Signature Pub Group is one of Scotland’s leading independent pub operators, with a diverse collection of pubs, restaurants and hotels. Although the estate spans central Scotland, there is a specific focus on Edinburgh and Glasgow. The group, founded by entrepreneur Nic Wood (pictured) in 2003, comprises over 14 units, and is still growing. After a very busy 2016, where Signature acquired seven sites in one go, this year has seen the purchase of two new properties, with further projects in the pipeline.
Inspired by Wood’s own experiences of working in the pubs of Edinburgh’s Grassmarket and also his time in the brewing industry, the Signature Pub Group maintains an emphasis on standalone venues, all of which benefit from strong and individual identities through each site. Headquartered in Edinburgh, and employing over 300 staff, Signature turned over £11.9m in the year to 31 October 2015, with pre-tax profits of over £1.5m.
While visiting Edinburgh at the beginning of the month, we caught up with Wood to talk about the history of Signature, the benefit of individualism and what it’s like operating in Scotland.
P&B: Tell us a little bit about your experience within pubs.
NW: I started in pubs in 1991. I was working for a small pub company in Edinburgh while at university. That time is what attracted me to the industry – I worked in a great student bar, where everyone was jolly and I loved working there. I thought it was something I could definitely get into full-time.
I went to work for a pubco, then a brewery as a sales rep, then back to bars. While working as a sales rep, I knew I wanted to get back into pubs. When visiting places as a rep, I could see what people were getting right, and how they were making money. It gave me a good way of seeing how you negotiate when buying beer, for example – it helped quite a lot.
I went back and worked at the same bar, but it had been taken over by Spirit. I quickly realised how many tricks that bar was missing. As you get bigger, you put more control in place, which results in a lot less influence from the managers. It limits their influence and understating of customers and the proper offer. It was a down the middle approach and that was it. I saw a gap in the market and from there we started a pub company.
P&B: How easy was it to launch that style of business?
NW: We can understand the customer and their requirements and do something individually that these bigger companies can’t do. With that in mind, we bought our first pub in 2003. From there, it blossomed. We went to Aberdeen and started there. I was looking for the right unit, but I couldn’t quite find it. I wasn’t on anyone’s radar, so I had to walk around and talk to people and find out who was interested in selling. As time has gone on and the right opportunities have arisen, we have jumped on them. We don’t have a need to be a certain size by a certain date – it has always been about looking at the right opportunity when it comes along.
P&B: Last year saw you acquire seven pubs in one go. Was that one of those opportunities?
NW: Yes, the big jump was a couple of years ago. In 2015, I wouldn’t have said I had any intention of getting to 13 pubs by the end of 2016, but that’s what happened. I didn’t have the infrastructure to get to that size at the time – I picked up one in St Andrews at the end of 2015, which was our first foray outside of Edinburgh. We started putting out feelers for buying up properties and getting licences for them, and then turn them into pubs. Coming into 2016, we had one that was being worked on, which opened in April 2016 – that was Badger & Co (see page 22). From there, we had an opportunity to buy units from the Maclay Group, which had gone into administration. They had a joint venture for five units with Tennents. They didn’t run pubs, so we sat down and bought the five units from them. At the same time, there was an option to buy two more in Edinburgh and Glasgow. It came about so quickly that we did nine in one year. These good opportunities just kept appearing.
P&B: You’ve worked closely with your brother in the past. Was Gareth a part of that busy year?
NW: Gareth and I worked together at the start. We buy everything together as a company, but both our businesses are very separate. His company is The Speratus Group – it’s a separate set of units, eight I think. He runs his businesses and I run mine, but we can negotiate together on products, etc.
I have a fantastic set of people working for me. It used to be me and an area manager. But we grew. With a place like The Rutland Hotel, which houses The Huxley and Heads & Tails, that requires a very good PR person and almost a business development person just for that site. Because it does so much trading, you also need an efficient booking team who can deal with everything from parties to business events.
P&B: As a business, you’re very proud of the individuality of each site. How does that work across the group with senior hiring?
