Signature Pubs, the group owned by Nic Wood, celebrated its 20th anniversary in July. Susan Young caught up with Nic, who has in his bio the fact that he has worked his way through his company from Barback to Barman, Cleaner, Assistant Manager, Manager, Area Manager.. to find out what the future holds.
Signature Pubs had two pubs in its portfolio when I first met Nic Wood back in 2007 at the opening of Element in Edinburgh’s Rose Street. By then he had been running Signature Pubs for four years, following the purchase of the Bieldside in Aberdeen in 2003. Today, the company has its own HQ in Edinburgh at Albyn Place, a far cry from the space in his father’s fish factory in Aberdeen, where Nic first mapped out plans and recruited for his fledging business. The first thing that caught my eye in Nic’s office was the huge portrait of the cigar smoking gorilla behind his desk – which I loved. Nic does too, saying, “You have to have some fun when you run a business.” That business now runs more than 20 venues across Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Stirling.
The night before we met, Nic and his colleagues had celebrated the anniversary and caught up with many people who have been part of the Signature journey over the years. Says Nic, “Louise (Maclean) had persuaded people to record wee videos with their own special memories of Signature. It was great to see so many familiar faces and it was also surprising for me to hear how much I had influenced some of their lives – you really don’t think about that at all at the time. It reminded me how special the trade is, because you get to work with so many people who become lifelong friends.”
But, it has not all been smooth sailing. Nic admits the company’s first purchase, the Bieldside in Aberdeen, was in hindsight, a mistake. “By the time we bought the Bieldside in 2003 I had been working in hospitality for 10 years in Edinburgh. Initially working for people before moving on to running three or four pubs for Scottish & Newcastle. I really thought I knew what I was doing.
“So, when the opportunity came up to buy the Bieldside in Aberdeen, it seemed the right thing to do. However, Aberdeen was a whole different kettle of fish from what I had become used to in Edinburgh. There, people wanted new different things and as an operator you wanted to be the first in with new drinks, new products, and such like. In Aberdeen the customer didn’t want that – they wanted the status quo. Although we refurbished The Bieldside and it actually did okay when we opened, it didn’t get the reaction I expected from customers.”
The Bieldside was sold and although somewhat disillusioned by his Aberdeen experience, it did not put him off wanting to grow and build his hospitality business, but this time he returned to his familiar habitat – Edinburgh. The first venue he eyed up was The Rutland Hotel, but one of his former bosses, Billy Lowe, swooped in and bought it from under his nose.
Instead Nic bought two pubs from Spirit – Brecks, which became Element, and the Black Bull in the Grassmarket. He explains, “I knew that they were both good pubs because I was familiar with them. I had worked in the Grassmarket, and I knew Bretts was a good venue because it was nearby the Queens Arms where I had also worked.”
But, he hadn’t given up on The Rutland and he subsequently persuaded Billy to sell it to him. Although halfway through the renovation, he was probably regretting that. The recession of 2008 had kicked in and the renovation costs kept going up. It was somewhat stressful. Nic laughs, “My former Financial Controller, Graham Wood, reminded me last night how acrimonious it was. None of the contractors got on, and at one point Graham suggested we all go outside and have a boxing match.
“We had done all our business projections for The Rutland based on the fact that it would attract the corporate market and corporate credit cards. But, when we reopened, the corporate world, which meant so much to so many Edinburgh businesses, was gone and we struggled really badly. In my head I had thought, the more we spent on it, the more people would want to come – but they perceived it as being expensive. We re-invented it as Kyloe – same chef, same staff, same prices, but we made the décor more fun and casual. People then perceived it as value for money and it went on to be a massive hit. It was one of the biggest lessons I ever learned … it is the perception of a venue that matters, not actually what it is!”
