundamental reform. The changes have had a real impact on some of our sites and we haven’t seen a penny of the £1,000 rates relief that was promised.”

In common with the rest of the industry, staffing is also a concern. Robson says: “It’s not the top tier positions we struggle with – we’ve done pretty well with chefs and general managers – it’s the tier below, the real do-ers, that we struggle with. It’s something I’ve wanted to tackle for a while and having Vanessa come in gives us the chance.”

On plans for the future, Robson says: “We’ve never set ourselves a target of how big we want to grow the estate. Getting to 10 is obviously a milestone but we certainly don’t see that as a ceiling for us.

“It’s going to be tough over the next few years but this company was born in tough times. There are going to be casualties but that can also create opportunities for good operators like us.”