Nic Wood, Signature Pubs: Interview

April 9th, 2018 | Posted in: Uncategorized

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!!


BRITISH BREWING PLATFORM BREWBROKER SET TO EXPAND INTO AMERICA FOLLOWING £400K INVESTMENT

Mon 25th March 2019

BrewBroker, the brewing industry’s peer-to-peer marketplace, is set to launch its platform in America. Well established in the UK, Bre... Read more.

AB InBev unveils Budweiser Brewing Group as new UK name

Mon 25th March 2019

Budweiser Brewing Group UK&I is the new name for AB InBev in the UK. the company also has a new President, Paula Lindenberg. T... Read more.

Dundee’s V&A helps boost visitor numbers to other attractions

Fri 22nd March 2019

Dundee’s V&A has helped boost visitor numbers at nearby attractions by up to 40%, says new research. In its first three months 341,265... Read more.

Scottish economic growth to remain ahead of the UK average in 2019

Fri 22nd March 2019

Scotland’s economic growth will slow this year but remain ahead of the UK average according to UK Economic Outlook report by Pricewate... Read more.

YO! Sushi to consolidate restaurant estate

Thu 21st March 2019

YO! Sushi has placed six UK sites on the market, including two in Scotland, as it looks to consolidate its restaurant estate.  The group ... Read more.

Greene King celebrates Flanders Fields fundraiser

Thu 21st March 2019

 Greene King has launched a special edition beer, Flanders Fields, brewed to mark the centennial anniversary of the end of the First World ... Read more.

The Highland Whisky Festival 2019

Thu 21st March 2019

Eight Highland Distilleries are introducing a brand-new Whisky Festival to celebrate the established Highland Whisky Trail. The Highlan... Read more.

PPL’s new SFE tariff to ‘cost sector £49m’

Wed 20th March 2019

Trade bodies have warned that music licensing company PPL’s new specially featured entertainment (SFE) tariff, which comes into effect on ... Read more.

Ivy Collection appoints new CFO

Wed 20th March 2019

The Ivy Collection, which will open its second Scottish restaurant in Glasgow on Buchanan Street in June after opening The Ivy on the Squa... Read more.

Bruce Taverns plan expansion and launch £20 million fundraiser

Wed 20th March 2019

Bruce Taverns is to raise £20 million to fund a growth programme through acquisitions. The Edinburgh-based pub company, ... Read more.

NEW DIRECTOR OF STRATEGY AND COMMUNICATIONS FOR SWA

Tue 19th March 2019

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) has confirmed the internal promotion of Graeme Littlejohn to the position of Director of Strategy and Co... Read more.

Johnnie Walker to build ‘best bar in the world’ in Edinburgh

Tue 19th March 2019

 Johnnie Walker has promised to create the “best bar in the world” in the “best brand attraction in the world” overlookin... Read more.

Borthwick Castle’s Kieran Rose is Scotland’s Tourism and Hospitality Hero

Tue 19th March 2019

Kieran Rose, Front of House Manager at Borthwick Castle, in Midlothian, has been namedScotland’s Tourism and Hospitality Hero at the 2018/... Read more.

Orry Shand named Chef of the Year at ScotHot

Mon 18th March 2019

Orry Shand, of Entier, won Scottish Chef of the Year at this year’s ScotHot at Glasgow’s SECC, sponsored by Brakes Sco... Read more.

Average spend on late-night out increases 15.5% to almost £70

Mon 18th March 2019

The average spend on a late-night out has increased 15.5% to £68.68, according to the latest Deltic Night Index, compared with £59.49 for ... Read more.

Scottish chefs set out vision to reform hospitality industry 

Thu 14th March 2019

More than 60 chefs and cooks from across Scotland have pledged their support to a new culinary manifesto, which aims to reform Scotland’s ... Read more.

SCALA boss welcomes Brexit delay

Thu 14th March 2019

Theresa May will make a third attempt to get her EU withdrawal deal through Parliament in the next week after MPS voted to reject a no-deal ... Read more.

Historic Auchtermuchty pub on the market

Wed 13th March 2019

The Forest Inn in Auchtermuchty is now on the market with offers invited for the three-storey property. Christie’s and Co in Edinburgh is ... Read more.

Hotfoot it to ScotHot

Wed 13th March 2019

Which licensee worth his or her salt isn’t looking for an opportunity to meet with suppliers, network with others to share ideas and i... Read more.

BUZZWORKS RETAINS ITS PLACE ALONGSIDE THE BEST IN UK 

Tue 12th March 2019

Buzzworks Holdings has been named in The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work for in the UK for the fourth consecutive year. It recognise... Read more.