Flexible, fast-moving and carefully targeted, have the team at Geronimo Inns really found a way of turning base pubs into pure gold? Susanna Forbes casts her eye over their offering to find out
When you came back 20 minutes later completely covered in beer, that’s when I knew you needed me,’ says Geronimo Inns’ Ed Turner to founder Rupert Clevely as he recounts the story of his pivotal interview 10 years ago.
‘Rupert was looking after The Builders Arms in Chelsea while he was still working at Veuve Clicquot,’ says Turner by way of explanation. ‘He was wearing a suit. I was chatting away at the end of his bar when he said “I’ve just got to go change a barrel.”’
‘We had only three pubs when Ed joined me. And he was nine stone,’ says Clevely, with a twinkle. ‘He’s grown with the business.’
And so the repartee continues throughout my hour with Clevely and Turner in the busy surroundings of their Victoria pub, The Phoenix, on St Patrick’s Day. The Morecambe and Wise of the pub world were in full flow.
But don’t let the easily-worn apparel of effortless bonhommie fool you. Beneath the laidback exteriors are razor-sharp antennae looking out for the merest whiff of unexploited potential. ‘Would you excuse me?’ became a regular refrain as the tanned, jack-in-the-box Clevely spotted a customer waiting a minute too long for his or her generously-proportioned meal. The pair are never off duty.
‘Beneath the laidback exteriors are
razor-sharp antennae looking out for
the merest whiff of unexploited potential’
Only 10 years ago, Geronimo had three pubs and 40-50 staff. Now they’re up to 28 pubs with a team of over 600. Clevely has achieved what must have seemed like a bold boast back in December 2006, of doubling its 14-strong family within three years. At the time of writing, turnover with seven new pubs on board – six bought from the Peach Pub Company, plus bustling newbie The Bull in London’s Westfield shopping centre – is predicted to be in the region of £29.5m to June 2010, up from about £23.5m last year and forecast to rise to an estimated £33m by June 2011.
Yet it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Back in 2001, Clevely brought in outside investment and hired a finance director after nearly going bust. More recently, in 2006, the over-enthusiastic purchase of The Bullfinch in Sevenoaks resulted in a £1.3m writedown in 2008 on its sale. This particular countryside location, as Clevely puts it, ‘just wasn’t us’.
Meanwhile, back in more familiar London territory, word was getting around, customers stuck with them, and accolades came their way. As well as numerous Pub of the Year awards, Geronimo scooped The Publican’s Pub Company of the Year in the ‘20-99 managed outlets’ category in 2007 and 2009, and this year the company has won the Morning Advertiser’s Unbranded Food Operator of the Year award.
And, while Christmas was an anxious time throughout the on-trade, Geronimo managed to impress analysts by chalking up a 6% increase in like-for-like sales, resulting in total sales being up 44% in the four-week festive period.
So how did they do it? Not rocket science. A Christmas tent card on every table, speaking of private rooms, appealing menus, and offering to sort out everything, ‘even magicians’, plus a special deal for Geronimo Club members.
Arguably more impressive is the way in which the group has made it through the pain barrier from small to medium-sized business – so often a stumbling block in the hospitality industry.
Key to their success has been the flexibility of their offer. ‘In the old days you either went to the pub to drink or to a restaurant to eat,’ says Turner. ‘We’re aiming to give our customers every occasion. Take me for example. Whether it’s a bite to eat with my wife, a trip with my mates to watch football, or if my parents are in town, there’s bits within the pub or within the offer to accommodate whatever I want.’
And once they’re there, Turner wants to keep them. ‘In our market, the customers don’t go bar hopping. If you get the offer right, they stay in one place. They come in at 7pm, have a few pints, have something to eat, a few bottles of wine and maybe end up with a few more pints at the bar.’
Interestingly, they don’t discount. ‘In January and February, we’ll offer two courses for £10 – it’s an offer at a fixed price. It doesn’t mean that two courses previously were £18 or £20,’ says Turner.
Even with a popular offer, though, Geronimo is not immune to the recession. ‘Everything’s polarising towards the weekend,’ says Turner. ‘People go much bigger at the weekend. In the week you need to give them a good reason.’
Turner sees this challenge as an opportunity to get staff involved. ‘Ninety-day plans are their marketing things,’ he explains. ‘I give them a big calendar of fun things – from ‘talk like a pirate’ day, to Star Wars day, to English muffin day. Some of the big ones, like St Patrick’s Day, I’ll help them to organise. Then some of the quirky ones – it’s very much for them to drive something locally.’
How to keep staff motivated
– A flat structure allows everyone to talk to the senior guys. They get heard and they have a say.
-Continuous small bits of training, weekly tastings for example.
-Surprise them with a treat. It could be a handwritten note from the boss, a pint, or a trip abroad.
Keeping such a close eye on proceedings is easy when you’ve only got a few places. How do they manage it now?
‘If we get the company culture right, then things will be done well,’ says Clevely. ‘Those core values tell everyone what they need to know. So my wife, Jo, sets the tone in terms of the look and the feel [and a very striking look it is], Ed is then able to drive what our drinks strategy should be, what our pricing strategy should be, what our food strategy should be, and everything works from that.’