Hospitality wasn’t on Nic’s radar when he first went to University in Edinburgh, but one of his pals persuaded him to take a shift as a doorman at Braidwood’s – which was then owned by Billy Lowe. He progressed to working behind the bar and he loved it. Says Nic, “There was a great manageress there called Alison. She used to ask us what we thought about things and persuaded us to come up with ideas. If they were good, she would take them to Billy. Our mentality was the same as the people coming through the door. There were things such as bar fly, sumo wrestling, drinking competitions, sponsorship of student teams and much more. That fun part was what got me interested in hospitality. Compared to then I am Captain Sensible now! That’s why I employ social marketers who have the same mindset as a lot of our customers.”
Nic continued working in the industry after he graduated, working for Billy Lowe in various establishments. When Billy sold out to S&N, Nic stayed with the business for a while before he and girlfriend Sarah, now his wife, went on a 2-year Australian adventure. In fact, the duo nearly settled there.
However, before making any decisions, he took six months out and shadowed his dad Sir Ian Wood. Explains Nic, “I wanted to learn how to run a business, and who better to learn from? I offered to carry his bags, sit in meetings and travel with him. All I wanted him to do was share the reasons that he made certain decisions, so I could understand how he managed the business, and so that I could learn for myself how you ought to do it. I think at the end of it he offered me a job, but after seeing how mental his life was, I declined. But that was when the idea of setting up my own hospitality business took root. We got into the discussion about buying bars. I got very close to buying my first bar in Australia as I had been living there. We only decided against it because the government there had banned the making of gambling machines – which were fundamental to the success of an Australian bar! So instead of a bar in Paddington, Sydney we bought one in Aberdeen.”
It was the entrepreneurial spirit that his dad instilled in him that Nic is now trying to instil in his management team. He says, “I always try to encourage managers to think for themselves. To think about how they would run the business if it was their own? How would they spend the money? Mind you, it was a lot easier when I only had five units! Then, you sat and had a conversation with managers every other day. They got their notebook out once a week and if something wasn’t working, or changes were needed, we discussed what we could do and how could we make it work. There are still a few people who work with us who remember the way it was then.”
After buying The Rutland, the next big step was when he bought five former Maclay pubs in 2016. Two years later, he bought his brothers business which included the Boozy Cow chain, Nox and Paramount bars in Aberdeen and The Auld Hundred in Edinburgh. Says Nic, “When I took over my brothers’ business, that was hard. We almost doubled the size of my business overnight. Garreth wanted to go on a different path and set up a charity – he is now doing a fantastic job setting up operating theatres in countries all over the world for children. He has made a massive difference, that was always where he wanted to be.”
Over the subsequent years the business continued to flourish with Nic buying units as they came along, and he diversified into brewing by creating the Cold Town House brewery and brand. Although the recession of 2008 was tough it wasn’t as tough as Covid. Says Nic, “Covid was a bigger shock, purely because we were sitting there with days to go, and you could see what was going to happen. In 2008 we got stuck in. We just got on with it. With Covid, we didn’t know what was going to happen, and we quickly realised that we were going to get screwed, when we had done nothing wrong. I had 700 staff but luckily things came into play for it to work.
“I hadn’t given two hoots about politics before Covid. Then, I ended up getting stuck into it. We were a founding member of the Scottish Hospitality Group, which we set up because we were so frustrated. Talking to politicians was just brutal. We were trying to talk to people and quickly realised that they did not care – or certainly the person that they were giving the information back to didn’t care. The amount of conversations we had trying to get them to see things from a hospitality point of view and how they could do things better, which could have fundamentally cost them less money, but they were not interested. I realised our politicians basically don’t understand how the economy works – for first time in my life my eyes were really opened to the quality of politicians in Scotland and how poorly anything we said was received, even when we could show them the benefits.”
