Business

Young’s boss Patrick Dardis: Britain’s boozers deserve a big VAT cut

Like any good landlord, Dublin-born businessman Patrick Dardis has some stories to share from his 20 years at Young’s Pubs.

First of all, the rugby-mad boss of the 190-year-old pub chain makes no secret of his enjoyment of social gatherings. At a recent rugby match between Ireland and Scotland, Dardis put away pints until the early hours – he says he didn’t count exactly how many.

But over a glass of Brooklyn Pilsner at The Britannia Pub in Kensington, west London, he says the days of rowdy sessions with his rugby buddies when he used to sink 20 pints are long gone: “I’m 63 years old ‘No, I couldn’t do that anymore.’

After six years at the helm of Young’s, Dardis announced his retirement in March. He will formally step down at the July annual meeting when Simon Dodd, the chief operating officer, takes over.

Call time: Patrick Dardis is leaving after 20 years at Young, who he says has recovered from suspensions

Not that there was talk of a slowdown. In his final months he was still looking for new properties, adding more than 200 to the portfolio. Earlier this year he walked into a pub in the Cotswolds which he said was ‘the best design I’ve ever seen “. He sent his team to create a “full account” of what Young was able to learn.

A few weeks later Dardis had a meeting with the owner. “I tried to buy it, of course, but he’s not a seller at the moment.”

He bought a handful of upmarket Lucky Onion pubs and hotels earlier this year, also in the Cotswolds, from multimillionaire Superdry founder Julian Dunkerton. The acquisition capped his ambitions – first as retail director from 2002 to 2016, then as managing director – to transform the group from a chain of “male-dominated boozers” into “the highest quality pub company in the country”.

The customer base is now split evenly between men and women.

Even as he steps down, he remains a supporter of the pub industry, which has been hit hard by the pandemic lockdowns and now the cost of living crisis.

Last week a survey found that the price of a pint in London topped £8 for the first time in history as the cost of doing business rises. Hospitality research firm CGA’s survey of 5,500 locations found that the average price in the UK has risen from £2.30 in 2008 to £3.95 this year, an increase of more than 70 per cent.

There are fears that price hikes could encourage drinkers to stay at home. Over 10,000 pubs and restaurants could close thanks to a “perfect storm” of inflation, soaring energy costs and soaring rents, according to UK Hospitality.

Kate Nicholls said the hospitality industry is facing a “crisis as big, if not bigger” than during the pandemic. It estimates that 20,000 UK hospitality member companies are operating below breakeven and 30,000 have no cash reserves.

Dardis says the hospitality sector needs more attention from politicians. “The industry supports 3.2 million jobs – one in six in every municipality in the country. It needs a full-time minister to take care of the people in this industry,” he says.

He also wants a permanent reduction in VAT and a revision of the trade tax system to give pub and restaurant operators financial leeway.

“The government needs to start respecting and acknowledging how important this sector is to the UK economy,” he says. Dardis’s retirement from the business next month follows a meteoric career – he describes becoming CEO as a “boy’s dream”.

One of eight children, he says, he was the only one from “very humble backgrounds” to leave Ireland. He jokes: “I’m the black sheep of the family. I’m the only one over here and they’re home again.’

He began his working life as a lifeguard at London’s Tooting Bec Lido aged 19. Life back then was “a party,” he says. When it came time to find a ‘real job’, Dardis ended up at an employment office in Wimbledon and was told he could apply to work at the nearby Courage brewery.

He had never heard of it then. The well-oiled interview process ended with Dardis dancing an Irish jig with the director and general manager of Courage behind a bar. The job center thought he was wasted, but Courage invited him to get started right away.

It was his first rung on the ladder of the pub and brewing industry that he would climb for 35 years.

Dardis stayed at Courage for seven years before moving to Whitbread, owner of the Premier Inn, and then to Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries where he oversaw its acquisition by Marston’s. After a stint at Guinness, he ended up at Young’s.

His rise to the top came at a price: the collapse of his marriage to Heather, 53. She said he “always gets so beat up on a Friday” when she wanted to go out. But the couple, who have two sons in their mid-20s, remarried years later.

“When we got back together, I was like, when Heather said, ‘Oh darling, it’s Friday night, are we going to the pub?’ I say, ‘Of course we are.’

The company’s shares rose from £12.13 when he took over the job of chief executive to a high of £18.00 two years later. They crashed during the pandemic but have recently recovered to around £12.30.

After selling the majority of its 63 leased pubs last year, Young’s can now focus on its directly managed business, which has almost doubled in size to 222 properties since arriving. It used the £53million from the sale to further enhance its property and make new purchases. One analyst described the pubs as the “gold standard”.

Young’s is also hoping that its well-heeled customers, who are already spending £2.30 more on a bottle of wine than they did before the pandemic when trying pricier varieties, are well-positioned to weather the economic swings ahead. Simon Dodd is expected to continue in a similar fashion. Insiders say it will be a case of “same menu, different chef”.

But it’s a bittersweet time to leave Young’s after they’ve stabilized the ship and primed the chain for a post-Covid rebound.

Dardis says: “If I thought we weren’t over that and that we were in a good place, I would stay another year, I have no doubt about that. But we are in a stronger position.”

He says he’s looking forward to spending more time with his dogs and playing golf, but insists he won’t quit the industry entirely. He’s hoping to take on non-executive roles – and spend more time in the pub.

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Young’s boss Patrick Dardis: Britain’s boozers deserve a big VAT cut

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