As early as 1998 John Sands sensed things were going awry. As chief executive of Pubmaster, amid the scramble for market share of the tenanted and leased pub sector, he’d found himself in pursuit of the 276 houses of Mayfair Taverns.

“I suddenly saw that we’d have to sell 50% of them, and I started to realise we’d got on a treadmill. So we walked away from the deal halfway through.”

It was a treadmill, of course, that would drive the growth of the major pubcos to unsustainable levels, burdening them with crippling debts. Pubmaster was swallowed up by Punch Taverns in 2003 and Sands left the game.

And now he’s back. First as joint founder of managed pubco start-up Wear Inns and now as chairman of Admiral Taverns, taking over from Jonathan Paveley in February after a year as non-executive director.

t’s not quite the relaxing retirement Sand had in mind more than decade ago. That began promisingly enough with a six-week holiday in southern Africa. “But when I was flying back I was saying to myself ‘what am I going to do now?’ And when we landed at Gatwick, there was a message waiting for me — would I like to be chair of the North East Tourism Advisory Board? I called them straight away and said yes, I would.”

Not long after that he was back in pubs, setting up Wear Inns with entrepreneur John Weir in 2006, taking it to 26 community pubs and an annual turnover of £14m. Then came the approach from Admiral in the spring of 2013.

“The company had completely changed since my perception of it in 2003,” he says. “It was quite exciting and it reminded me of the way we worked at Pubmaster. It supported the licensee, it invested effectively, it had a good team. And it had ambition.”

So he’s once again a key industry player, this time with the benefit of experience. Admiral, too, has been around the block a few times. During the past few years, under the leadership of chief executive Kevin Georgel, it hacked back a 2,000-strong tenanted estate to fewer than 900 before purchasing 111 pubs from Heineken UK last month.

But with Sands responsible for the acquisitions strategy, it’s not the first step on another treadmill.

“We’ll only look at deals where we’d sell on no more than 15% of the pubs,” says Sands. “There will be some disposals among the 111 Heineken sites but the vast majority are good pubs on substantive agreements.

“I wouldn’t want to say how much we’ll expand in the future. The danger is in saying we’ve got to get to a certain size. We want the right opportunities, not buying for the sake of it. We might look at five pubs and find one. You have to be selective.”

Did he have doubts, though, about jumping back into the middle of a tenanted pub industry in such turmoil? Sands knows the sector has had its problems, but those problems are not inevitable.

“It’s about how you behave with the licensee,” he explains. “You can compare it with the venture capitalist model. You’re investing in the licensee, it’s a partnership.

“The thing is to get the right licensees and support them. It’s a pretty isolated job being a pub tenant, you’re your own managing director and there’s a lot of competition. Who do you go to for advice? Unless your business development manager (BDM) provides that, it’s not a good investment for the pubco. We try to recruit the best BDMs and give them the autonomy they need to drive the relationship with the licensee.

“You’ve got to get into the pubs, too. That’s crucial. One of the first things I did was go out to the on-trade with a BDM. I’ll spend three days touring an area and get to see the business first hand. Figures are all very well, but it’s also about the people, the customers, the state of our assets. All capex above a certain amount comes through me, and it means I can say ‘I know this pub’ when it comes up.

“The site visits can be quite intense, but fascinating,” he goes on. “We went to a former English Defence League haunt where the EDL has been cleared out and it’s now a good pub with the right selection of people. We’ve saved that pub.

“At another, the licensee was not convinced catering was a good idea, but an hour later she was.

“It’s about the relationship. If they see their BDM as someone who’s there to help them, licensees will open up. It doesn’t have to be adversarial at all, except when guys go off the rails, but that’s very rare.

“And it’s because we have that focus on the licensee that the perception of Admiral has changed so much from what it was five or six years ago, and as a result we’re getting a pipeline of good licensees.”

Sands is relieved that the tie has survived Government legislation, but he’s disappointed that the industry hasn’t made its case more effectively.

“We’ve got to get across the virtues of the model. It’s a good model for anyone who wants to come into the industry at a low cost and it works well. Where it doesn’t work, it’s more about the behaviour of pubcos.

“We need to think about how we, as an industry, influence others. We have a responsibility to ensure people are educated properly, and we’ve gone a long way to doing that better — which is why we’ve got the legislation we’ve got. But there’s still a lot of heavy lifting to be done, proving that the tie stands up as a model.”

What might undermine a united approach, he worries, is the way the industry has fragmented since the Beer Orders of 1989 spawned companies such as Pubmaster. 

“Before the Beer Orders, when brewers owned the pubs, everyone had an interest in filling the mash tuns. But there’s no commonality of purpose among the pubcos.”

On the plus side though, “the focus on retailing has improved. We’re looking at the quality of our offers now. You could never get a latte and breakfast in a pub, but the trade has adapted to changing needs”.

And that’s another area of business where Sands’ experience is proving useful at Admiral. At Wear Inns he’s involved in a conscious effort to move a wet-led estate towards food — which now accounts for 26% of sales.

“We’re learning a lot at Wear from developing the food and the overall product offer. We have the scope to experiment there, and Admiral, too, can learn from that.”