Forty years in the pub industry with ‘whizz kid’ turned publicans’ champion, Phil Dixon

Phil Dixon recently celebrated a career in the pub industry spanning four decades. Now taking retirement, he reflects on his experiences, and how things have changed for the licensed trade over that time

How and when did you come to work in the sector?​

In 1979, the then National Union of Licensed Victuallers (NULV) had a debate on breweries’ graduate recruitment and someone said, ‘why don’t we have our own whizz kid?’ I was a Labour Party student activist, president of Warwick University students’ union and a national executive officer of the NUS. Somehow my CV got passed to a senior NULV figure who approached me with an offer to consider working full-time for Britain’s publicans.

“But aren’t you the organisation that always wants to reintroduce corporal and capital punishment?” I enquired.

“Yes, and the vote is always unanimous.”
“But that’s just for stealing beer mats!” I responded.
NULV’s Neville Marshall, another Yorkshire cricket fan, persuaded me to give it a try.

The main differences between 1979 and now?​

Draymen had an alcoholic drink at every delivery, and that included the driver. Women were hardly ever in senior positions. Gay executives were frightened to ‘come out’.

The Morning Advertiser​ was a daily paper, with about a third of the copy devoted to horse racing. Publicans made money. People wanted pubs – Marston’s in Burton had a two-year waiting list.

Your first LVA meeting?​

Never forgotten! The NULV CEO informed me I had been invited to address the North Staffs LVA and would I be OK?

Six months previously I had been debating with the top Tories and Trotskyites of my generation, I was confident 50 Potteries publicans wouldn’t be a problem. What an error.

At the meeting, the local chairman George Bowers made it quite clear he did not think employing a ‘whizz kid’ was a good idea. “What degree have you got?” he asked. “Politics,” I replied. “Ever run a pub?” “No, been in quite a few though.”

“So Mr Politics Degree, who has never run a pub, has come to help us. Ansells has just put my rent up by 600%: what are you going to do about that?” “By how much?” “Oh, he’s deaf an’ all,” Mr Bowers observed.

As I stumbled to think of something to say, the local Bass rep (Landon Davies) intervened, saying “Tell him from what to what, George.” “It don’t matter, it’s still 600%.” “Yes, gone up from £1.50 to £9 a week!”

Rents were really that low. Wet volumes were high. Bass M&B had a 1,000 brewers barrels (36 gall) club. Most companies had tenants’ committees and at the meetings glamorous cars – including Jags and even the odd Rolls – were all in the visitors’ car park.

Halcyon days?​
Low rents, tenants enjoying a greater share of the profits, a queue for pubs: it’s hardly aeronautic science.

When did it change?​
Basically via the Beer Orders, and Inntreprenuer introducing the fullrepairing lease.

The Beer Orders, introduced to supposedly help publicans, had in many cases the opposite effect. Companies basically said ‘sign this new full-repairing agreement or leave and if you don’t, we will evict you’.

Rents via this ‘gun to the head’ strategy increased dramatically. Four hundred- plus Bass tenants, and many others, lost their pubs to management.

As today, companies found ways around the legislation. Whitbread tenants anticipating new benefits suddenly found themselves in a (property) company run by former Whitbread directors and fully tied to Whitbread. It’s puzzling, looking back. We had legislation against six British breweries, which each owned more than 2,000 pubs and, within a few years, hardly any existed. But it introduced the power of the property company, and two of them – Punch and Enterprise – at one point had around 16,000 pubs between them. Bizarre!

How can you be judged to be the UK Licensee of the Year but at rent review none of the turnover is down to you?

However, a case to remember was the Greyhound, in Much Park St, Coventry, c1983/4. I took that case all the way to ‘Third Party’ and got the rent reduced by £100 a year. Sounds minimal, but no rent had been reduced in the previous few years so it was certainly a talking point.

When did you leave the National Union of Licensed Victuallers/National Licensed Victuallers Association (NLVA)? ​

The NULV, renamed NLVA, had collapsed in 1992 during the Beer Orders. Tony Payne and others, including myself, kept the regional groups going, but after four years of trying to reform a national body I basically gave up.

Companies were keen to kill us off, abandoning their tenants’ associations and even paying for their publicans to join other organisations. For example, Bass Lease Co paid for membership of the Federation of Small Businesses.

I enjoyed a sideline two or three times a week on local radio, Beacon/WABC in Wolverhampton, presenting a football show where my only claim to fame was proposing a statue to Billy Wright outside Molineux.

