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Don't be snobby on Made In Chelsea – it helped City Pub Company boom

Optimistic: City Pub Company boss Clive Watson has seen strong trading

Optimistic: City Pub Company boss Clive Watson has seen strong trading

Optimistic: City Pub Company boss Clive Watson has seen strong trading

Clive Watson’s resume is a bit unexpected for a pub boss. His school records suggest he could be a political pundit, a diplomat – or even a spy. His degrees in international relations, history and diplomacy hint at a serious academic type with a penchant for tweed suits.

Instead, the co-founder and executive chairman of City Pub Company is warm and enthusiastic, dressed in a smart casual blazer and shirt, as he bounds into his plush Chelsea pub, The Phene.

This is no ordinary watering hole, but decorated to the finest detail to be photo-ready for Instagram. His profile – and that of the company – have both been given a leg up on The Phene’s appearance in several episodes of reality TV show Made In Chelsea.

Watson’s two daughters, Lucy and Tiffany, have starred in several series on the programme, which traces the lives and loves of some of London’s wealthiest people. The tax collector himself has made several appearances on the show – although it has brought out some snobbery in his peer group. “I don’t understand why some of my friends made negative comments about it,” he thinks.

One of the main reasons he’s in such good spirits is because business is booming, much to his surprise.

Even the increasingly popular “Dry January” and people working from home who are so short of drinks on Friday nights after work have failed to bring trade down unexpectedly since the start of the year.

“We were all very worried about him falling off a cliff after Christmas,” he says. “But Friday nights are definitely back. Even though people are working from home, I hear of some working remotely and then coming to London in the evenings to have a great night out.

“In London, definitely, there has been the return of the office worker, of tourism and of city life in general.”

After months of battling energy and cost of living crises, the current respite allows him to focus on his true passion. While most bosses barely have time for their hobbies, Watson spends her free time writing a history and current affairs book. He hopes to complete a first draft by the summer.

Several years ago – and more than three decades after graduating in international relations from the University of Reading – he took an international diplomacy course at the University of Buckingham for fun. He then landed a place on his dream course, a Masters in History at Cambridge.

‘I tried to get into Cambridge when I was 18 and in some ways it’s always been a bit of a scarecrow for me,’ he says, admitting many of his friends’ eyes are ‘fixing’ when he lets go of his obsession with the past.

His dissertation focused on the Conservative Party’s attitude to Scottish devolution from 1966 to 1979 – but he narrowly missed the grades needed to pursue a PhD, which he had considered.

“I’m always up for a challenge, I probably would have – and I think it would have gone wrong,” he says. “It’s five years part-time and you have to have so much focus and dedication.” It was probably for the best as Watson’s attention would soon be diverted when he finished his Cambridge course in March 2017 and the City Pub Company went public eight months later.

The 61-year-old co-founded the group in 2011 with fellow entrepreneurs David Bruce and John Roberts after Greene King bought Watson’s latest venture, Capital Pub Company, for £93m.

As its name suggests, Capital Pub Company focused on running pubs in London, but using the broader “City” name gave it the ability to buy or set up premises in places such as Exeter, Bath, Bristol, Oxford and, of course, Cambridge.

But City Pub Company’s five-and-a-half years as a publicly traded group have not been easy, due first to the pandemic and then to the toxic cocktail that followed of double-digit inflation, bills skyrocketing energy, labor shortages and a cost-of-living crisis that is forcing ordinary Britons to cut back on spending. When it joined the London Stock Exchange’s junior market, AIM, it had around 34 pubs and was valued at £90million. Now, post-Covid, it has 44 pubs but is worth just under at £87million.

In the final three months of last year, sales were boosted 8% from 2019 by the World Cup and the Christmas holiday season, although rail strikes slashed around £750,000 revenue for this quarter.

A drop in wholesale gasoline prices means that at least one of its biggest headaches could finally start to ease.

When pubs closed during lockdowns in 2021, the company’s energy bills were around £1.2million. In 2022 this jumped to £3m when wholesale energy prices following the war in Ukraine, but is expected to fall back to £2.4m this year and hopefully it, could drop below £2m in 2024.

The ‘arch-remainer’ is generally in favor of Jeremy Hunt’s current tax policies, but would like to see the next budget tackle corporate rates, an issue that has plagued the high street for years.

Starring roles: Clive Watson's daughters, Lucy and Tiffany

Starring roles: Clive Watson’s daughters, Lucy and Tiffany

“Professional rates are a tax on primarily physical retailers, not online, and I think the shift should be towards taxing business income. For online businesses, their premises are much smaller, so the assessed value is much lower, and they get away with a blue murder. It becomes a property tax when it should be a sales tax.

For all his optimism, the only lasting effect of the pandemic has been on Watson’s ambitious expansion plans for the company. Pre-Covid these included a target to have 120 pubs by the end of 2026. This target has now been reduced to 80 over the same period as Watson has been pushed back by the prospect of higher debt, the difficulty in hiring new workers and the several blockages.

“If there was another Omicron for six months and we had to close…” he walks away. “I think we’re a lot more careful now about things like funding.

“I wish we were in Canterbury or Chichester, but we would buy an existing pub rather than open a new one in a city where we had no representation.”

Watson entered the workforce in the 1980s at the height of Big Bang yuppie excess, joining an investment bank as an accountant. But, unlike many of his peers, he did not revel in the culture and soon became estranged from himself.

“I was in the same office every day and found it stuffy and wanted out. I wanted to be around the decision table.

He insists he would never want to be a chief executive of a FTSE 100 company – preferring to have a more practical and personal role in his businesses, choosing a collegial atmosphere over a corporate one.

And, after all, if his company was so big, how would he ever have time to finish this book?

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