‘It’s how you make the culture fit into the local environment,’ expands Turner. ‘We’re a series of village pubs. As long as the values are there – homely, passion, humour, individuality and empathy – then you just have to match them to the environment. People in Notting Hill decorate their flats very differently to Battersea, so Battersea is warmer and cosier than Notting Hill.’
The Geronimo Club has helped a great deal too. Membership has grown to 16,000 in 12 months, with members receiving a monthly missive with a range of offers. ‘It’s about giving them something that the guy on the next bar stool doesn’t have,’ says Turner. At Christmas, it was the first round of drinks for free, while on St Patrick’s Day, it was £10 rather than £12 for half-a-dozen oysters and a pint of Guinness.
During this winter’s Big Snow, they put out a Club email offering free mulled wine to those who made it in – 150 people took it up. ‘It’s not much out of a database, but it went out at 10am and these people were in at lunch,’ says Turner. ‘That’s where we can steal a march on our competitors.’
The right stuff
It’s not just about keeping potential punters informed either. To stay in touch with the growing tribe of staff, rather than endless meetings taking dozens of people away from the pub floor, they run two 10-minute conference calls every morning. The first, at 10.06am (note the timing) is for the operations guys. The second, at 10.46am, is for the directors. A Clevely initiative, it was inspired by reading growth guru Verne Harnish’s cult classic, Mastering the Rockefeller Habits (Select Books). ‘Everybody’s always late if it’s 10am, but if its 10.06am then people somehow remember it,’ says Turner. ‘We call it the drumbeat of Geronimo. By 11am, everyone knows what is going on.’
This focused, bite-sized approach to operations also extends to training. As well as supplier-led sessions and WSET courses, there are 10-minute drinks and food matching sessions every Sunday morning before the doors open.
Looking ahead, Clevely says he has no immediate plans to purchase more venues. ‘We’re always looking,’ he admits. ‘But we’re probably a lot more choosy than in the past. I would like to grow the business as long as the core values and the culture can remain the same.
‘Life needs to be fun otherwise I don’t want to go to work. If business is not fun I’m doing totally the wrong thing. And if I have fun then my staff and my customers are going to have fun too.’
Strangely enough, I think he’s serious about that.
Ed Turner will be speaking at Imbibe 2010 on 13-14 July as part of the Liquid Profits seminar programme.
The beauty of brevity…
The Geronimo duo came together after Rupert Clevely’s incredibly succinct business plan caught the attention of Ed Turner
Rupert Clevely grew up surrounded by wine. His father, John, an MW and now in charge of wine buying for Geronimo, was chief executive of H Parrot & Co (a Veuve Clicquot subsidiary). Along the way to becoming Clicquot’s UK MD himself in 1989, Rupert spent three years in Sydney with his wife, fellow Geronimo director, Jo. ‘The pubs there were so much better than the average pub we had in London,’ he says.
Five years later, Clevely went three days a week, the couple increased the mortgage on their flat, and went into partnership to buy their first pub, The Chelsea Ram. The first Evening Standard Pub of the Year award arrived in 1998, giving Clevely the confidence to relinquish the Clicquot pound.
Ed Turner, meanwhile, started out at Mitchells & Butler as a stocktaker.
Once he became disillusioned with the enormity of M&B, he was won over by Clevely, despite perhaps the shortest business plan ever. It said: ‘To make money, to have fun and to work with people I get on with.’
By George, sir…
Full-on fireworks display at the Black Swan, Ockham – if you’re going to
Oyster stalls outside every pub for St Patrick’s Day – 3,000 oysters sold.
Best photograph of our pubs in the snow wins a fireside dinner for 10; rapid fire email to the Geronimo Clubbers with a free glass of mulled wine when the snow really fell – not many entries, but lots of mulled wine and some great photos.
Who buys what from where in geronimo inns
With an MW in the family, wine selection is left to Clevely Senior (see box on opposite page, top), resulting in a focused, quality-led list, split up by style, the majority of which is available by the glass. Enotria, Berkmann, Coe Vintners and Ellis of Richmond are the main suppliers.
Turner looks after promotions. ‘It’s about refreshing your drinks offer all the time.’ Planning his summer rosé and champagne promotion, he ensures cider and beer drinkers are not forgotten. Last year, Aspall’s Perronelle’s Blush and Meantime’s raspberry beer featured.
Alongside local beers such as Sambrook’s Wandle and not so local brews – Stella Artois for example – regular ales include Sharps and Adnams. Newbies like North London’s Redemption Brewery take guest slots during events like Cask Ale Week.
Spirits are sourced from Coe Vintners and a variety of others, with Bloody Mary having signature drink status across the group.
New pub The Elgin in Notting Hill flies the flag for gin. ‘To us it looked like a gin palace,’ explains Turner of the group’s decision to stock 25 examples. Following a good reception, the list is growing to 35 and the concept is being rolled out to The Tin Goose, one of Geronimo’s Heathrow pubs.