Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - December 2001
Are the seemingly unstoppable pubcos ultimately doomed by their lack of distinctive appeal?
It was reported recently that Pubmaster were contemplating a bid for the Laurel Pub Company, who run the former Whitbread pub estate, a move that would create a giant pub company with over 7,000 outlets. Where once mega-brewers dominated the pub scene, it is now huge pub companies. It's rather like the giant mammals superseding the dinosaurs in "Walking with Beasts". But it's highly doubtful whether pub companies represent a form of business organisation that is sustainable in the long-term.
There's no other example of firms owning a huge chain of retail outlets, but refusing to put their name above the door. If drinkers choose to visit Wetherspoons, they have a clear idea of what to expect. If you go in a Robinson's or Hydes pub, you know that you will find their distinctive, high-quality beers there. But why on earth should anyone choose to visit a Pubmaster outlet in preference to one owned by Punch Taverns or Enterprise Inns? Many pub company outlets are excellent, well-run places. But belonging to the pub company contributes nothing to their success.
Pub companies as currently constituted are basically driven by property management, not retailing. It won't be too long before they find that they are losing business to operations, whether branded managed pubs, enterprising free houses, or independent brewery tied houses, that offer the pubgoer a clearly-defined unique selling proposition. And, all-conquering as they may now seem, I wouldn't be surprised if in ten years' time the giant pub companies in their current form have vanished from the face of the earth just as surely as the dinosaurs.
Companies may pay a price for trying to control every aspect of their employees' lives
Last month, salesman Mark Hodges was dismissed from his new job when his boss found out that he smoked ten cigarettes a day at home - even though he never smoked in the office or in his company car. Given that more and more companies are instituting strict no-alcohol policies, this sets a disturbing precedent for moderate drinkers, particularly as many business leaders are proud to proclaim that they are teetotallers.
But surely, so long as it's legal and doesn't affect your performance at work, what you do in your own time should be your own business. Taken to its logical conclusion it isn't difficult to imagine companies preventing their employees from playing rugby, riding motorcycles or climbing mountains, as it may lead to them having too much time off sick. But staffing your company with dull, prissy people may not be the best guarantee of success.
There's now scientific evidence that going to the pub does you good
You often hear people say that they could do with a visit to the pub to relax and unwind - and this is now supported by academic research. A recent survey of 900 men by Dr Colin Gill of Leeds University found that they used the pub to bond, to recharge their batteries and as an emotional outlet. What a surprise!
Rather more questionable is the claim that almost half said they would still go to the pub even if there was no alcohol. Maybe in these politically correct times they felt they had to say that, but in reality beer and pubs are inextricably linked and without one the other would disappear. Obviously they would find somewhere else that served a similar purpose - and no doubt the menfolk of Kabul chew the fat in coffee shops or whatever - but it wouldn't be anything like a pub.