Since Covid, Signature have offered on a couple of businesses but have not bought anything. He explains, “We haven’t bought anything in the last three years. That is not just because of Covid, but it is the aftermath of Brexit. When you talk about buying a new business the most intimidating thing, if starting from scratch, is finding the people to do it. We can’t find enough staff for 20 units right now – how could we manage taking on another and finding an extra 80 people? Over the 18 months there have been times when it has not been worth opening some units on certain days, because we have so few staff. Sometimes we need to shut a bar and move the staff to another one in order to ensure that we can trade profitably.”
Having said that Signature did offer on two venues recently – one was the former Film House on Lothian Road, which fell through because the administrators let the licence go and wanted a clean offer from the entrepreneur. Nic comments, “I was quite excited about our plans, but I didn’t want to invest without the assurance that the licence would be granted. However, in last 18 months, although we haven’t grown the business in terms of units we have strengthened the business with a real focus on training and retaining staff.
“We used to be able to take our pick of experienced staff, we had a good reputation as a good company to work for and you could get people through the door. Hospitality recruitment, as everyone knows, is a real issue for us all. There is just not enough staff to go around. Now we are employing 18-year-olds with no bar experience – they just need to demonstrate that they have a bit of chat. We then train them up. That costs us more time and money, and obviously because we are investing more in them, we want them to stay with us longer. So, retention is very important, and we incentivise staff with bonuses and such like. We are also considering putting a training facility in the basement of our HQ.
“What frustrates me most is the fact that politicians could help fix this problem, but they just blame each other. Why does Labour always blame the Conservatives and the SNP always blame Westminster? I was more impressed by the Lib Dems at the recent election, they seem to be much more positive in trying to come up with ideas, rather than slagging people off – and they actually said that’s why they thought people voted for them. Quite frankly it doesn’t matter whose fault the recruitment issue is – we have to fix it. The problem is all the things that the government is saying is not helping us get staff now.
“What could be done right now? They could cut down the cost of sponsorship and open it up. That is my top wish. We could be developing programmes with other counties such as with India, the Philippines, Australia, Canada, New Zealand or offer two year work permits like Australia does.
“Hospitality gives people great life skills – the ability to converse, negotiate, and deal with situations – which you wouldn’t learn on a phone chatting to your pals.
“We have gone one step in the right direction by trying to big up hospitality to young people, but now we almost have to big up the perception of hospitality to parents. We need to make them proud to say their son or daughter works in hospitality. That is part of the problem.”
The second acquisition he attempted was that of the Caledonian Brewery. “We wanted to keep it as a brewery. Our Cold Town brand is getting a lot of recognition and we are bursting at the seams at Powderhall. When we first took that on, it seemed huge, and we had lots of spare space. We would have moved the brewery from Powderhall and put our offices there too, however, the owners decided to sell it for a residential development instead.”
He also admits that before Covid they had started thinking about a distillery, and had gone quite far into the process. But these plans are on hold for the time being. But he admits he, and his team, love coming up with new ideas.
“We had plans for a distillery before covid – distilling everything from vodka, to gin, and whisky. We’ve talked about wineries, or, buying barrels and bringing them across and bottling ourselves. However, not all ideas make sense, and that’s why we haven’t done them yet. It’s great to have good ideas, but sometimes the practicalities are complicated.
“I get eyeballs from everyone when I suggest doing things like buying a farm and producing our own beef from A-Z!” He has also considered buying a bar down South. “When you go to places such as Newcastle it reminds you how more fun can be achieved when you make entertainment interactive. It’s not about encouraging people to get drunk but encouraging them to have more fun. We have been debating whether to open a bar there. Politicians there seem to have better appreciation with regard to how hospitality works. They understand that pubs are meant to be places where people go and have some fun.” Now Nic has 20 years under his belt at Signature and 20 units, I askedhim what was next?
“You always ask me what’s next, I’m not sure. In another 20 years I’ll be 70! I am not one for giving out compliments, but I’ve got a great team. I feel they are committed for the long term – we’ve been with each other through the ups and downs, and we all work well together. We are certainly looking for new venues, and new projects.” So watch this space.