Brexit is a big plus: Wetherspoons' Tim Martin on cocktails, carpets and the future of pubs

Claire Dodd

Claire Dodd

05 December 2017

We asked you what 10 questions you’d like to put to Tim Martin, outspoken MD of JD Wetherspoon. Here’s what you came back with, and here’s what he said…

1. Do you think the Brexit stalemate is hurting businesses? And is it turning out how you expected?

I think Brexit is a big plus for business overall. Because democracy and prosperity are very closely linked, and the EU is becoming undemocratic… unelected presidents, a pseudo parliament and so on. The process was probably bound to be fraught and it certainly has been. I feel it would be much better for the UK if we left without a deal. And I am worried we are going to get a deal, which is exactly the opposite of everyone else. But I would say there aren’t too many signs it is hurting the UK unduly at the moment.

The main plus for no-deal is that the EU charges large tariffs on food that comes from outside the EU. Everyone in the UK, if we leave without a deal will spend 3.5p less per meal. People are being told that the opposite will happen. But that’s untrue.

2. Will staff shortages get worse post Brexit?

There are shortages now, and we’re still in the EU. And there’s been quite a lot of that over the last 20 years. I don’t think it will be worse. We do need immigration, and I and others will be urging the Government to have a sensible approach to immigration in the future. Arguing the case [for immigration] doesn’t mean we need an unelected president to create your immigration policy for you.

3. In such a high turnover and low-paid industry, is it feasible to expect highly trained and highly motivated staff?

Well therein lies the rub. Not everyone can be a brain surgeon, or invent the iPad. I always say to our guys that we’re working at the coal face with our pickaxe. That’s just life. But a tremendous number of the people that work for us, I find incredibly industrious. If you find a system in which you treat people with respect and try and pay them a reasonable amount and create a good atmosphere in your pub or restaurant, then I think people do work hard.

It’s always true to say that we’d love to pay people more. We do what we can. We pay 40% of our profits as a bonus to the people that work in the pubs. But no one person gets a fortune.

4. How is the pub model evolving? Where will it go in the future? Will we one day see mini versions of Wetherspoons full of craft beers, Negronis and hipsters; kind of like a Tesco Metro but with beards.

I think pubs have gradually evolved over hundreds of years and sometimes the evolution is fast and sometimes it’s slower. I think that will continue. There is always pressure to improve. There will be some eternal values (cleanliness, value for money, atmosphere, good lighting, warmth) that will never go away.

Will there be a Tesco Metro version of Wetherspoons? I like to think in a way we already do the craft beer and so on. Will they be smaller? Maybe. If the tax system improves for pubs it will mean we can open smaller premises in smaller towns. We have tended to try and keep a pub as a pub and not do some of the more radical ideas.

Cocktails are something we haven’t mastered yet… that could be a challenge for the future.

5. Where do you get your retail inspiration from?

A guy called Sam Walton, who was a founder of Walmart. He said you should pay your staff a bonus. We read that in 1997, and we introduced a bonus system. In the first year after we introduced it our profits went down and our share price halved, but we have done well since. He also said the best ideas come from the shop floors, and to listen to what customers and staff are saying. I try to call on never less than 10 pubs a week, and spend two days a week in our pubs.

6. The beer mats have been a big talking point; do you think the pub is the right environment for propaganda?

If you’re running a business then it’s legitimate to speak out. And I don’t think people should be frightened of debate. If we can have a debate in the pubs, I don’t see that it should do any harm.

7. Is the pub model sustainable? How do businesses need to change?

I think they are sustainable, but it’s very difficult for pubs and restaurants with the current tax system. The key for me is tax. If the country wants pubs and restaurants to survive… it has to tax them on the same basis as supermarkets. But almost no-one in the pub or restaurant trade has campaigned vigorously for that outcome. I haven’t been able to get the support of the industry. If we had it, we’d have lower taxes by now. But a lot of people, especially running the bigger pub and restaurant industry suffer from CBA [can’t be arsed].

8. What is the biggest threat to the pub industry?

I think pubs have been quite heavily challenged by social media. When I was at school and university and for some years after that, if you wanted to socialise you had to get out of the house and see people and the main place that people met up was the pub. But now people can socialise online in their own home. But I think tax, and regulations that put up the cost of selling a pint in a pub versus a supermarket are the biggest danger.

9. Is it fair on drinks producers and other hospitality businesses to charge such low prices?

I think our prices are lower than pubs and restaurants. But they’re much higher than supermarkets, painful though it is to admit that. I think that really it is a level playing field between us and other pubs. If you look at our margins, they’re half that of a Greene King or Mitchells & Butlers. So, I think it’s a principle of the market. If you prefer a quick sixpence to a slow shilling, then it’s fair.

10. Which is your favourite Wetherspoons carpet?

Funnily enough, I am not someone who has ever looked at carpets. I’ve been found out. Who knew they had such a fanbase? Life is very strange.

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