Interview: Jayson Perfect, Liberation Group

Following his promotion to COO of the Liberation Group in February this year, Jayson Perfect talks to Tristan O’Hana about the market, management and the importance of remaining multifaceted.

P&B: Thanks for sitting down with us, Jayson. So, how’s business at Liberation Group?
JP: We’re trading ahead of the market, which is fantastic, and all of the CGA data that we get is great. I look at some of my friends and competitors in the industry and you can see there’s a bit of distress in the market. And that’s laboured in by a number of things in terms of debts, as well as operational efficiency, model changes, etc. But, I’m always very proud of us, even coming out of Covid, where we just stayed ahead slightly, we’ve kept that sort of trend basis of being ahead of the market and the numbers being produced. 

We have put a lot of effort into our bedrooms and we’re seeing really high occupancy levels coming out of those, which is great, between 70-80% in occupancy levels, which has been really exciting. That obviously flows through into F&B and the rest of our business. 

We bought Cirrus Inns 14/15 months ago, which has seen our dive into London, where we’re very happy to be. I think some of my friends in the industry probably aren’t as chuffed in terms of competition. I have an immensely healthy competitive streak with quite a few of the other senior leaders in the industry, as you can imagine. Hospitality is one of the most open industries you can get – everyone’s happy sharing, everyone’s happy talking about what’s working and what’s not. 

P&B: You were made COO in February. How have you found the new role?
JP: I have been in the business for seven years and at the beginning of this year I got put into the COO position, which has been fantastic and I was very proud to step up into the role. 

The beauty of being a COO is both the operational efficiencies you can bring in across the Liberation business and the understandings you can share. We’re multifaceted in terms of third-party distribution, we brew our own beer with two breweries across two islands, we have our own managed house division, we’ve got our tenanted division. 

As the COO, the beauty of it is you get to sit over all of those divisions and you can align all your direct reports to understand exactly what’s going on, and why when you pull one lever, it affects the other one in a positive way. The internal comms has been a lot easier for the business because of that. You really have to pull yourself out of the operational day-to-day abilities. But at the same time, you need to be able to dive back in and understand what’s going on.

Being on the board means I can work on the board-level forward strategy, working with [owners] Caledonia on the PE side of the business and Jonathan [Lawson] our CEO. But, at the same time, I can dive straight back into operations and, because of my time with both Fuller’s and Palmers, have a clear understanding about all the channels so I can support my team more effectively across the board. 

The George Inn, Norton St. Philip, Somerset Pub & Bar of the Year

P&B: We reckon Liberation sites are becoming more widely recognisable to consumers now. Would you agree?
JP: Seven years ago, when I took this role on and I said I’m going to work for Liberation Group, people said: ‘Who?’ So I was like ‘Butcombe Brewery’ and they’re like: ‘Who?’ Whereas now we walk into a room, our name gets mentioned and someone says: ‘Oh, I know one of your pubs, I drink your beer, I love that business, your food is amazing, I stayed in your rooms.’ 

To be fair, the transition over the years and what we’ve done to what was, in effect, a very sleepy south west pub company – turning that into one of the major leaders in the hospitality industry in the UK has been quite exciting. I have quite a few MDs and directors across other businesses who will contact me and ask if they can spend a day in trade because they want to know how we are doing or what we’re doing. I’m always open to that and I think it’s really important that we do share best practice.

P&B: Having seen a number of your accommodation options, it’s hard not to be impressed. Are all rooms to the same standard?
JP: When I first took on my role with Butcombe and Liberation and was helping with the integration piece, I was travelling around all these businesses and I had to stay in Holiday Inns and Premier Inns. Back then, some of those places were ghastly, quite frankly. With us, you’ll notice that a lot of what we do is about being ‘a home from home’. The first bedrooms that we designed in this business were based on my house, because I just wanted a home from home; I was sick and tired of going to hotel rooms and feeling like I was in a hotel room. I just kept thinking most people who travel away for work just go into soulless rooms that just look nothing like a proper bedroom. You just want those creature comforts that make you think ‘this isn’t a hotel, this is a lovely place to visit with all the amenities I need.’ 

We’ve now got over 420 bedrooms in the estate and that has been a conscious move that we made through acquisitions and through what we did. I think where we’ve purchased businesses, wherever possible they have been with bedrooms and good multifunctional spaces, We’ve utilised those correctly in the right manner and got the best out of them. 

