Every Christmas I get to read some new books. I’m lucky, Anne McMorrow, a wise colleague, carefully fills my holiday hours with some highly appropriate business books. It’s my Christmas present, and my homework. Many years ago, an old boss said to me “Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions” That thought has served me well. Anne’s subtle point is not lost on me. It’s simple but effective. It is: “Learn from the last 12 months, and make sure that we are wiser, smarter and sharper for the New Year” One of those books is called “Our Iceberg is Melting” by Harvard’s John Kotter. It is a simple fable, with profound lessons, for working and living in an ever changing world. In fact, the story is all about the title, which means accepting ‘change’ and how the things we take for granted can melt away. Smart people prepare for that, others don’t. It’s not difficult to figure out who will find new ice, new ways, and a new order.
Birds Eye View
TP Smith founded The Smith Group some years back. Today his stable includes The Auld Dubliner, Lagoona, Farringtons, and The Old Boro amongst others. I’m lucky to work with him and his extended team. One day, after a long and productive workshop, TP looked at me and said “Conor, you have a nice life” He was right, I do and I am lucky. Lucky because I get to hear it from the horses mouth. Lucky because I live, work, and even sleep with my projects! Lucky because I get a great overview of what is happening and how hospitality professionals are really feeling. Lucky because I learn up close and personal. Those insights, carefully considered, reveal a thing or two.
Certain subjects have a habit of creating negative momentum. Paradoxically, some people can adore knocking the things they love, like Pubs! I have often found it amusing that some sectors love to play football with Pubs. Politicians and TV, for example. Some politicians rage about the demonic curse they call ‘the Pub’ but are the first to volunteer to reopen the latest one extolling “this important part of our community” TV can film the collapsing mini skirted girl who has had one too many. However, panning right and filming the ‘normal’ folk going home, just does not make exciting viewing. ‘Begrudging’ is simply as much a part of Irish culture as is the Pub. Old Owls bemoan the “good old days” Wise Owls are already into the future. That means, knocks, challenges and, more importantly ‘change’, are simply hurdles that must be surmounted, day after day after day. No industry has endured so much, in such a short time. It is, and will be, survival of the fittest.
The Bad Celtic Tiger.
Growth, wealth, success, even excess. The Celtic Tiger sure did arrive (and depart) at a price. For example, anyone under 33 has only worked in a boom economy. Recession is a meaningless word, something vaguely to do with history perhaps? Whilst the advent of wealth is good, it also has brought new challenges, shallow and exploitative values, new damage, and a new requirement to re-think business, customers and people. The new breed of Publican is very different. He can be aggressive, focused, ruthless, and commercially driven. The old guard are still waiting for the tide to turn. How customers decide where to go has also changed, so has the customer. As Isadore Sharpe, founder of the Four Seasons Hotel brand said…“Luxury isn’t about diamond jewellery anymore. What makes life better for me and my kids each day? The life experience. That’s what counts”
Therefore, the great big friendly bar tender with the bad pint, in the dirty pub, not serving food, fun and excellence, just won’t wash. Change has already happened, is happening, and will continue forever. Pubs that are winning recognise this. There is no arrival point, ever. The moral? If you don’t love your customers and give them what they want, your competitors will, and already are.
Quality Control and Sharp Radars.
Good Pubs are not like people – they don’t die naturally. They die from neglect. Quality, in everything, is something you have to do every single day. There are many Pubs doing very well. There are many that are not. The difference? Those that are winning have adapted their entire proposition to reflect what the customer wants, not what the owner thinks. Today, with the internet, easy and low cost travel, more freedom of expression and better education, customers are more sophisticated. Gone are the days when “it will do” In fact, it won’t. Listen in to any group ‘deciding’ on their venue, it’s simple, but are you listening? Really? “Their food is rubbish” … “Did you see the toilets? No way” …”He has to be the most miserable guy I ever saw” … “He tried to rip my cousin off” … “They wouldn’t even say goodbye after we spent a load of money with them”… “They just have no idea what they are doing” … “Call that service?” Nothing new, but now you know! Leaders have followers. Followers follow. Now imagine the opposite? “Amazing food, great value” … “Spotless toilets” …”Cheerful staff” … “So friendly when we left” … “Wow, they are so well trained”
Management Is Simple but Not Easy
There are few better exponents of ‘management lessons’ than Peter Drucker. In his book The Age of Discontinuity he wrote: “Management is simple but not easy. The simple part is knowing what to do. The part that is not easy is getting others to do it” Good managers avoid using a sledgehammer when a feather will do (but they keep the sledgehammer handy!)
