Nic Wood, Signature Pubs: Interview
The boss of Signature Pubs, Nic Wood, is looking quite relaxed which is good going considering he has just added another seven pubs to his estate. This makes him one of, if not the biggest, independent operators in Scotland. There may be independent pub companies which own more, but when it comes to operating them, the Signature Pubs management team is hands on.
The purchase of the Speratus Group’s pubs, formerly owned by his brother Garreth, hadn’t been on the cards, but explains Nic, “I thought I had enough on my plate with the purchase of Glasgow’s Church on the Hill and a big project at the Grassmarket in Edinburgh. But when Garreth approached me in December and told me that he planned to exit the trade, we talked, and agreed a reasonable price which we were both happy with.”
The deal which completed in January saw The Auld Hundred in Edinburgh; Nox and Paramount in Aberdeen and The Boozy Cows in Edinburgh, Dundee, Stirling and Aberdeen add to the Signature portfolio which also includes The Rutland Hotel (The Huxley, Kyloe, Heads and Tales); Badger & Co; The Queens Arms, Element, The Black Bull, Diablo Loco, The Basement and The Fountain in Edinburgh; The Spiritualist, The Raven, and the Smokin’ Fox in Glasgow and The West Port, St Andrews.
Says Nic, “We only started talking about it in December, so we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare to take them on. But luckily we already had some synergies as we already pooled our resources where it was viable to do so, and it worked well. Martin Brown, who managed all eight sites for Garreth came across to Signature, as did Rachel, who managed their marketing and social media – they were already working part-time for us, and the accounts team. So from a manager’s point of view apart from a different VAT number and company name, much has remained the same. In fact from a directors point of view I have always been a director of Speratus.”
Aberdeen-born Nic however smiles wryly when he says, “I didn’t think I would be running nightclubs in Aberdeen again!” And I smile wryly when I remind him that when I first interviewed him a decade ago he gave me five units as an ideal number, and he expected them all to be in Edinburgh! He explains, “I know and understand the Edinburgh market, but over the years when I have acquired pubs I have always made sure that there is someone on the team that knows the area. For instance Euan Bain is working with us and he knows Glasgow and Stirling, while John Argo is a really experienced area manager who has worked with Maclays and G1 so understands multi-site operations.”
Speratus had earmarked the Boozy Cow profits to go to charity, and before Garreth sold them to Signature he made a large charitable donation to the charities involved, but going forward Signature will be running the pubs as a commercial entity. Says Nic, “As a family we give a lot to charitable causes, but when it comes to running this business we can’t grow Signature unless we are reinvesting our profits in the business. However Garreth will be continuing on his philanthropic route, which no doubt he will reveal in good time.”
Meanwhile Nic has spent the last couple of months visiting the new additions to his stable. He comments, “Some of the pubs are doing well and some need a little bit of work. We have spent the last few weeks analysing the businesses and formulating plans of how Signature can add to their value with sales growth”.
He adds, “When you get bigger you have to ensure that the mechanics work well and that includes our head office, and all our employees. One of the reasons I think we are doing so well is that we do have a good team. Obviously out of 22 units some need attention more than others, but we try to give them all the attention they need to function, make a profit and at the same time we do try to keep our managers happy.” However he admits the last couple of months has seen a bit of juggling going on. He tells me, “We have spent the last month or so juggling, and from my point of view it is difficult to deliver when you are juggling! But I have a good management team which includes Rory Forrest, our Financial Director, who joined us last year, John Argo, our operations director who started two years ago, Euan Bain, who gives us his own culturally unique perspective, Louise MacLean, marketing and sales director, who’s never shy with her thoughts and Chris Cosh who causes havoc with our suppliers and drives great deals when he’s not away skiing!” There is a lot of banter at our weekly meetings, lots of ideas discussed…and ripped apart. Certainly there is never a dull moment and that is part of the reason it works.”
Another reason why it works is that Nic likes to do a lot of research. And while for many of us that might include a visit to London, Nic likes to take his team further afield. The last trip, sorry field trip… was to Australia. But says Nic, “It was hard work! We visited 168 pubs in seven days. That’s an average of 25/26 pubs a day! We looked at a huge amount of Brewpubs in Australia. They have an amazing amount of fantastic bars there. Some were just brilliant and they had quirky and really delicious beers. Some offered a standard pizza offering while others had gourmet food mixed with ridiculous flavoured beers. It was all very interesting.”
The reason for the field trip was to get some fresh ideas for his new brew-pub which will open in the Grassmarket later this year, and of course some ideas for Church on the Hill which will open later this month.
He is also planning a refurbishment of Signature’s St Andrew’s venue the Westport. A move he wishes he had made two years ago when he bought it. Nic explains, “We failed to get planning permission to extend the outside area, after battling for two years. I wish now we had just spent the money and refurbished it after we bought it, then we would have grown the business right away because we would have been concentrating on our customers and what they wanted. It has been quite frustrating and we have spent a fair bit on the legal process. Now we will just concentrate on upgrading the interior. We will be relaunching it in the next few months.”
He continues, “We find our quieter months in St Andrews are when the students are there, because the Westport is not really a student venue. In the golf season which lasts from April to September we double our sales, but November, December and January are much quieter.”
One of the group’s shining lights over the last 12 months has been its Glasgow bar and restaurant The Spiritualist. Says Nic, “Dale Robertson, the GM, takes a lot of pride in the spirits and food service he offers, standards too and as a result it is doing really well. Every week it goes from strength to strength. We made internal changes when we took it over, but they were not massive. We put curtains in at the back which allowed us to close off the bar when it was not busy, and this helped to keep the atmosphere. We made the bar area a bit bigger and changed the colours. It has certainly been a good investment.”
It has not just been the bricks and mortar that the group has been investing in, as Nic explains, “For the last eighteen months we have had two full-time trainers working for the company. The training regime identifies promising staff, supervisors and assistants and provides them with the support to progress. We now have a group of people chomping at the bit to be managers.”
As for business generally Nic is the first to admit that the weather has proved to be challenging this winter. He tells me, “Business is OK. January was probably harder than anyone predicted. And the snow-bomb late February caused a 50% drop across group in sales revenue that week. But there was absolutely zero we could do about it. We clubbed together and moved staff around so that we had enough to open some sites. It certainly didn’t help our budgets and there is nothing you can do to make it up. For instance only, two out of the 22 units were up during snow-magedon week. So actually considering… January wasn’t that bad! But you just have to get on with it.”
So what is next … again he smiles. “The FD and Louise caught me looking at some places for sale the other day, and both told me off! Seriously though I think we have enough on our plate right now. We have a fair amount of work to do. I don’t think realistically we will be adding anything further until we are entirely comfortable with how quickly we have grown. However that doesn’t mean to say we won’t look at opportunities, but right now we have more than enough to keep us busy. If nothing else comes up for another two or three years, we will be happy to catch our breath and give the pubs, the attention they need, and look after our customers and our staff.”
Famous last words!!
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Susan Young is a journalist who has spent the last 20 years editing the DRAM. Prior to that, she spent a decade working in Public Relations and Events dealing with clients as diverse as Cumbernauld Development Agency and James Burrough Distillers.
Her knowledge of the Scottish licensed trade is extensive and she also instigated the first ever Scottish licensed trade awards which have evolved into the Scottish Bar and Pub Awards.