P&B: It’s true. Your pubs do seem to include a whole bunch of facilities for myriad occasions…
JP: Any businesses we’ve bought has had to be multifaceted in terms of the site’s abilities and that’s where I think we’ve stolen the march on a few pub companies over the years. We can adapt really quickly to what’s going on because we are multifaceted. So, we can move from large dining rooms to small PDRs or function rooms, to big outdoor spaces, to hosting weddings, to doing live music to anything else. I’ve always wanted us to be everything to everybody, quite frankly. So, if you want to go in and have a beer after playing five-a-side football on a Thursday night, you should be able to do that. At the same time, if my wife and I want to go for a meal, we should be able to go to the same pub and into a dining room to have a lovely meal. Then someone might be having a birthday party, there should be room for that too – it just has to be multifunctional, that is what pubs are all about. 

The Fulham Arms, Fulham, after Liberation refurbished the London site

P&B: But that’s nothing new, is it? Do you have to innovate within those spaces?
JP: I think we’ve innovated relatively well in terms of events, occasions and experiences within our pubs. Our supper clubs are pretty legendary, for example. We have had some great people like Adam Henson come down and talk about his sheep that are on his farm that we’re now eating, and he walks through the entire meal with you. We have our head brewer come out and talk about the beer or we’ll have a wine sommelier come down and talk about the wine.

We also started doing comedy nights across some of our businesses, and we do a whole comedy tour now. That started last year and we’ve just signed up for another year across about 30 of our businesses. When that runs out, there’ll be immersive outdoor cinema nights where you come dressed up as the theme of the movie and the team are dressed up and the food matches the theme too. 

In the past, we’ve focused on bookings and weddings and big events and that stuff, but I think through the pandemic and coming back out of it we quickly realised that one of the things we haven’t really focused on is the capability to do some really good business meetings, and be that key location for business breakfasts and conferences, etc, for small-sized businesses. It gives us the ability to be a bit more to a few more people, so we’ve been rolling that out and now that’s got an immense amount of traction. 

P&B: You’ve got Butcombe Brewery within the business. As brewers, what do you make of the Fresh Ale debate?
JP: No comment I’m afraid. But we are number nine in the nationals for Butcombe Original in terms of cask sales and we’re number two regionally with Original. We are growing market share in real ales and we are one of the very few brewing pub companies in the country that is showing growth in our real ales, and I know that the market is in mass decline, almost -20%. We’re not there and we’re very proud about that. But that is because we’ve adapted as well. We’ve got quite a few keg products that we now put out into the industry, but we’ve kept it to our head brewer’s standards, which is very high spec. He won’t just produce loads of volume for no reason and we’re very clear on the quality of beer we want to produce and execute into the market. 

Award-winning team at The George Inn

P&B: With a General Election looming, what would you ask from whoever rules Westminster?
JP: Whatever government we have in place and whatever time we have an election, for me, it’s just really important that they understand a bit more about how the hospitality industry in particular plays its part in the full GDP and full economic value of the country. 

There’s a lost element to this as well. I always go back to ancillary individuals involved – the fruit and veg person, the butcher, the window cleaner, the cleaners, all the individuals who, quite frankly, nobody remembers. If my fruit and veg guy has put his national wage up, well, that affects us as well because he has put his prices up. There’s what I call a spiderweb that comes off the pub companies and hospitality in this country that for some reason doesn’t have a big enough voice. I don’t think that the government actually acknowledges the true influence of what those people are doing.

There has to be some sort of support and even I struggle to see what government at the moment is going to give us the most support, but I really hope that by the time it comes to an election, and whoever comes in, that somebody just takes a new look at our industry and realises how influential it is to the British economy as well as its culture. 

P&B: Does Liberation have any more acquisitions in the pipeline?
JP: We look at acquisition opportunities all the time and we’d like development opportunities where we can get them, so we can put our model and our touch on the business. A readymade, fully invested business probably doesn’t float our boat, as it’s not really what we’re looking for. But anything we can add value to and pull into our model would be fantastic. We’ve just completed the Cirrus merger. What we normally do is we acquire a big chunk of pubs and ascertain how to invest in them. Then we invest in them and once we’ve completed the investment, we then look for the next acquisition. So, with Cirrus, we’re now in the investment stage and we want to complete that. I don’t know what’s going to happen over the next couple of years, so let’s see what comes on the market.

P&B: Finally, Jayson, any nuggets of wisdom you’d like to offer Pub & Bar’s readers?
JP: You need to learn to adapt quickly. And I think that has never been more true than over the last five years. And if you were not able to adapt immensely quickly to what was being thrown at you, regardless of whether it was the pandemic, changing laws, social distancing, inflation… if you can’t adapt really quickly, you get left behind even quicker. So I think adapting with a team that you trust around you is really important.  

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