Challenging time for new bar chain boss

The trials of getting a decent Championship football side together, making pizzas in Albuquerque and vertebrate palaeontology - it could only be the boss of bar business Ultimate Leisure.

The trials of getting a decent Championship football side together, making pizzas in Albuquerque and vertebrate palaeontology - it could only be the boss of bar business Ultimate Leisure. Graeme King met Mark Jones.

Running a bar and club business in Newcastle must be the modern equivalent of managing a cotton mill in Lancashire or a coal mine in County Durham.

For having a great night out is one of the things the North-East - and Newcastle in particular - is justifiably famous for.

Ultimate Leisure is - as the name suggests - the biggest indigenous company in the city, and its schtick has always been that nobody does drinking and dancing better.

But with big changes afoot in the leisure industry - licensing laws radically altered, a clampdown on under-age drinking, and smoking bans gradually stubbing out cigarettes right across the British Isles - Ultimate has had to adjust.

In the summer of 2005, the company's shareholders ousted the existing management team of Allan Rankin and Bob Senior and installed their own man - Mark Jones - to run the show.

He set about transforming the business from being tightly focused on the late night, youth market to being much more diversified.

And if anybody knows about the range of what can be achieved in the UK leisure industry, it would be this man.

He's worked in London pubs, run the UK operation of Pizza Hut, expanded and sold the Yates Group and all its wine lodges and run Hogshead pubs too.

Jones grew up in Notting Hill, the son of parents who ran pubs, and has worked most of his life in and around the capital.

He attended a Catholic grammar school in Battersea, and went to university in London too. That's where the first surprise arrives - you don't expect a bar boss to have an academic background.

Jones explains: "I did a first degree in zoology, and I'm probably the first person The Journal has ever interviewed to have a masters in vertebrate palaeontology.

"I really enjoyed biology at school and it seemed the natural thing to do."

So did he spend his time flying out for digs in the Atacama desert, the foothills of the Himalayas or somewhere else suitably far flung? No, he didn't.

"The remains I was studying were from the very, very north of Scotland - my thesis was on fish from that area - near Thurso. So no, I did not get exotic locations to go to ...

"I did start to think about doing a PhD, but then the lure of making money kicked in from my early 20s and I started out working in a couple of my family's pubs."

And from then on, it seems the young Jones had his eyes set on making a big career in the pub game.

After a period working for his dad, he went to work for what was then Courage, which became Allied Domecq, and he progressed through the ranks.

He then joined Whitbread Pepsi to be operations director in its Pizza Hut offshoot and got some back-to-basics training.

"I trained in Albuquerque in New Mexico with the US end of the business. I was making and delivering pizzas.

"And I still try to take that approach with people who join our organisation - they have to do jobs at the coal face."

He then had a spell with the Hogshead organisation before finding his way back to Pizza Hut as chief executive.

He says: "We had a fascinating period - taking the company from 350 units to 500 when I left - both restaurants and delivery units. I used to sit on the international board of the company, and there are things I learnt there in terms of tricks of the trade that we are trying to implement here.

"My first ever board meeting was in Sydney during the Olympics. I then went to South America, the US about 20 times, Korea, Japan, China.

"But then I got fed up with running a business for a big company and decided I wanted to get more involved in stock exchange businesses. I wanted a CEO job with a lot more autonomy, and I became head of Yates Group, and the family moved up to Manchester.

"We had three fantastic years there running Yates. First it was a stock exchange company, then we did an MBO. It was both fascinating and lucrative.

"I left there in May 2005 and wanted to spend two to three months thinking about what to do next. But then I was approached about here in the July."

He explains how Ultimate shareholder Dawnay Day had had a stake in Yates, so knew what kind of executive he was, and asked him to run the Newcastle company.

He talks of that period in matter of fact terms, but is clearly well aware that his predecessor, Bob Senior, has openly questioned the picture of under-investment and poor performance that has been painted since the boardroom coup.

He says: "There has been quite a lot of wasted energy focused on the management change - the reality is the shareholders wanted a change and they got it.

"It was the beginning of September 2005 and the company was heading backwards at an incredible rate of knots.

"It had not issued like-for-like numbers in the whole time it had been on the stock exchange - and I changed that. We have been very open on what we needed to do to change it.

"The big unknown then was the licensing law changes, and we were extremely badly positioned to handle that as we were so late night-focused and so young people-focused.

"What I've tried to do since the licensing law changed is broaden the base of the company, so in future we will be better placed to cope with changes in the marketplace.

"I am a huge believer that in the good times, you invest, and Ultimate did not do that."

But with the shareholders having shown their displeasure at the previous management's performance and looking for change, this job was never going to be easy. So why did he take it on?

He says: "The business does have some absolutely outstanding assets, for which the previous management deserve credit, but what it needed was a change in strategy. I would not have taken the job if it was to run it `as is' and not to expand. We are very ambitious as to what we can do with this company.

"We announced this week that we are going to raise £25m and we have firepower of up to £75m, and we are very, very active in looking for opportunities.

"We are looking at this North-East leisure company being a national player in the industry.

"We would all be disappointed if we did not double the size of the company. The enterprise value is currently £50m, plus £25m debt, so £75m in all.

