Lifestyle

Chris Jowsey: the pubs boss lobbying to keep locals in business

As the summer drew to a close, Chris Jowsey’s reserves of Geordie good humour evaporated and he finally ran out of patience.

The boss of the 1,000-strong pub chain Admiral Taverns, along with fellow industry leaders, had been sounding the alarm for months about the energy crisis hurtling towards small businesses like a freight train, calling on ministers to come up with a plan.

Then, as pubs renewed their energy contracts and were quoted five or six times what they had paid before – or refused supply altogether – it would soon be too late.

“We raised this issue with ministers over six months ago: we told them there’s an energy crisis and that it would be really difficult.”

Landlords warned ministers that 70% of the UK’s 47,000 pubs could ultimately be driven under, and still nothing was forthcoming.

As the Tory party leadership contest dragged on, things only got worse.

“There’s been a complete vacuum for eight or 10 weeks and it feels as if the people who can make a difference have their eyes somewhere else,” Jowsey says.

“Having lobbied away behind closed doors, not getting anywhere, we decided we had to go public.”

Under the auspices of their trade body, the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), brewing and pub bosses – Jowsey among the most vocal – called on the government to impose an energy cap for small businesses, to prevent a catastrophic winter in an industry still reeling from successive Covid-19 lockdowns.

Energy costs have moved above the average £20,000 a year that he charges publicans to rent the premises Admiral owns.

“If a small community pub was paying £15,000 a year, it’s now going above £50,000. That’s above the profit they’re making, so effectively the pub will close. There has to be a short-term intervention.”

In the absence of that intervention, Jowsey took the unusual step of dipping into the wholesale energy market on behalf of the 160 pubs for which the company buys energy.

Bypassing energy suppliers, Admiral is instead purchasing direct from an oil and gas producer, although he won’t say which.

Perhaps that reluctance is born of his belief that the companies he must now do business with are profiting from the suffering experienced by everyone else.

“If the cost of getting energy out of the ground has not changed, but prices are significantly higher, then someone’s making an awful lot of money and, ultimately, should they be able to make those super-profits? No, I don’t think they should.”

Corporate bosses aren’t usually the first to advocate for windfall taxes – there but for the grace of God go they – but Jowsey’s attitude is informed by his keenly felt sense of community. His own is Newcastle and the north-east. The brief period when he oversaw Newcastle Brown Ale was a “dream come true”, and he and his two sons are regulars at Newcastle United FC.

He admits to a degree of moral conflict over the club’s new Saudi owners but is “desperate for some success and some hope that it brings to the region”.

The 57-year-old’s background has instilled a belief that pubs are fundamental to keeping communities alive.

“I was brought up with pubs, social clubs, sporting clubs, where people come together. I think we are stripping away many of the things that hold communities together and the local pub is one of the few that’s left.

“When the pub goes, the community is damaged in a way they find hard to recover from. In many communities there’s nothing else left.”

Do the decision-makers, with their talk of levelling up and celebrating the best of British, understand that?

“Very many local MPs get the importance of pubs to their communities and are keen to be seen to support them. When you get into ministerial level and senior officials in the civil service, that understanding is less.

“We’re world famous for our beer, and a tourist coming to the UK wants to have an English beer in a typical English pub. It’s not replicated anywhere else in the world and I’m not sure people in government realise that.”

Statistics released this summer by real estate consultancy Altus Group showed that, in England and Wales at least, the number of pubs has fallen to a record low – fewer than 40,000.

Jowsey thinks the industry had begun to stabilise pre-pandemic, after a prolonged period of decline that had been blamed on everything from supermarket booze deals to lower levels of drinking among young people and even the 2007 smoking ban.

That last one is a red herring, he says, because only a “handful” of his licensees would return to the days of a smoke-filled local, even though the majority run “wet-led” pubs that don’t serve much food, if at all.

Plate of fish, chips and mushy peas
The war in Ukraine has put up the cost of fish for pubs that serve food. ‘Most of it was coming from Russia and now no longer does,’ says Jowsey. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

But smoke-free or not, the trend of decline is at real risk of picking up again at an even faster rate. To that end – with no government rescue in sight – Admiral says it is trying to help tenants reduce costs.

It doesn’t always work out. Amid soaring costs, the licensees of the White Horse Inn in Hampshire left the pub last week after failing to agree terms with Admiral. Jowsey insists this wasn’t a case of a big bad pubco evicting tenants who couldn’t satisfy its hunger for profits. “There’s a significant cost associated with the need to find a new licensee. We want people to stay in the pub and be successful.”

In the Dartford Sports Bar, where we meet – a departure from Admiral’s typical rural community boozer – the company has spent £300,000 installing LED lights to reduce energy costs. New equipment is being rolled out to pub cellars, to further chip away at those punishing energy bills.

But pubs have other burdens. Food and drink inflation is soaring, partly as a consequence of the war in Ukraine.

Jowsey mentions the surprising fact that a good proportion of the fish in your average pub fish and chips came, until recently, from waters controlled by Vladimir Putin.

“Most of it was coming from Russia and now no longer does. Inflation on things like grain has yet to hit us. Brewers this morning were talking about significant increases in the raw ingredients that go into brewing. That will flow through in the next six to 12 months.”

Staffing is another problem, with hospitality businesses across the country struggling to attract new employees and the old EU workforce no longer as readily available post-Brexit.

And yet, it is in the work, the business of providing communities with much-needed hospitality, that Jowsey finds hope.

After making it to Oxford University, he watched many of his friends go into the City, something he “didn’t fancy at all”. He worked in the NHS, formed an ill-fated dotcom-bubble venture and eventually landed up in hospitality, for Scottish & Newcastle, which then became part of Heineken, before he was snapped up by Admiral.

His enjoyment of his work makes him optimistic that new talent can forge a bright future for British pubs.

“Senior people started on the shop floor and it’s one of the few industries where you can still say that. You could be running a multimillion-pound business within a few years if you come into this industry, setting yourself up for a significant career.

“And fundamentally, it’s great fun. I’ve been doing it for 20 years and I just love it.”

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