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Pub boss William Lees-Jones warns family firm faces biggest crisis for two centuries


Scrapheap: Lees-Jones says kneejerk reactions from our politicians are crippling the industry

Scrapheap: Lees-Jones says kneejerk reactions from our politicians are crippling the industry

The boss of a 192-year-old pub group has launched an attack on the ‘knee-jerk’ coronavirus restrictions that has forced him to shut half of his estate. 

William Lees-Jones said businesses are being ‘thrown on the scrapheap’ by the measures – and that one of his suppliers has already gone bust. 

The 56-year-old took over JW Lees in 2004 – making him the sixth generation of his family to run the business. He employs 1,250 – including 150 at its brewery in Middleton, Greater Manchester, and 1,100 in its 42 pubs and hotels across the North West and North Wales. 

Many more are employed in 105 pubs the company leases to landlords. Half his pubs are shut, and sales at the remaining venues are more than 50 per cent down. 

Lees-Jones said his business is suffering more than at any other time, including both world wars, adding that the firm is in ‘survival mode’ and that he hopes he is not ‘the generation that has to turn the lights off’. 

The intervention comes as more than 50 northern Conservative MPs are demanding Prime Minister Boris Johnson lay out an exit strategy for businesses and communities under Tier Two and Three restrictions.

Tomorrow, Nottinghamshire will join Lancashire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire in the harshest Tier Three restrictions, and ministers are under pressure to institute a nationwide ‘circuitbreaker’ lockdown or harsher Tier Four measures. 

Wales, where JW Lees has five pubs, is in a two-week ‘firebreaker’ lockdown. The North East and London are in Tier Two, leading many to accuse the Government of implementing a national lockdown by stealth. 

Lees-Jones said: ‘We’ve done a good job in the industry to make things safe but the impact of the restrictions on our pubs is enormous. It is probably the toughest period the business has ever been through. We’ve effectively been in Tier Two in Greater Manchester since the end of July.’ 

It cost up to £160,000 to make the pubs Covid-secure, including spending on hand sanitiser, perspex, new pub layouts and masks. One central Manchester venue, the Rain Bar, had only been open for four weeks when the highest Tier Three restrictions were brought in.

This year JW Lees will make a loss. It made a £1 million profit in the year to March 2020 – which included two weeks of closure from the first lockdown – down from a £6.8 million profit in the year to March 2019. 

Lees-Jones added: ‘Politicians are looking at the data and the statistics and making knee-jerk reactions about what it is we’re going to do. And then the difficulty is you can start a lockdown and they say ‘now we need to extend it’. Two weeks become three , becomes four. 

Businesses like Lees-Jones's are pinning their hopes on December celebrations giving them a cash injection but with yet more regions heading into lockdown, optimism is in short supply

Businesses like Lees-Jones’s are pinning their hopes on December celebrations giving them a cash injection but with yet more regions heading into lockdown, optimism is in short supply

‘Further lockdown restrictions will destroy our business in the short term. A lot of our teams in Tier Three are saying they would be better off closed. 

‘The political group-think is terrifying because it is strangling the economy. All that lockdown can achieve is delay and suppress infection but it’s not a solution.’ 

Although pubs and other hospitality businesses are on the front line, it is the support crew who are the first casualties. Many breweries, who do not have their own pubs, have nowhere to sell their beer as bars reduce their range to cut costs. 

An army of small and mediumsized firms supplying detergents, glassware, meat, vegetables and wine are also suffering. JW Lees’s kitchen fitters have already gone bust during the pandemic. 

The political group-think is terrifying because it is strangling the economy. All that lockdown can achieve is delay and suppress infection but it’s not a solution

‘They are being thrown on the scrapheap,’ Lees-Jones said. ‘They’re not getting any support.’ 

The business was founded in 1828 by retired cotton manufacturer John Lees. Lees-Jones’s father Richard, who joined the business in 1953 after serving with the 42nd Field Regiment in Germany, remains chairman. 

‘I have an 87-year-old father we are protecting and one of my twin daughters has Covid, another is isolating,’ he said. 

‘But we are becoming very risk averse – with the 10pm curfew, Boris has given us bed times. I find it irritating.’ 

Businesses like his are pinning their hopes on December celebrations giving them a cash injection but with yet more regions heading into lockdown, optimism is in short supply. 

Lees-Jones said: ‘Anyone running a family business will tell you, you don’t want to be the generation that has to turn the lights off. A lot of people will go to the wall.’ 

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