Today, Pubs, just like every organisation, have to be more inclusive and less authoritarian. Screaming orders will get a response…and a resignation too. In fact, it might even be gift wrapped in a solicitor’s envelope. Motivation is rarely about money, it is always about purpose. We should know, we built a business on this essential principal. New ways need new methods. The old military style is gone, dead. New managers just get on with it. They avoid sweeping statements such as … “What this Pub really needs is …” They are cheerful, optimistic and convey a sense of hope. They do strange things like include, meet and plan. They look at competitors, training, markets, trends, conditions, marketing, and how best to maximise their website. In other words, they are running a business, not a Pub. Alcohol is simply the product on sale.
What’s the Plan?
Most people, let alone publicans, think they understand ‘strategy’ they don’t. If you don’t understand something, it is unlikely that you will ever get to use it! Strategy is a business, or Pub, fundamental. The new kids on the block understand it, just like they understand motivation, reward and targets. They use it and it has become their most effective tool to guide their ship to where they want it to be. If you have no strategy, how will you know your destination? Your route? Or your requirements? It is an impossible task. You might strike lucky and hit land. Then again, you could hit an iceberg. You know? The one that is melting, but still deadly. In short, “strategy is the step by step removal of removable constraints. Competitive strategy means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value”- Ivor Kenny. “Can You Manage?” For a Pub, this means setting out objectives, understanding your customers, knowing your competitors and then deliberately choosing a different proposition. To do this you must involve your people and get them to help you create the strategy. If you do, you will be surprised and rewarded. It is the new way forward and it works.
There are 2 simple and effective questions that will reveal so much about you in such a short time. If you cannot answer these questions, you may just need to rethink who you really are; The first one: “What are you famous for?” The second: “Why do you deserve to exist?” The real trick is to ask the customer, not the owner, these questions. The truth will out very quickly. If, like most pubs, and most businesses, you struggle to answer them, then you need to reconsider who you are, what you offer, and how you do it. For example (and I plead no connection whatsoever) Johnnie Fox’s Pub, high in the Dublin mountains. It’s famous for its Hooley nights, seafood, and just being a great expression of an Irish Bar. I’m old enough to remember Johnny Fox’s Pub as a small little oasis often used for it’s ‘beyond the pale and holy hour’ revitalising qualities! It was not a nice place. If ever a Pub, in an unlikely setting, can answer these questions, Johnny Fox’s sure can. Can you?
People make Memories
People make memories, nothing else. An average Pub can be a success with great staff. A design temple will fail (and many have) if there is no atmosphere, no welcoming staff, and no warmth. Great entrepreneurs have vision; good managers see what they have to do to get there. Each is necessary. I spend my week working with managers. They are passionate, hardworking and often isolated. Good owners value their managers and their staff. They invest in them, train them, educate them and, most important of all, they listen to them. Good leaders are not only good listeners, but they encourage everyone to air their view. Years ago, ‘management’ was a hierarchical kind of thing. There was ‘the Staff’ and ‘the Boss’. If you like, a layer on top of a layer. Today, those layers have blended and fused to become one whole. Good leaders today are part of that one layer. They operate and work from within a team, not externally. That is part of their success. What is the point in spending hundreds of thousands on design, furniture, fittings and machines, if the staffs are ignored? Our memories are only ever people inspired, nothing else.
Food for Thought.
The local pint drinking Pub is dead, or at very least, dying. Industry leaders recognise that. The LVA and VFI are working wonders to educate their members. They are not harking back to “the good old days” They should be the first port of call for every Publican who cares about staying alive, and ahead. Central to their thinking is educating members to the need for quality, training, diversity and, of course, food. Today, a Pub without food is like a surgery without a Doctor, simply no good, no use, and not relevant. Fine, if you want to reminisce about Behan by the stormy Atlantic view. Sadly, romantic memories will not pay the mortgage. Food will. But, if you are going to ‘do’ food ‘do’ it good, very good, or you will drive me into the welcoming arms of your competitors.
The Golden Times.
It’s not what is ahead, today is the golden time. Equally, the golden times are not the days gone by. Your reality is today. In years to come, today will be regarded as ‘the golden days’ Memory has a habit of rose tinting. Out there, there are many Pubs doing very well. They have adapted, they have changed and they are relevant. We know, we work with them. They have not ‘hung around’ remembering the past. They simply got on with it. Next time you pass, pop in to your ‘successful competitors’. They all have one thing in common; they knew where they were going, and get on with getting there. There is much to do, and much fun to be had, in rising to the challenge. After all, business is never finished … just like our amazing Pubs!