"We have another £75m to spend, so it is not unfeasible to have 100 units. But in reality we might buy a very heavily freehold company, so we might add more like 20 to 30 units."

Exactly what kind of businesses Ultimate buys is the big question. Jones has already said that he won't be buying purely nightclub operators, as he wants something more predictable in performance, but what else is on his mind?

One of the key issues is the popularity of eating out in today's leisure market.

He says: "Eating out is a market growing at 6% per year, while `on trade' drinking is declining. Every time you turn round now, there's a restaurant opening,

"I've decided that we need to broaden the base here, and we have introduced bars that serve food. If you are pure late night, or pure nightclub, you are open to the vagaries of the market that is not acceptable to a public company."

The upcoming smoking ban is clearly going to be influential, too.

Jones says: "In our Rotherham nightclub, there was no way we could find a smoking solution there - and we got an offer we could not refuse, so we sold it.

"But at The Lodge in Newcastle, for instance, while we don't have an outdoor area, our competitors don't either. It's about the local playing field - if your neighbour has something you don't, you're in trouble.

"We're also looking at `sound break out.' We don't want to upset our neighbours, so we are looking at deep lobbies, where one door closes before the other opens to keep the noise inside.

"We also need to think about 100 people outside an outlet, chatting and smoking - that will cause problems to neighbours.

"I could say I was looking forward to it, but it will be pretty damn tough. And it all starts on the first day of our financial year."

But overall, Jones sounds like a man who loves the challenge that lies in front of him. With £75m burning a very large hole in his pocket, he must be excited.

He says: "It's unusual in this market place to get such a vote of confidence - but in a month's time we should be a £75m company and it will be up to us to spend the money wisely. And it will be good for Newcastle to have a bigger quote company operating out of this town.

"It's quite hard phoning home to the wife when you're in a club at 1am, and saying to her that you're working - but seriously, this is the best industry in the UK. If you do your job right, you're helping people have a fantastic time."

Jones does, however, spend a lot of time with his young family. Wife Jolie and young children Harry, Jack, Lawson and Cameron all live not far from Heathrow, and with Ultimate having units all over the UK now, he can get home most nights - normally spending just Wednesday and Thursday nights in Newcastle.

He says: "I can do door to door quite quickly - leave my house at 6.15am and be here in Newcastle at 8.45am - there are quite a few people who do it.

"We have a company flat just round the corner in 55 Degrees North. The business, geographically, has changed a lot. This week has been all planes, trains and automobiles.

"Newcastle is a pretty good place to be located for that - the train service is excellent, and the planes are not bad either, and I live close to Heathrow."

Home is an attractive place to be - and to be within striking distance of Loftus Road, home of his beloved Queens Park Rangers.

He says: "I'm 46, and have had children later in life, and they are becoming a pretty dominant part of my life.

"They have all got their QPR kits, and two of them already have season tickets. I'm looking forward to all five of us going down to Loftus Road and seeing some decent football - though I might have to wait a while yet."

CV: Mark Jones.

Age: 46; married; four children.

Education

1982 -1983 MSc Vertebrate Palaeontology, University College, London.

1979 - 1982 BSc (Hons) Zoology, Westfield College, University of London.

1972 - 1979 Salesian College, Battersea, London.

Career History

Aug 2005 - present Executive chairman, Ultimate Leisure plc.

Sep 2002 - May 2005 Chief executive, Yates Group plc.

Feb 2000 - Sep 2002 Chief executive, Pizza Hut UK Ltd.

Nov 1997 - Feb 2000 Managing director, Whitbread High Street Brands.

1994 - 1997 Operations director, Pizza Hut UK Limited.

1986 - 1994 Allied Domecq Retail, London Region Pub Company. Final position - Marketing and Retail Director.

1986 - 1986 Area manager, Courage Limited.

1983 - 1985 Operations manager, Custodian Security.

The questionnaire

What car do you drive?

BMW 6 Series.

What's your favourite restaurant?

Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Palm Springs, US.

Who or what makes you laugh?

My children.

What's your favourite book?

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens.

What's your favourite film?

LA Confidential, directed by Curtis Hanson.

What was the last album you bought?

Razorlight by Razorlight.

What's your ideal job, other than your current one?

A hiking guide in California.

If you had a talking parrot, what's the first thing you'd teach it to say?

`What are you looking at!!'

What's your greatest fear?

Caving. Why do people do it? It's not for me.

What's the best piece of business advice you have ever received?

The work / life balance is vital for sanity and success.

And the worst?

Dotcom share tips.

What's your poison?

I love good wine.

What newspaper do you read (apart from The Journal)?

The Telegraph and the FT.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for? I worked as a cloakroom attendant in my family's pub/club at the age of 13. As long as nobody had their coat stolen, I kept the money collected! It was about £4.

How do you keep fit?

Gym and swim, and I go hiking when I can.

What's your most irritating habit?

I have a low boredom threshold ...next..

What's your biggest extravagance?

I like watches and therefore Berry's of Newcastle like me!

With which historical or fictional character do you most identify?

James Bond.

And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?

Andrew Marr - just so clever, Dom Joly - just so funny, Sir Richard Branson - just so entrepreneurial, and Angelina Jolie ...nuff said.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer