From Shortbread to Millionaire: Stephen White interview


Stephen White certainly flew under the radar until 2010 when he emerged from relative anonymity to go into business with Oli Norman of Itison fame. We met at the Baby Grand on Glasgow’s Elmbank Gardens – the very place where Stephen’s licensed trade career started over 30 years ago. He tells me, “I got involved with Billy McAneney a few years after he opened the Baby Grand in 1984. I’d been working as an accountant and had been subcontracted to work for Billy and another venue, Cafe Gandolfi. Little did I know that, just around the corner, was a life of pouring pints, making cappuccinos and running late night functions.”

So Billy has a lot to answer for! Because if it hadn’t been for him, Stephen would probably have been more of a property mogul than an on-trade entrepreneur. Stephen, a Chartered Accountant, originally worked for Arthur Andersen, but he set up on his own at the tender age of 25 and has not looked back. His entrepreneurial side obviously kicked in early, and while doing subcontract accountancy work he also invested in the property market, buying up residential flats before moving into commercial property too, which no doubt helped with his wheeling and dealing skills. But his other skill, which was to prove beneficial for many of his clients, was the knack of being able to come up with business solutions which helped companies restructure and raise finance.

He says, “In 1988 Billy asked me to look at restructuring the finance of his business which, at the time, consisted of the Baby Grand, The Theatre Royal and the Blue Note. But next door to the Baby Grand he also had a wee unit where he made Caramel Shortcake. However, he was selling it far too cheaply so I went in as a 50/50 partner in the baking business to help make it profitable and we soon expanded into a unit in Paisley. In 1992

I bought Billy out and the business expanded rapidly. By 1995, we had built a 20,000 sq ft factory in Coatbridge, and then, in 1996, I bought into an ailing flapjack company in Coventry which I restructured and turned around. The two combined businesses were quickly flying.

“By 1999, the two companies were making £1m profit a year and we then added four more cake businesses in England to the portfolio. We were making and distributing cakes all over the the UK. In 2005 we sold everything out – except for the caramel shortcake business which is still going today, based in Govan. I also have my head office there – where we run all of the financial administration for the remainder of the pub group”.

His pub partnership with Billy continued and lasted seven years from 1988 to 1995, and for a while, in the late 90s and early 2000s, Stephen concentrated on his other businesses. He didn’t go back to work with Billy until 2008. By that time Billy’s group had 16 units and he was also associated with Craig Tannock – whose Vegan Ventures extend to Mono, Stereo, The 78, The Flying Duck and The Old Hairdresser’s.

Says Stephen, “Up until the Credit Crunch, the banks and brewers had been flinging money at licensed trade businesses with increasing recklessness. As soon as the Credit Crunch hit, everything changed overnight. I was brought in by Billy to help manage the post Credit Crunch carnage because I could look at the numbers in-depth and I also had the ability to be innovative when it came to structuring deals and re-structuring the balance sheet”.

I’ve now learned to understand the way brewers and the banks think and do business.” He continues, “I developed an excellent relationship with The Allied Irish Bank and they now know that when they work with me, all of the appropriate accountancy practices and disciplines are delivered. I never miss a beat. One of the most important things I have learned over the years is that if you own a freehold of a pub and you make it more profitable you increase its value. Finance is all about the value of your assets and how you maximise it. I also learned about this little concept called Retro Discounts…”

The latter is probably one reason that he set up the buying group which includes Billy, Oli Norman and Craig Tannock, and of course his own units. It is now one of the biggest buying groups in Scotland. Stephen’s involvement with Billy led him into a partnership with Oli Norman, the man behind Itison, the highly successful daily deals business. In 2007, Billy went into business with Oli to buy Sloan’s and, subsequently, the two brought Stephen in as a 3rd partner.

Stephen and Oli soon bought Billy out and managed to buy the freehold of Sloan’s in 2010, the same year that Stephen bought Blackfriars in the Merchant City which had been owned by Billy and Gerry McGhee.

Today, Stephen still owns Blackfriars and also Munro’s on Great Western Road. But after nearly nine years of working in successful partnership with Oli, the two have gone their separate ways having amassed an estate worth £15m. Stephen comments, “We had a very good partnership. Oli brought in the footfall and the growth of his other business, Itison, meant we could market our venues very effectively while I ensured the bottom line stayed healthy. In effect,

Oli brought the sales and I delivered the profitability.” After Sloan’s, they successfully bought Billy and his partners out of Brel in the West End – in what was a complicated share and freehold restructuring. In 2016, The Griffin and Maggie May’s were also acquired. These 4 businesses formed the core of what had now become one of Scotland’s most profitable independent pub groups.

However, the partnership came to an end last year following the purchase of three units from Simon Green and Lawrence McManus – the then Chelsea Market in Finnieston (now Jacques), Nick’s and Epicures in the West End. Says Stephen, “It was a bold move for Oli to buy me out, but it was the right time for both of us. To be honest we were also at different stages in our careers – Oli is still young and ambitious with his best years still ahead of him, whilst I’m 18 years older, a bit more cautious, and planning to spend more time in my beloved Portugal. In reality, we were no longer on the same page.”

That may be the case, but Stephen is not fooling me. Apart from the fact that he is owner of and chief negotiator in the buying group which includes all the aforementioned businesses, Stephen has also bought three places in Aviemore – The Old Ministers House, run by his partner Lorraine, the highly successful La Taverna Italian Restaurant, and The Highland Line Restaurant at Aviemore Railway Station which he and Lorraine have just refurbished and re-opened. He founded The Scottish Gin Society which he continues to run and he just recently took the role of Financial Director at Colin Beattie’s group of businesses which includes Oran Mor. And, of course, he has shares in various other businesses – too many to mention.

He is also quite public about his support for Aviemore and his frustration that it is, in some circles, seen as a failing winter destination. Says he, “Aviemore has completely changed and there are a huge number of tourists that visit these days. It has every outdoor sporting activity going. In the last 2 years some big names such as Marks & Spencer, Costa Coffee and Premier Inn have set up here.

Other big names are also mooted to be searching for venues here. So, despite the well documented problems with the Funicular Railway, the big names have done their homework and recognise Aviemore’s all year round potential.”

But Stephen is very anxious that Brexit is going to cause staffing shortages in the area and throughout Scotland. He says, “Don’t get me started on Brexit! I don’t think people realise how dependent we are on European workers. Usually, there is a good flow of people leaving and new people coming in. But now staff are returning to the EU and no-one is coming in to replace them. It will be more and more difficult to attract staff to the hospitality sector and so our aim is to be regarded as an Employer Of Choice in the Highlands.

By providing good pay, quality accommodation and other benefits we hope to survive the difficulties that Brexit presents. Employment costs are likely to rise significantly, as we compete for a smaller pool of staff, and this will be a major problem for many operators.”

However, Stephen admits that much of his enjoyment in the licensed trade comes from doing deals. “The thrill,” he tells me, “is in the chase.”
If that’s the case, I’m sure he has a few more deals left in him! Watch this space!