Many of you have sold a house, right? The estate agent comes along, tells you that the house is worth twice what you thought and that they can sell it in three weeks. The ego and dopamine receptors kick in. Six months later, you reluctantly accept an offer 20% below your original idea of what it was worth. You then wait with baited breath while solicitors sit on piles of paper until the deal falls through two days before exchange of contracts with your whole life packed in boxes. Then the procedure starts again while you play hunt the breadknife.
Imagine if every house in the UK was on the market. Many of the owners are desperate to sell before they have to shut the doors and leave, forced out by falling income and rising bills. The buying market knows this. Now you are picturing the UK pub market.
When we decided to sell, the first agent we chose was so excited by the prospect, that only their founder would deal with us. We sat in the garden on a sunny day as he presented his gloriously upbeat appraisal of our sales prospects. After he’d left, we decided that he must be right (he’s the expert after all) and planned the Bentley purchase.
We had a viewing almost immediately. Followed by nothing for over three months. So we changed agents and dropped the price. Pretty much straight away we found a buyer. We shall call this buyer ‘Experienced publican supported by wealthy wife’. She was a major league film producer. We’ll call him that to distinguish him from ‘Would be publican supported by wealthy wife’ who comes along a little later. James visited the pub about eight times in all and met many of the regulars. Eventually, he took me out to lunch and agreed terms. Then we waited. Neither I nor the agent ever heard from him again until a few months later when he turned up as the landlord of a pub about 10 miles away. These days it’s a disaster.
A gap of a few weeks. One exceptionally busy Wednesday evening, a crowd of eight turned up to dine – two gay couples and various others. When they paid their bill, the group leader casually mentioned that he had a restaurant and had just had an offer of £3m cash turned down for the lease on a neighbouring property. Would I be interested in selling…….?
The next morning he viewed with an entourage of chefs and maitre’d types and we agreed terms for a rapid sale. There was only one snag – the money wasn’t his. He was the front man for a multi-millionaire publisher, porn film producer, struck off solicitor and convicted fraudster who lived in mansion surrounded by ‘hunny bunnies’. Recently, he’d been buying up large chunks of the nearest town. He arrived in his chauffeur driven Rolls, accompanied by a hunny bunny on Saturday. He nodded his approval. The following week, he featured prominently in the press as the losing party in a long-running case with HMRC which cost him millions. We never heard from him again.
These two potential buyers were at least feasible but pubs attract dreamers. Next on the list were the Cannon family. Old Man Cannon was exactly that – a man in his late 60s who had once run the bar at Charlton Athletic. He had the mobility of Sgt Dixon in the latter episodes of Dixon of Dock Green. He would have been perfect just standing behind the bar but he wasn’t very good on stairs, so the idea of him rushing into the cellar to change barrels during a busy service was comical. Their business plan was also slightly askew and involved changing the lucrative accommodation rooms into a house for their pregnant and not-quite-right-in–the-head daughter and her totally-not-right-in-the-head boyfriend. Then they could all run the pub together – someone who couldn’t walk far, his wife, two people you wouldn’t trust to use an abacus and their new born baby. They had the money though because Mrs Cannon’s mother had died and left them her house. Well, not quite. The house still had to be sold. And her mother hadn’t exactly left her the house; it had to be shared with her brother. Well, not exactly. Mother died intestate. So, there was no will, everything was in probate and could be for some years. Could they buy the pub but defer £300,000 of the sale price to some future date to be disclosed? Er, maybe not. Cue tearful and distraught begging phone calls. Sorry, just No.
Enter Mr Pedant. After about 14 meetings with Mr Pedant, we still hadn’t got an offer. Along came another couple, who we shall call Donald (‘Would be publican supported by wealthy wife’) and Diana. I hope you’re keeping up with this. They seemed very pleasant and capable and were so keen to push on quickly, that we agreed to lease them the pub at first. They lasted one month before Donald emailed me to say that he had put the keys back through the letter box, listing various reasons why they could not make the pub work. In one month they had gone from serving an average of 85 Sunday lunches to 4 on their final day. Their ‘chef’ was not a chef but a friend of a friend who could cook and did tequila shots throughout service. Donald insisted on having a three-course lunch every day and doing as little as possible. Here’s an edited version of my reply:
Let’s start with your email.
