Geronimo Inns founder Rupert Clevely on the dangers of buying a pub in the East End

Rupert Clevely, founder of the upmarket south-east pub chain Geronimo Inns, on his best and worst decisions in business.

by Michael Northcott
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013

Rupert Clevely founded the upmarket gastro pub chain Geronimo Inns in 1995 with his wife, Jo. Their first pub was the Chelsea Ram in south west London, where they offered locally-sourced  and freshly-cooked food. 

 

Geronimo now operates more than 30 pubs - mainly in London. The company was bought by Young & Co's Brewery in December 2010, and Clevely has recently stepped down as managing director.

 

He explains his best and worst decisions in business.

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MY BEST DECISION

 

Was going into business with my wife. It sounds really gooey, but she's very business-savvy, very sensible and not risk averse. She ran the design side, the look and feel of the pubs, which is a massive part of why they've been successful.

She is also a very understanding sounding board for me. I was slightly wild, coming out with a million different ideas all the time, and because I was married to her we trusted each other perhaps more than a lot of business partners normally would.

A second best decision was hiring a great finance director. As a young guy building a business, it was a mistake not having one for so long. We found life so difficult in the early days because I wasn't prepared to pay good money for someone decent to oversee the numbers.

When I look back at it, the issues we had were horrendous.

At one stage I didn't have the money to pay my £250,000 VAT bill and we nearly went bust. Our business bank didn't like our numbers and wouldn't lend us the money, but I was lucky because we were trying to get our hands on some more pubs and our personal bank gave us the money.

So the finance director completely transformed our business and things ran so much more smoothly once I decided to pay £60,000 instead of £25,000.

MY WORST DECISION

 

Was trying to buy a pub in the East End, in Canning Town. We'd been in business for four years, we had a string of successful pubs in west London behind us and we thought we were god. But it was an absolute disaster.

My non-executive director called me on New Year's Eve, saying: 'Bloody hell, mate, we've got fights down here, we've got cocaine and heroin going on in the loos, the doormen we've employed are ex-wardens from Wandsworth prison and the customers are ex-inmates!'

Because of some dodgy characters in the local gang scene, we ended up basically having to give the pub away with no money changing hands. There were a lot of sleepless nights and we ended up writing off the £450,000 we had invested in the site, but let's just say it was better that I did that.

The lesson was 'do your homework'. We didn't understand the area and we didn't do enough research to know for sure what kind of a business we were getting into. Perhaps we might have understood the dynamic of the place better if we had spent some more time getting the facts.

You tend to think that some things will change in London, but they never do: we wouldn't try again in that area. It was better to say: 'Fuck it, that boat can go on the rocks, it's gone.'

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