Tim Martin: King of the Spoons

Tim Martin © Getty Images
Tim Martin: a scary sight for local boozers

Entrepreneur Tim Martin has been touring Britain trying to sell the idea of a no-deal Brexit. The founder of the Wetherspoon pub chain also sells cheap beer and food. Jane Lewis reports.

This year Tim Martin began a tour of the country to sell the merits of a no-deal Brexit to customers at his Wetherspoon pubs. His 100-leg “free trade tour” – “a kind of 19th-century Liberal tribute act with added Bud Light” – wasn’t wholly stress-free, reports The Independent. “Tensions among punters” forced the debate at the Isambard Kingdom Brunel pub in Portsmouth to be abandoned. The gruelling two-month trek was something of a crusade for Martin. And he certainly has a winning proposition: “If there’s a no-deal Brexit”, says the man who already runs the nation’s “ruthlessly cheapest” bars, “I’ll bring the price of beer down”.

Britain’s foremost bar-room bore

Martin, 63, has always been eurosceptic, but his views have hardened since the 2016 referendum. Regulars at his 900-odd pubs have been surrounded by the paraphernalia of pro-Brexit leaflets, newsletters and beer mats; and it’s been “impossible to ignore” his 6ft 6in frame and “long shock of grey hair” on TV, says the Financial Times. “By throwing his weight behind what he calls the ‘motley crew’ of Brexiteers,” Martin “has given their political rebellion a stamp of entrepreneurial authority.”

“To his detractors,” the tycoon, who started “Spoons” with a single north London pub in 1979, “has become Britain’s foremost bar-room bore,” says The Sunday Times. But, as Martin points out, his political views haven’t hurt business. On the contrary, “long-term investors” of the FTSE 250 company (the founder retains a 26% stake) have been toasting a 50% rise in the shares over five years, valuing the group at £1.3bn, as Wetherspoon continues to buck the pub industry’s overall pattern of decline.

Martin’s father – a former RAF pilot– was a senior Guinness salesman whose  job took the family around the world.  The father/son relationship was testy: “He used to call me insubordinate,” Martin says. Born in Norwich, he grew up mainly in Northern Ireland and New Zealand and his accent still “meanders between the two, via the West Country”, noted a Guardian interviewer in 2016, “interrupted by endless eruptions of booming laughter”.

Life at the bar

After taking a degree at the University of Nottingham, Martin moved to London to train for the Bar. Legal life didn’t suit him, says the FT, but “another bar” did. He ended up buying an independent pub in Muswell Hill for £40,000, partly financed by selling his flat. He took George Orwell as his spiritual guide to what a great pub should be, even naming some of his hostelries “The Moon Under Water” after the writer’s “mythical ideal”. But his business guru was “the god of small improvements”, Sam Walton, founder of the US supermarket Walmart, whose dominance was wrought by strict attention to detail. Martin applied the same formula when riding the wave of pub-food, which now accounts for 35% of sales. The winning offer is low prices, decent quality, and “a benchmark of ten minutes from order to meal being served”. It isn’t Britain’s biggest pub chain, “but it frightens local bars the most when a Wetherspoon opens nearby”.

Martin, who takes a much more pro-immigration stance than many Brexiteers, has established an “enthusiastic” culture at Wetherspoon and “evangelises about treating his 40,000 staff well”, says the FT. Many are immigrants. “I love my job,” says one Hungarian kitchen manager, who would stay for sure “unless I get kicked out.” Her employer, for once, seems lost for words. “Who can see into the future?”  he replies, laughing uneasily.