The hands-on Brexiteer who founded Wetherspoons and gave the pub back to the public
Over the last 38 years, Tim Martin has reinvented a British institution: the public house. He has grown his chain of taverns from a single pub in North London to almost 1,000 today. During his long career he has shown remarkable focus on his empire, while also being an outspoken advocate for Brexit and making the case for business — something so many bosses are afraid to do.
Wetherspoons pubs are for everyone. They are large, inexpensive, democratic drinking palaces. The range of food and drink available is remarkable — and generally excellent value. They are not for dining snobs, or wine connoisseurs: but their facilities are clean, their landlords are sober, and they are incredibly popular venues for alcoholic refreshment and a solid meal.
One of the reasons I admire Tim is that he spends roughly three days on the road every week visiting his establishments, mixing with his staff (Wetherspoons employs 37,000 people) and customers. He takes the train all around the country, carrying his notes in a plastic carrier bag, and finds out exactly what is happening on the ground in his pubs. How many other public company chairman are that hands-on? Yet he is a not a micromanager — he has a strong team of long-serving executives, including a chief executive who has worked with him for 26 years and a finance director with 18 years of service.
His business has grown organically over the decades, typically by opening new pubs rather than takeovers. He has shaken up the old beerage who dominated the licensed trade for centuries, offering a tired, overpriced formula. He delivers serious competition to the corporate pub companies, usually making sure his Wetherspoon inn is the busiest in town.
Are all his pubs beautiful? No, but many are stylish conversions, frequently tailored to the area and celebrating the history of the building — so they are locals, even if they are part of a major business. Has he driven some small operations to the wall? Yes, but he has also obliged many to up their game and provide improved service, choice and value — all of which has benefited the punter.
It is easy to forget that although there used to be more pubs 30 years ago, they were mostly an awful experience — smoke-filled dumps, with a pitiful range of drink, a desperate food offering, squalid lavatories and surly barmen. And the reality is that it has been very heavy taxation, too much debt, the growth of alcohol sales through supermarkets, and the smoking ban which have destroyed far more independent pubs than Wetherspoons.
Tim Martin is a singular character: he does not dance to the City’s tune, or indeed do what the media expects of business tycoons. He prefers drinking wine or beer with his regulars to schmoozing stockbrokers or institutional investors. He drives a battered car and has modest tastes. Yet he is educated — he studied law at Nottingham University and is a barrister by training — and highly articulate — both verbally and in written form — about issues ranging from taxation to the EU to the financial community. He vents regularly in Wetherspoons News, a free magazine distributed in his outlets, and is a familiar figure on television shows like Question Time. He can afford to speak his mind because he has a major stake in his company which he has made a roaring success. Although some investors shun him, others are fans of his eccentric but effective management style.
He took a sabbatical from Wetherspoons some years ago to pursue several estate agents who had cheated the business. According to the judge, he won a “substantial victory” worth millions of pounds from the fraudsters, who were lucky not to be criminally prosecuted. He did it to demonstrate that professionals in the property market were abusing the trust of their clients with impunity. The case demonstrated his persistence and sense of justice. I would imagine he is not a man to cross lightly.
He has a dry wit, and is a hugely popular leader with his employees. He has made hundreds of millions of pounds, but if you met him in person you would never guess his wealth. Nevertheless, he doesn’t mind making enemies if it is for a cause in which he believes. He was one of the tiny handful of high-profile businessmen who campaigned in favour of leaving the EU, and spent weeks debating the issue with many hundreds of his customers in Wetherspoons pubs up and down the country. He felt that we needed to escape the threat of a European superstate and bring back law-making to this country. He was actually in favour of immigation and free movement, but believed that sovereignty was an overriding imperative. It didn’t make him popular among Guardianistas, but I suspect he doesn’t care. He is this country’s leading licensed victualler, and like many publicans over the centuries, has firm political views. If Britain had more of his ilk, we would be a richer and more interesting place.