After nine happy years, the station was taken over and I left. It was around this time the British Institute of Innkeeping invited me to consider becoming its membership director. I called a

meeting of my LVA Midlands council who advised me, after 16 years, to look after myself and accept. My office moved from walking distance to one in Surrey 136 miles away.

I have in some way been associated with the BII until now.

What have been your proudest moments?​
On a micro level, it’s doing your best for individuals and their families.

My motto is a Lenin quote that 1960s Soviet dissident Roy Medvedev used when arrested by the KGB: “We must establish the truth and the truth shall not depend on whom it is to serve.”

I try to ascertain the truth, then inform the publican what he/she needs to know, not what they want to hear.

From comments made at a recent dinner, apparently I operate with ‘passion, principles and professionalism’. For me it is all about the result. I never use cases for publicity. A now-retired Punch director kindly said of my 100-plus dealings with them that I always left the relationship in a better place than I found it.

On a macro level, having a sense of humour helps. Certainly using a large Aldi chocolate bar to show how shared machine income was really shared had the result in ending that injustice.

I have, with others, been given the credit/blame for codes of practice, cooling-off​ periods, demonstrating how rents are arrived at and removing upwards-only clauses, PIRRS, PICAS and even franchise agreements.

I have put my head above the parapet and, yes, at times had unpleasant abuse – from both sides.

But I recall one day having two complimentary emails: one from MP Greg Mulholland, the other from a pubco CEO. Maybe that indicates I’ve been doing something right.

What do you think of percentage-of-take/franchise style agreements?Mixed views. Is it better to work for £5 an hour and have a flat to live in, rather than lose your life

savings on an unviable tenancy? Are they really self-employed, though? I am not sure.

Is the market rent-only option (MRO) and the related new legislation working?​

It’s certainly not panning out how its supporters intended. The statutory code is not worded that well. The performance of business development managers in detailed minutes has improved. Lessees using MRO have, in the cases I have sat in, obtained far better terms to remain in a tied agreement – from £15,000-£40,000 a year – mainly by adjusting the current derisory discount levels.

But those wanting a genuine free-of-tie agreement face unacceptable unfair barriers that thwart ‘the will of Parliament’.

The negatives currently far outweigh the positives. Publicans are losing their pubs to management; leases are not being renewed on the terms many expected. Investment by licensees is made unattractive by the refusal of companies to o​ffer lease extensions to allow a sensible return.

Dispute resolution is no longer low cost and simple for those in the big six companies.

As I frequently warned, if you go down the legal route you favour those who have funds and can afford the best lawyers – and that’s not the individual hard pressed British publican.

Any regrets?​

I was right to persuade Sky in 1996 to introduce a sliding scale (based on rateable values) of subscription fees, so small, back-street pubs paid less than massive managed sites. I just wish someone else had done it.

I’ve always used the 1978 University Challenge photo as an icebreaker. Well, we were the first Warwick team to win a game! I also used it to remind brewery/pubco directors that I had had a decent education.

However, I thought my credibility would be blown out of the water when Red Tooth had Mark Labbett (The Beast in ITV’s The Chase​) in attendance at Punch Road Shows four/five years ago.

He was o​ffering a 10-question challenge and, inevitably, I had to have a go. After nine questions we were level, and the last one was on alcohol. I became the only person ever to beat ‘The Beast’ at a Punch Road Show – my eldest grandaughter still refuses to believe it!

You have always advised or represented publicans. Is there a reason for this?​

I could have crossed over, and nearly did once. I was also o​ffered a senior position in a trade union when I still harboured desires to be an MP, until I grew up!

Frankly, it is about job satisfaction. When you are all a publican has versus the might of a major PLC, it’s a real challenge and one to relish. You have to be consistently at your best to do your best, but you can change lives for the better.

What about the future?​
Travelling (65 countries so far), organising and playing cricket, Pub is the Hub charity work, and some awards judging.

A CEO once asked me what was the difference between judging a publican for a national award and representing them at a rent review? About £5,000 a week, I responded!

Industry-wise, in the tied sector it’s depressing. Contracted-out agreements with no security, rents still based on unachievable targets with terms so silly the only people who’ll take them are those seeking a warm bed and free drinks.

It’s a far cry from the ‘invest in a business, obtain qualifications and seek a professional career’ that was the BII mantra at the beginning of this century.

It’s time to turn the clock back and give publicans the share of the profitability they enjoyed four decades ago. Pubco directors will say they cannot a​fford to do it. My response is, you cannot a​fford not to!

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