Jimmy Marr is certainly a legend in his home town of Dundee. He is a well known businessman and was also a past owner of Dundee Football Club. Over the years he has had business highs and business lows, but when I caught up with him at his Dundee offices, he tells me that he is now in the best place he has been for years.
Today he has several pubs, a taxi company, a recruitment company and a security company, a far cry from the days when he had 47 pubs and was in his own words, “like a hamster on a wheel.”
He has not been shy about publicising his business woes, and when we met he was still smarting from the treatment he had received from the banks.
He tells me, “The recession hit the licensed trade really hard. We had to batten down the hatches. I’d been with Allied Irish Banks for years, and we had a substantial loan with them, which we were repaying the capital on. Then one day our bank manager said they had sold our debt to Clipper Holdings a Luxembourg-based company. We weren’t the only company to find ourselves in this position many other Scottish companies also had their debt sold to Clipper. Their attitude was not good from the start. They just wanted their money and even though we raised £2.4m to buy the entire business back it wasn’t enough. Despite the two companies being solvent they then appointed an administrator who took over the running of the company. Even to this day I don’t know what they paid for our loan, but they were certainly not nice people to deal with.”
He continues, “For instance they told me, ‘we are going to bring a pub expert up from London to go around your estate’ and then told me it would cost me £25K. When I said ‘I’m am paying for it’, they then told me they would do it anyway and add the cost to my loan!”
He continues, “My wife Karen did say to me when I tried to buy the whole estate back that it was my heart ruling my head and that I would be paying the new loan off for the next 10 years. She was right. Now I have moved on and we are not laden with debt. Our estate is smaller and more manageable and we have two of the best and busiest pubs in Dundee – 172 at The Caird on Nethergate and Nicholls. Now I am looking for quality and not quantity. When I my pub estate was 47 pubs strong – I was obsessed with barrelage and was always trying to get to the next level. We got to 10,000 barrels but at the time I was buying pubs just to get more barrelage. Now I’m probably in the best position that I have ever been in. We have six pubs under management, 6 tenanted and a nightclub in Peterhead that I have had for 20 years.”
He has also just received planning permission to open a new 1920’s style ‘speakeasy’ nightclub in the basement of 172 at the Caird.
Jimmy bought the business from a Glasgow developer a year ago. He told me, “When I bought the Caird it was more of a fine dining restaurant and it was very quiet. When I came in I changed the menu, so now the food is better than pub grub, but below fine dining and we introduced cocktails. I also put new signage up – it used to be care home, and people just used to drive past it without realising it was a restaurant. The previous operator was from Glasgow and he tried to operate The Caird like a Glasgow venue, but Dundee is a completely different market.” He continues, “We will be starting work on the Speakeasy soon, and I expect to have that up and running around October. We have also applied for a 300 seater function suite out the back, but that is definitely work in progress – we still need planning. We are right in the heart of the university area and it would be great to have that facility.
His other success story is Nicholls. Says Jimmy, “I originally bought the building in 2001 and opened it as a Sports Bar which I then sold to S&N. Then four years ago I bought it back and rebranded it Nicholls. We do a lot of food there. I have heard reports that there is a downturn in casual dining but I have certainly not seen it. At Nicholls we sell 350 dishes of fish and chips and mushy peas a week. There is certainly still plenty of demand for quality traditional dishes that are good value. I think people are coming back to independently owned places that are friendlier rather than going for branded restaurants.”
He continues, “I generally work in Nicholls on a Saturday because it is so busy. We generally do 300 meals between 12pm and 3pm and all cooked from scratch! It is quite pressurised. The majority of our customers are regulars so they know that there will be a bit of a wait. We are definitely very customer focussed, in fact the first thing I do in the morning when I open my eyes is go on Trip Advisor. I had a woman last week saying the food was great, the service was great, but her tea cup was too thick! How do you answer that? However I do generally call the manageress right away if there has been a problem and find out what happened before responding. Sometimes it is genuine and sometimes it is just people being people.” http://wwwnicollsbarandrestaurant.co.uk
Obviously there is a lot going on in Dundee at the moment particularly with the excitement around the imminent opening of the V&A. Says Jimmy, “Expectations are high, my fear is that although the V&A will attract people, what else are we going to offer. Around 1,600 hotel rooms will soon be available and we need to think about how we get visitors to come not just for the day but to stay for a while. They are expecting 800,000 visitors the first year and between 300-500,000 thereafter. We need to have a full package that can attract people.”
He adds, “I think the city councillors have done a great job at attracting hotels but I think they could be doing more for local businesses. It can’t just be all about the waterfront. For instance the policy of the licensing board has been that they are not releasing any more licences unless it is at the Waterfront. Any new operator coming to the centre of Dundee wouldn’t get a licence. I’m also surprised that they allowed a Marriot to be built right across from the V&A – it totally ruins the view.”
Jimmy’s next project, due to open imminently, is a new community pub in Whitfield. He tells me, “I’ve owned the building for 15 years. It was an old social club, and I’ve split it into different units – and I am opening a community pub in a space that we originally ran as a tanning shop. It’s around 2,000 sq ft and will have a 120/130 capacity. The area used to have a bad reputation but now it is an ‘up and coming’ area. There are lots of new houses and a new school too.”
I asked him if he had any plans to retire. He smiles, “My son Peter works with me in the business. He enjoys the trade and I am glad that we are now in a position where he will not be under the same pressure as I put myself under. He’s been working with me since he was 14 and he is now 28. When I eventually retire he will take over. My other son Lee runs the taxi business – you always have to do other things and the taxi company is a good add on. My daughter is not in interested in the business – she is a schoolteacher. But things are certainly not going to change for a few years.” Certainly with Jimmy life is not dull… firstname.lastname@example.org