NW: We started setting up meetings and interviews with people in the industry to take these new jobs on, but we didn’t want to depersonalise the individuality that has been Signature for the past 13 years. The managers get a huge amount of autonomy to run the businesses. I pride myself on that. Until the end of my days, the only way to differentiate yourself from the big guys is to run each site individually. There’s a certain standard of service for everything that is required in hospitality, but beyond that it’s up to the manager to put their stamp on the business – what they want to see, what their customers are asking for. There is no set menu that the pubs work to – we try and change it and be creative, and deliver dishes that people want to come back to and keep trying.
P&B: Finding those experienced managers can be quite challenging. How are you finding recruitment in the current climate?
NW: If we’re chatting about Brexit, I think it will become an issue. We have a huge amount of foreign people working for us and I think we’d be in a huge amount of trouble if they all had to leave tomorrow. That’s the same across the industry. In other countries, working in this industry is viewed as a career – it’s a good career to have. But here, it can be filled by students and temporary workers. I think that’s wrong. It’s a great industry to be in – it’s fun, vibrant and keeps you thinking about new ideas. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. But with living wage issues and tax issues, it’s getting harder and there isn’t really any relief.
P&B: The rest of the UK certainly shares your concerns. Are there any specific issues you’re currently facing in Scotland?
NW: The drink driving laws have really hurt the trade. Not for Signature as much, as we’re city centre based, but for community pubs and places where someone has had a beer with lunch on a Sunday, people aren’t doing that anymore. Everyone is now paranoid – they’re sitting there knowing they can’t have one drink, because they might get in trouble. If there was something to address this, it would be trying to establish what they can have. I’m not encouraging drink driving, but look at golf clubs and community pubs, where people would have a pint and a meal – that industry has gone. People don’t find 0% drinks acceptable as an alternative. I would try to come up with 2.5% beer of some variety where you can have a pint of it. Because of the laws that have been put into place, everyone is just saying ‘no’. In England, people don’t think twice about it, but that has been annihilated in Scotland. There’s a lot more paranoia here now.
P&B: What about the increase in soft drink options? Are consumers aware of those?
NW: People need to go more into soft drinks, and create a more upscale soft drinks menu. It needs to be introduced and pubs need to get people to try them. You need that menu to get them to buy those drinks, otherwise they won’t choose anything different.
P&B: Are you being supported throughout these transitions?
NW: We struggle with councils in Scotland – councils aren’t welcoming of pubs into areas. We’re almost viewed as annoying businesses, as opposed to businesses that employ people and drive more people into the area. Edinburgh council is a frustrating body to deal with – they don’t realise we‘re going to bring tourists to the area. A lot of these pubs compete with coffee shops, in that they’re community hubs where people go to meet other people. But the council are on a pedestal on their own and they’ll do what they want. We have spent huge amounts of money and have talked to planners when trying to get things done, but it just doesn’t work at all.
P&B: Despite these hindrances, Signature appears to be in pretty good shape, wouldn’t you say?
NW: Things are pretty good at the moment. We’re still juggling after last year – it’s not easy. With five sites, you’re on a week-to-week basis looking at things and chatting to managers. There is now a greater reaction time than there was. You can’t spend as much time in the pubs as you did before. It becomes more complicated to fix issues.
You have to start to rely on other people. I know the Edinburgh market well, for example, but with Glasgow we could see a gap, so we talked to our colleague who’s a Glasgow specialist. You get someone involved in the business who knows that market. A couple of tweaks from him, and we’ve got a pub trading at £8,000 a week more than it was previously. It’s great when those things happen.
The reinvigoration of craft beer has also been great fun. Across the board, we have about 65 different craft brands. We ask the managers what is selling well and we see if we can get it at a decent price. Craft beer has been a lot of fun over the past few years. That market is still getting bigger as things stand.
P&B: Finally, if another ‘right opportunity’ came along and you were offered 14 more sites, would you double the business again?
NW: I might. I’m not sure it would please everyone in the business at the moment! It would probably be too big a step to do the same again. We have a great structure and a great team in place. You need to look at what point you become a company that doesn’t know each and every manager – I very much enjoy that part still. That’s already happening less – I don’t want to get to the point where there is no interaction.