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(Illustration by Michael Daley)

Over the last 38 years, Tim Martin has reinvented a British institution: the public house. He has grown his chain of taverns from a single pub in North London to almost 1,000 today. During his long career he has shown remarkable focus on his empire, while also being an outspoken advocate for Brexit and making the case for business — something so many bosses are afraid to do.

Wetherspoons pubs are for everyone. They are large, inexpensive, democratic drinking palaces. The range of food and drink available is remarkable — and generally excellent value. They are not for dining snobs, or wine connoisseurs: but their facilities are clean, their landlords are sober, and they are incredibly popular venues for alcoholic refreshment and a solid meal.

One of the reasons I admire Tim is that he spends roughly three days on the road every week visiting his establishments, mixing with his staff (Wetherspoons employs 37,000 people) and customers. He takes the train all around the country, carrying his notes in a plastic carrier bag, and finds out exactly what is happening on the ground in his pubs. How many other public company chairman are that hands-on? Yet he is a not a micromanager — he has a strong team of long-serving executives, including a chief executive who has worked with him for 26 years and a finance director with 18 years of service.

His business has grown organically over the decades, typically by opening new pubs rather than takeovers. He has shaken up the old beerage who dominated the licensed trade for centuries, offering a tired, overpriced formula. He delivers serious competition to the corporate pub companies, usually making sure his Wetherspoon inn is the busiest in town. 

Are all his pubs beautiful? No, but many are stylish conversions, frequently tailored to the area and celebrating the history of the building — so they are locals, even if they are part of a major business. Has he driven some small operations to the wall? Yes, but he has also obliged many to up their game and provide improved service, choice and value — all of which has benefited the punter.

It is easy to forget that although there used to be more pubs 30 years ago, they were mostly an awful experience — smoke-filled dumps, with a pitiful range of drink, a desperate food offering, squalid lavatories and surly barmen. And the reality is that it has been very heavy taxation, too much debt, the growth of alcohol sales through supermarkets, and the smoking ban which have destroyed far more independent pubs than Wetherspoons.

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