Regarding ‘essential’ kitchen equipment and service contracts, the Rationale is covered by one (you only had to ask). When we walked around the premises, I told you that we no longer used the dishwasher (it’s marked on the inventory as NOT IN USE) because it was too costly to run, you still have to pay someone to stand at the sink and a new, energy efficient one can be bought for £800. Listening isn’t your strong point is it Donald? And why not get quotes before work is carried out?
There are hundreds of reasons the till does not reflect turnover – beer festivals, outside events or simply times when the place is so busy that all you can do is use it as a cash drawer You wouldn’t have experienced that (last Sunday, £5.7k). As for the £240k profit, you wouldn’t get anywhere near it due to your profligacy with energy alone – the electricity bill for your month here was £1200 up on normal owing to your insistence on keeping everything switched on.
On our first week back, we only took £11k but since then we have been at a steady £17k per week (412 covers last week, just Jenny, Liz and Malcolm, extra plates not required). What were you doing Donald?
How did your “high level of energy and professionalism” relate to reality, let alone (doing) “everything possible to maintain the trade”. I only glimpsed the chaos on three brief occasions but the alienated customers, staff, suppliers and neighbours have given a clearer picture. So much energy did you put in that the suppliers called you ‘the phantom” because you were never here. The politer customers preferred ‘the sloth’ and ‘Mr Charisma’. Most of your nicknames however consisted of the word cunt, preceded by various adjectives: ‘clueless’, ‘incompetent’, ‘miserable’ or, in the case of the staff, simply ‘that fucking’. I could forward the many emails I have received about atrocious food and service but I’m saving them for my scrapbook. It seems that your mantra was ‘customers don’t notice’ which makes me wonder which century you worked in retail because you’re certainly not capable of working in the 21st. If customers don’t notice, what makes them choose one venue over another? In the times you visited when we ran it, did you ever see it as quiet as under your stewardship? Yet we always arranged our meetings at the quietest times. Here are a few things customers did notice – car park strewn with litter, light bulbs out, short measures, incorrect glassware (and if you put 250ml of beer in a 330ml J2O glass, you’ll never make money), unpredictable opening and closing times, cheap napkins, unwiped tables, badly kept ale (two months on from our CAMRA award win), 1980’s café table numbers, scruffy back bar, dirty glasses (a result of not draining or cleaning the glasswasher which made the pub smell like a drain)………………I could go on but it would be a waste of the rainforest. A landlord has to be able to hold two things – a screwdriver and a conversation and you weren’t very competent with either (incidentally, fixing the Courage pump and the Coke machine combined was less than 30 seconds work but none of the staff would tell you that because you are ‘that fucking cunt’). This is not the corporate world – your failings are on display and if you try to blame them on everyone else, the whole house collapses. Our team were award winning, largely with the same people – you were grossly incompetent and you know it.
While I accept that you were dong ‘everything possible to maintain the trade’ within the confines of your uncreative brain, why didn’t you do some sums? In turning away the ‘brie and bacon’ men and the ‘cheesy chip golfers’, you knocked a simple £5k pa off the turnover. 10 groups like that = £50k. Your commercial nouse is unfathomable and probably accounts for your record in having companies struck off before accounts are filed.
Now let’s come to stock. The idea that what was left was ‘a similar level’ is laughable. In the kitchen, there was not a piece of fish, an ounce of flour or a drop of washing up liquid. The freezers were bare and our first week’s £11k was largely due to the goodwill we have built up with our suppliers over the years (you know, the ones who are endlessly debt chasing). The wet stock consisted of Sainsbury’s wine, enough sparkling water to last until Christmas and 7 kegs of unusable Carlsberg because you bought the wrong type of keg, even though you know everything about running a pub. Even if you had bought the right type, that would be enough to last until October, yet there was no elderflower, Hollows, Cox’s Apple, Fusion or other fast-selling lines. An ILTSA stock-take on 14 June values the stock at £2988.12. This report will be used as evidence in any legal proceedings.
