Licensee Interview: A Real Ray of Sunshine
In a little corner of Milngavie there’s a bustling, lively bar and restaurant that goes by the name of Finsbay. Despite the fact that some local traders told them not to touch the unit with barge pole, Billy Milligan and business partner, former Scotland rugby captain and Glasgow Warriors player, Alastair Kellock, went ahead with their idea anyway. Finsbay is now just about to celebrate its first birthday – and what a year it has been. The business Billy tells me has faced its challenges, but not because it hasn’t been busy, the very opposite. He explains, “We have been busy from the get go. So busy that at the beginning it was really difficult to cope – and our customers are very discerning so it was important we didn’t drop the ball.”
I have to admit that I’ve known Billy for absolutely years he is one of these guys you always find the same way, upbeat, cheery and just lovely, and I don’t think I am seeing him through rose tinted glasses. I first got to know him and Cameron Craig (Cammy – another gem of a guy) when they were working with Carlo Citti just ahead of them opening O’Couture in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, which operated for five years. Now he also owns Pacific in Partick with Ian McComb. There are two things that Billy is certainly not short of and that is ideas and enthusiasm. But he has never ever had the benefit of big bucks. Says Billy, “Everything we do is self-funded and when it comes to build and design we always have a tight budget. But I love that part of it. The design here is 100% my own. I’ve always been interested in design, and when I look around I am really proud of it.”
And so he shoud be. Looking around Finsbay you can see the love that went into the design. He taken a retro 70’s look and created a kitch, cool looking place to eat and drink. From the fish tank that is located in an old TV – he had an upcycler make it for him, to the original 70-’s wallpaper sourced online, the G-Plan furniture, the old style telephones that appear as art on the walls, and the original school blackboard which is used to feature the days specials, Finsbay is appealing to old and young. Billy explains, “It seems like our older customers can remember the décor, while our younger customers think it is retro-cool. The main thing is that it is comfortable.”
Billy, now 37, has been working in the trade since he was 18. Although he admits it has been “a bit of a journey.” He says, “I started off running student nights for G1. In fact one of them Juicy Tuesday is still running. I also DJ’d and with Cammy also ran a small promotions company and got involved in festivals. I always DJ’d doing perhaps five or six club nights. Then Carlo Citti approached us to a club which became O’Couture, and so I gave up the nights. I was involved with the O’Couture for four year. It was great. We were lucky because Carlo had a whole back office team, which left us to operate the business. Carlo loved to build his own venues, and I realised that building your own venue was completely possible.”
During his O’Couture days Billy got married, and subsequently left the club because he and his wife wanted to emigrate to America. Says Billy, “I had a job lined up there in a completely different industry. But we couldn’t get a green card. So that was that.”
He then opened Pacific with Ian McColm – four years ago. Billy comments, “I had known Ian for a number of years. I was running a Ceilidh night with a difference – we DJ’d vocals over the ceilidh music. We ran the night at the Tall Ship and we got lots of press coverage. Ian, who was working for Maxxium at the time, was sponsoring unusual nights with Aftershock and he came on board with our next one which was a Friday night at Play and we had a Pole dancing competition which was judged by Frank McAvennie. Aftershock sponsored it. It was good fun.”
“Ian and Ali are quite different sort of business partners. Ali is really hands off, although he brings a lot of the motivational experiences he has had to the business, and we talk ideas all the time. I met him through a friend who played rugby. He has a completely different background to mine, but it also very successful and all his skills are transferable. He has a “growth mindset” and always wants to be moving forward. Ian, on the other hand, has been in the trade a long time and is more hands on. Pacific is a great wee business. It’s a lease, but it comes in at below the Rateable value so it does okay. We had been looking for something else for a while. Still are in fact.”
For a period Ian and I worked with Colin Beattie at the Partick Tavern. He says, “We had hoped to something fresh there, but it didn’t work out. But I learned the importance of longevity from Colin. He believes in building businesses that will be there for a long time. In fact Colin and I have kind of similar background. Ian calls me the Prince of Partick – because I was brought up there, and I know loads of people in the area. My dad, in fact, knew Colin’s dad a way back. He too was well known in the area. Going back further my mum comes from Harris and Colin’s family come from Tiree. I don’t think I have ever told him that!”
Talking of Harris, the Finsbay is named after a place in Harris, and the bar sells more Harris Gin than any other in Scotland. In fact you can order your Harris gin online and pick it up at the Finsbay. The empty Harris bottles are also used for candles. On the back wall of the restaurant you can see a beautiful film of Harris – the beach scene is terrific. Says Billy, “People are always asking where it is.” Harris tweed has also been used on soft furnishings in Finsbay.
As well as working briefly with Colin Beattie he also worked for a few months with Colin Blair at Buzzworks. Says Billy, “I have a huge amount of admiration for Colin. He taught me a lot in a short space of time. He also told me that I was an entrepreneur and needed to be doing it for myself. But I absolutely take my hat off to the company. I absolutely love what they do.”
Billy certainly likes a bit of variety. He agrees, “I like changing and moving with the times. I’ve been doing that since I was 18. My mum and dad were not involved in the industry at all. I’ve always enjoyed being responsible either for busy club nights or for busy outlets. There is nothing better than standing back and seeing the venue busy and running well. I always want to be proud of the places that I have. I wouldn’t build a place I wasn’t proud of. I also want my family and friends to be proud of it.”
He continues, “In Milngavie customers are discerning. There is no margin for error here. Even if we are doing classics they have to be good – whether it is Macaroni or Fish n’chips – we call them elevated classics. Our revenue stream here is good. Although I thought we would build slowly, I didn’t anticipate the fact that we would be busy from breakfast all the way through to dinner. At the beginning the kitchen got really pushed. We had to take tables out to cope, and we had to extend the kitchen. But we are lucky because we have the most laid back chef around. The restaurant evolves into a bar at night, which is not always the easiest transition, but it works here. We put the lights down and the volume up. Our customers come at all times of the day and night too. Sometimes women come in for morning coffee and they will book a ladies night for later that week, and come in the evening for cocktails… it is definitely a female friendly space. Guys should be flocking here! I have to admit I am here all the time. I am definitely hands on.”
His current project is the renovation of the lane beside Finsbay and from the paint visible on his hands, I can vouch for the fact he is hands on! Says Billy, “When we first moved in I was disappointed at how dilapidated the lane was. I discovered it was privately owned and the wall infact was owned by BT. I got permission from them to improve it so we rendered it and plastered it and a local girl, a young mum, has done a great mural. We have had some funding from East Dunbartonshire Council too. So now we have tables and chairs outside, we have strung lights across it and we have made a very European outside space. People have stopped in to say how great it looks and they have compared it to Finnieston too. This now means we can do Vintage Fairs, Dog Festivals, you name it. Suggestions welcome!”
So what next? Says Billy, “People ask me that a lot. I’ve done so many different things but I would like to open something in the Merchant City, although equally I could see myself putting this type of brand into Lenzie, Bishopbriggs or Kirkintilloch. As I have said I am proud of Finsbay, especially of the reviews – even if there are glitches with service, they always compliment the interior. We have nice people here, we serve nice drinks and we are busier than I could have imagined. And of course that means we are making money. But most of all I am really enjoying seeing it busy.”
What I enjoyed was catching up with him. Next time I might even bring my dogs – did I mention Finsbay is dog friendly too!