Wetherspoon boss takes it step by step in Ireland
Brexiteer Tim Martin wants to build out existing sites before acquiring more
JD Wetherspoon boss Tim Martin is anything but boring. The pub chain boss is an outspoken Brexiteer who sports a grey mullet and has built a pub empire worth more than £1bn.
But ask him to describe his approach to pub openings in the Republic of Ireland and he confesses he's going for the boring option - waiting to see.
Wetherspoon entered the Republic's market in 2014 to great fanfare, but rising property prices put paid to ambitions to open dozens of pubs in the first five years.
Five pubs have been opened to date and work is scheduled to begin on three more sites shortly - two in Dublin, including a planned hotel at Camden St, and one in Waterford. Another site in Carlow is a little further away from opening.
"Ireland [before the crash] had become one of the most expensive places probably in the world to buy a property," Martin told the Sunday Independent. "And then of course prices went down - some people in Ireland thought they were cheap, we thought they were reasonable - so that gave us the impetus to have a look and we bought six or seven sites. But no sooner had we done so then property prices shot up again like a rocket. So it gave us pause as they say.
"It's a boring thing to say but what we're going to is wait to see how the next three do. We've done pretty well with the first five, but having opened those five, the investment in the next ones is very big, particularly the two Dublin ones. So if they go well we'll start having a hard look again, and try and convince the property owners of the Republic to take very low bids from us - I'm sure they'll be all ears."
Aside from property prices, another obstacle for Wetherspoon here has been the brewers. The company's key selling point is the low price of pints - but it hasn't been able to negotiate deals with the likes of Guinness and C&C and so it imports most of its drink. Despite that, Martin seems happy with how things are faring - he estimates Wetherspoon has a 20pc pricing advantage on the typical Irish pub.
"We haven't been planning a dawn raid on St James's Gate Brewery and nicking a few lorry-loads of Guinness or anything," says Martin.
Martin was born in Britain but spent much of his childhood in Northern Ireland (his mother is from Dungannon). He describes himself as a "quasi-Irishman".
Martin studied law and qualified as a barrister, but never practiced, having taken over the lease on a pub in North London in 1979.
"In that era a lot of people were saying, both in the UK and Ireland, that there weren't enough people starting up their own businesses. I just got the idea from the newspapers really, that I could earn a buck setting up my own business. While I was looking around I used to go for a pint in this pub that had been converted from a bookies. Most of the pubs then belonged to brewers, but because this one didn't belong to brewers it had a much wider variety of beers then you would normally find. So I used to go there because I liked the beer, then the guy that ran it got fed up with it, so 10 months after he opened it, I took over his lease. Like a lot of things it was partly just chance - a lot of life is chance."
Today Wetherspoon has more than 900 pubs across the UK and Ireland and its strategy of competing aggressively on price seems to be working well. Revenues before exceptionals were up almost 4pc in the first half of its financial year, while pre-tax profit was up more than 20pc on the same basis. Martin is cautious about the outlook - warning that the company is facing cost increases due to rising wages and increased taxes. He says the fall in sterling, and the resulting price increases for imports into the UK, is only a small part of the increased cost outlook.
It's a reflection of his strong backing for Brexit - based on a view that the EU is becoming undemocratic. Aged 62, he's not thinking about retirement. "In a way I think we're built to work and if you can work then I can't see why not.
"I've still got time to have a couple of pints in the evening, do a bit of exercise, that sort of stuff. I hope to keep on working, subject to health, and as long as people feel I'm doing a reasonable job."
He's got a quote emblazoned on his wall: "Keep on walking and don't look back."
Sunday Indo Business