Licensee Interview: Rock ‘n’ Rollo

JOHN AND KAREN ROLLO ARE NOW THE PROUD OWNERS OF EIGHT DUNDEE PUBS, HAVING PURCHASED THEM A FEW MONTHS AGO, CREATING REDWOOD PUBS. JOHN’S BASED AT THE BOARS ROCK, WHICH IS WHERE JASON CADDY CAUGHT UP WITH HIM FOR A CHAT.

Dundee’s hit the headlines lately because of the buzz around the new V&A and so has licensee John Rollo who, together with wife Karen, has just acquired eight pubs in the city.

Growing up and working in his parents pubs since the age of 18, the trade is in this quiet man’s blood, and for someone with such towering ambition, he was fairly reserved at first. But he soon got into his stride, telling me some funny stories about his calamitous community fundraising efforts. More on that later.

But back to business. The couple bought the pubs from Redwood Leisure, the company that John had previously worked for. The deal, which concluded in July, included The Bowbridge, The Clep, The Vault and The Barn, The Boars Rock, Halleys, Caws Bar and Sandy’s. Redwood Pubs, is the name of the business owned by the Rollos and it employs some 50 staff.

Explained John, “I got the managers job at The Boars Rock in 2000 when it was owned by Bett Inns. Prior to that I worked in various bars in Dundee. During my time at Bett Inns they decided to sell, and I became part of the management buy-out team. The new company was called Redwood Leisure, and I was one of several people involved in the buy-out. When the area manager retired, I took on this role for Redwood, as well as managing The Boars Rock.”

He continued, “I did the area manager job for about nine years, looking after several premises, and at the end of last year I spoke with Redwood Leisure MD Gordon Whiting about the possibility of him selling the pubs and the deal was struck – plus 11 residential properties above them, which are all rented out.

“My wife and I bankrolled this, raising the funds by selling back my shares to Gordon. We are now Redwood Pubs and Karen has appointed herself chairperson – I’m just the secretary! But the shares are 50/50. Redwood Leisure still operates and owns the Invercarse Hotel, Woodlands Hotel and Birkhill Inn.”

Karen and John worked together for 20 years in the trade, but prior to the acquisition, she’d been away from the trade since 2010, when she went to work for the community alarm scheme. Now that they are owner/operators in their own right, they pride themselves on offering the personal touch. Said John, “When customers walk into one of our pubs, the drinks usually poured before they get to the bar. A lot of the senior management structure is changing in Dundee because many of them have either passed away or retired and this type of service has gone with them. There are also less independents and more chains. I really hope this comes back because I think that customers feel like a table number rather than a customer when it’s too impersonal.”

We also chewed the cud about what he regarded as the major challenges that licensees face in today’s uncertain business climate, and whether or not his venues were benefiting from the spike of interest in all things Dundee since the opening of the V&A. He said, “We’re doing well on the back of the V&A’s launch because there are a lot of B&Bs around The Boars Rock, for example. My customers are very loyal, and I can see things getting better generally.”

He continued, “The biggest expense for licensees such as myself is Sky Sports and BT sports, and the more venues the better the deal, so it can be tough for licensee on their own. In this day and age you need a bit of food, premium drinks at a reasonable price and sports on the TV. A good local where they feel safe to come. ”

And he’s also keen to share the good news of other success stories in the city. “Gordon Whiting has just added 30 rooms to the Invercarse, and he’s done the same at The Woodlands Hotel just past Broughty Ferry, and that’s mainly for the golfing business,” John explained.

So with all these pubs to look after, what’s a typical day involve for John Rollo? “I start work at 7am every day. I start out at The Boars Rock and then leave at about 10 a.m. to visit all the other bars. Karen also does the rounds checking that everything’s running smoothly. She does all of the staff rotas. I generally try to knock off at 5 o’clock and then come back in about 7pm. That’s dedication, I know, but it’s the only way to make things work these days,” he said.

Away from work, John has done lots of charity work and continues to do so despite the odd calamity. “I went abseiling for Dundee FC youth team and I nearly killed myself,” he explained with a wry smile. “It was a 450-foot high building, the Uni Tower in Dundee. I was the first person to ever have come down upside down. I had gloves on but my hand slipped and my spectating wife and daughter thought I was a goner.”

the oldest junior teams in Scotland. For my sins, I like to watch Dundee FC!”

John and Karen live in Monifieth and have two daughters, neither of whom are remotely interested in the trade, despite growing up in it. “One’s a nurse in Inverness at Craigmure Hospital. The younger one is a student and she’s working part-time at The Woodlands with Gordon,” he said. “They were brought up in the trade. I used to give them pocket money for putting out the beermats out in the morning. They’ve got no aspirations to follow in our footsteps – they’ve seen how hard it is for mum and dad. I worked 106 hours one week!”

Given the fact that the two of them work like mad, Karen is trying to twist John’s arm about a cruise, but John seems to be more concerned with his wet sales than sailing. “My daughter brought us an anniversary present last year and we stayed at the Green Market in Edinburgh for our 25th anniversary. My wife tells me that I need a bigger break as our 50th birthdays approach, but a cruise? I’d prefer not to be away for two weeks and keep my feet on dry land at this early stage in the business!”

And if you need any more proof that the trade is in John’s blood, get this, he also happens to be related to former Dundee licensee, Jonathan Stewart. He found out after Jonathan had been doing some digging into his family tree. Jonathan has since called time on the trade but continues to cast a very long shadow in Broughty Ferry and Dundee, and is greatly admired by John. “Once he got his teeth into something he doesn’t let go,” is how John described Jonathan and, given his recent achievements, John was obviously also blessed with a similar type of tenacity..

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