Monday 25 September 2017

Veteran of sticky situations has a job to put froth back in pub trade

IT'S a bit of a journey from a chewing gum factory to leading one of the country's most powerful lobby groups, but it's one Padraig Cribben has worked hard to achieve.

As chief executive of the Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI), Mr Cribben is the voice of 4,500 publicans in the country, whether it is lobbying government or as the public face for the industry.

Throw in the fact that the VFI acts as a quasi-consultancy for publicans, doling out advice on any range of topics from tax and accounting to employee law, and it is a very wide ranging brief.

The 58-year-old spent nearly 40 years in the food manufacturing industry and started out working in a chewing gum business in Kilcock. He had spells with Kerry Group, amongst others, before becoming managing director of Johnson, Mooney and O'Brien breads prior to taking on the VFI job in 2008.

It would be fair to say there have been easier times to take up the position.

Pub business has dropped by about a fifth since the boom, and research from the VFI shows more than 5,000 jobs in the industry have been lost in the last two years alone.

"It's massively challenging for the publicans on the ground," Mr Cribben says.

"Some of the recent data would suggest consumer confidence is broadly on the up but we're not seeing that.

"Confidence is the key. There are essentially two constituents out there at the moment: one group that can't spend because they don't have the money; then in the second group there is a huge level of savings but they don't have the confidence to spend.

Visibility

"A lot of that comes from the lack of visibility for the year ahead. We'd like to see the Government lay out their plan for the next two or three years so people at least know how much of a hit they'll take, and that wouldn't cost the Government anything to do.

"Only when people have clarity on how much they will lose in the years ahead can they make decisions accordingly about spending."

Most of the 5,000 jobs lost in the past two years have been in rural Ireland and in two or threes. It clearly grates with Mr Cribben that the losses have passed by the Government, and the press.

"Think of the task forces that are set up and the handwringing that takes place when a big business like, say, the TalkTalk call centre in Waterford closed.

"Our industry has lost 10 TalkTalks in the last 24 months and there has barely been a whimper."

Given the state of the industry, it would be easy to wallow in self-pity at this stage but Mr Cribben and his organisation has been working hard to build the sector back up.

He claims his members have cut back on costs hugely but are now trying to grow their business again, and are doing it with VFI support.

"The industry is very much an event-driven industry at the moment. And they fall into two categories really.

"There are the events that will take place regardless of what you, as a publican, do, such as Champions League matches, or big festivals in towns; and there are the ones that the publican has to create themselves.

"At our annual conference this month we launched a booklet to help our members create these events, which can be anything from table quizzes, to darts tournaments to book clubs, anything that gets people in to the pub on a quiet night when they wouldn't normally be there."

One of the main issues the VFI is lobbying hard for is minimum pricing of alcohol.

It may seem counterintuitive for the pub industry to want a floor put on what they can charge but, under threat from the off-licence trade, it has become a necessity in Mr Cribben's eyes.

Four years into the crash, pub sales are still falling, slumping 7.2pc last year, at the expense of retailers, many of which are now, he claims, using alcohol as a loss leader to get shoppers in.

"The removal of the Groceries Order several years ago was a huge problem because you essentially have some retailers selling alcohol at prices publicans couldn't even dream of buying it in, never mind selling it at.

Pricing

"Scotland is bringing in minimum pricing and it is a matter for the Government here, but I think about €1.40 for a normal can of beer would be about right for the industry."

Pubs will always have to grapple with the question of responsible drinking, and the VFI have been notable by their absence from recent DrinkAware advertising campaigns promoting safe use of alcohol.

Mr Cribben confirms the VFI withdrew their support from the campaign because of what he thought was an unfair emphasis on pubs rather than drinking outside and at home in the campaigns.

"There was a serious contradiction where if a pub sold three pints for €10, that was judged to be promoting volume drinking, whereas if a supermarket sold 20 cans for €10 that was okay. That makes no sense.

"More than 90pc of pubs are family-owned and most publicans treat their customers the same way they treat their family and they look out for them in that regard."

Mr Cribbin isn't worried about the plan to ban alcohol sponsorship here -- people will still go to the pub to watch the hurling championship, whether it's sponsored by Guinness or not -- but he is worried about confused messages coming from Government to the industry, which can be an easy target for politicians.

"Tourism will play a huge role in the economic recovery when it happens, and the pub is the number one attraction here.

"Why? Tourists come for the people. Where are the people? The pubs. You get a sense of the heritage of the country. You don't get that on the side of the street.

"The Irish pub is still a great institution and will continue to be. We can't on the one hand say it's all bad but on the other side have all things pointing towards the pub. You have to be careful about what you target."

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