It is clearly a nonsense to suggest that you can receive the benefit of goods and services and the revenue earned from their delivery without paying for them, as expressed by our QC at a creditor’s meeting yesterday. He is a regular customer working on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis because on his only visit under your management, he described you as ‘rude and totally lacking in bonhomie’, so he is more than willing to take up the case in return for some well-kept ale and good food. His view is that you have also acted fraudulently in terms of VAT. Attached is a spreadsheet showing monies owed for the length of your tenure. I have specifically excluded PRS, PPL and TV licensing, fuel oil, the stock difference and water rates but these will be added should legal action follow. Each debtor will now pursue the debts both collectively and individually through legal channels (some will use less formal channels ie the chaps who sorted out my arson problem and keep the pub traveller-free), unless you pay the sum on the attached spreadsheet by noon on Wednesday 20th July.
Donald didn’t take kindly to this and went to see a solicitor who told me that my letter was insulting and untruthful and that she had advised him to take out an injunction preventing me from contacting him again. I simply wrote back to say that I was sure that all the creditors would be overjoyed to know that Donald was spending the money owed to them on solicitors and injunctions and that the milkman had also now presented an unpaid bill. ‘Donald will no doubt deny responsibility’ I wrote, ‘because he takes his coffee black’. I signed it with ‘love and kisses xx’.
Everyone was paid the next day.
So, back in the saddle – behind the bar, in the kitchen, winning back the old customers and staff.
Next up was Accountant Lady. Accountant Lady was married to Accountant Man. Accountant Man worked for one of the Big Accounting firms. We had many meetings with Accountant Lady, who had had a charisma by-pass operation at an early age and was very fond of spreadsheets. After each meeting, she would go home and make a presentation to her husband (maybe she should write a book on how to keep your relationship sparkling). Eventually, he decided that her plan was not viable (or perhaps, like us, he realised that she would have had as much chance as a publican as Mary Whitehouse running a knocking shop).
Well, we’re getting a little tired of this now. At least a year has gone by and we are going backwards. We’ve left the pub once and had to come back but Mr Pedant is till knocking at the door and eventually we agreed to sell the lease to him. The deal was meant to complete in October but every day Mr Pedant wanted another piece of paper. He got on everyone’s nerves so much that our solicitor refused to speak to him anymore. By early December, we were getting worried – Christmas doesn’t happen overnight and he was planning to run it on agency staff. When, the day before exchange of contracts was due, he delayed because he needed a copy of the TV Licence (!), we reluctantly pulled the plug and took the pub off the market.
We were feeling pretty low by this point. Having really enjoyed some years at the pub, we had reached the point where we wanted to move on. That was 18 months ago and we had suffered financially as a result of seven sales falling through. We sat down for lunch on a dull January Wednesday after a suitably flat service when a stretch limo pulled up outside. A little round Yorkshireman with an entourage of Arabs stood on the doorstep. “We heard thee might be interested in selling”, he said. My soup could wait.
Yorkshireman (a mobile phone multi-millionaire) explained the scenario. Arab investors, building two blocks of apartments nearby and buying seven local pubs with him as CEO. My due diligence confirmed all of this and four days later we shook hands on the deal. At the four-week marker, with lawyers all working hard on getting it done quickly, Yorkshireman went on a three-week safari. In his absence, the Arabs appointed a COO because they were concerned that all projects were falling behind and the one pub they had completed on was an unmitigated disaster (which it remains to this day). They have never actually withdrawn from this deal – my letter from them simply says they are delaying the purchase until everything else is back on schedule.
Days later, an experienced publican, former neighbour and customer, convicted fraudster, ex-con and man-with-a-different-surname-every-time-I-met-him came to see me about a consortium that he was putting together featuring himself, various others and a man known locally as “Dodgy Den”, a local builder and also a convicted fraudster (there are a lot of them about in pub sales). They sold me some wine off the back of a lorry for cash and put in an offer. Mr Pedant was also knocking on the door again.
I’m a glass half full sort of person and I’ve now got three offers on the table – some Arabs who still want to complete one day; a consortium that would make the people sitting round Dr Evil’s table look like upstanding citizens and a man who wants to count the teaspoons. I can make that glass look half full but I have to accept there is a crack in it.
By now, we needed a serious holiday and the negotiations continued by email as we lay on a Sri Lankan beach. Until an email arrived from a well-known entrepreneur. “Excuse the direct approach” it read, “but my wife enjoys lunch in your pub and I’d like to buy it.”
The rest is history and we’ve now been out of the trade for a year. And the Bentley? We ended up a little short.
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