The pub chain’s founder on snobbery, paranoia, anxiety and running a billion-euro firm
How does it feel to lose a quarter-of-a-billion euro from the company you started? It’s not a question you can ask too many people but Tim Martin, worth £448m (€537m) net, doesn’t dodge it.
“Having traded for 41 years and, actually, having reached retirement age just before it hit, I can tell you it’s an unfamiliar feeling,” the Wetherspoons pub magnate laughs, “but not a good one.”
Martin is the sometimes controversial founder and chairman of one of the biggest UK pub chains, which is strenghtening its position in the Irish market after recently opening his ninth pub here.
It’s an empire he wants to grow once the economy is on more steady footing. How many pubs is he planning on opening here? “It would be nice to give a precise number but it’s difficult — especially at the current time — because you really judge future investment by current performance. And since trade is heavily affected by restrictions, it’s almost impossible to give a number. I suppose, in a perfect world and given the population, we would like to have another 20 or so pubs — if we could.”
Martin (66) opened his first Wetherspoons in 1979. Because he couldn’t control the customers in his first pub, he named it after the teacher who couldn’t control his class.
His Irish grandparents on his mother’s side were teetotallers and his father worked for Guinness. He has built his success on a reputation for cheap food and drink. “We try to sell three pints for everyone else’s two pints. So it’s a similar philosophy to Aldi or Lidl.”
He is aware, of course, that there are plenty who wish he’d never crossed the water with his brand of pub life: “Some people equate high price with quality. That’s just human nature. In the same way that some people like to drive around in a Rolls-Royce or wear a €10,000 handbag. My own tastes are more a pint of Guinness in O’Donoghue’s on Merrion Row.”
Now four decades in business, he says he has never seen anything like the impact of the pandemic: “It’s a very torrid time for the pub trade wherever you are and that means it’s very difficult to make decisions because you can’t see the real performance of existing pubs.”
He calls the uncertainty of restrictions and lack of trade “life-threatening” for many businesses.
“My instinct for the UK and for Ireland is that governments will have to pay more attention to the economy. I think the collective actions and restrictions we have been seeing pose a real economic threat. There is great pressure on large areas of the economy — not just in hospitality but in airlines, travel, tourism. You don’t need to be Warren Buffett to understand that it can’t go on like this for much longer,” he says, referring to the American business guru.
Martin’s publicly traded company, with more than 860 pubs, is cushioned more than most smaller ventures. But he is keenly aware of the strain a lack of finances can put on business owners.
“As anyone running their own business will know, there is nothing quite like the fear of running out of money. Short of a divorce or annihilation, the feeling of running out of money — and I am not talking about me — I think it is one of the worst feelings in the world. It is very, very difficult.”
Anxiety has been part and parcel of his daily existence throughout the pandemic, as it has been for much of those who earn their living in the hospitality business. “Being philosophical about it, it was actually Bob Geldof who said ‘anger is energy’, which I’ve always believed is a great quote. Anger is energy. But you have to try and convert it into something positive. And I have adapted Bob Geldof’s quote to ‘anxiety is energy’.
“I think most people who have started a successful business, especially if they have kept going at it for a long time, will have quite a high level of underlying anxiety. That’s what drives them on. They will wake in the middle of the night and worry but they won’t show it because it’s not seen as ‘macho’. It is summed up in a great phrase by Andrew Grove, the CEO of Intel, one of the biggest companies in the world. He said, ‘Only the paranoid survive.’ So that’s how much he knew about anxiety,” he says, followed by his routine chuckle.
On paper, he has £500m to his name, “but the idea that you have got that much money in the bank account? It’s an urban myth for most in my position.”
The housing market is, he predicts, one to watch. “An Irishman I knew in my first pub described house prices as ‘up and down, like a cow’s tail’. I remember we opened our first pub in Ireland seven years ago because property prices were low. Within six months they were back up to where they were. So we have got an issue — like everywhere else in the world because interest rates are so low. That has pushed up prices and it may well lead to trouble.”
For Martin, the first sign the property market is in jeopardy is when the young can’t afford to buy. “The second is normally a crash,” he says.
He lists off the recessions he has weathered: the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. “Human beings, because of their very nature, are inclined towards boom and bust. When the good times roll everyone is very optimistic and people overdo it. Then comes the correction. People like to think they can cure it but I’m not too sure.”
Back home, British prime minster Boris Johnson is caught up in a string of controversies. Having appeared with Johnson on the Brexit campaign trail, Martin is no longer a supporter.
“If you want to understand Boris’s character you have to understand that he is a columnist at heart,” he says. “He has to come out with something interesting every week, punchy ideas, and play the devil’s advocate. It doesn’t transfer very well into politics. He is an entertaining character but I don’t think he is the right person to be a PM — or run a business.”
On his own future, Martin will take it by the day. “Running a business, we are all a little bit like a fish in the murkiness trying to slowly and patiently move forward. Rarely, if ever, do you find yourself in completely clear water.”