Don’t rise to the Brexit bait – Wetherspoon’s boss deserves his gong | Nils Pratley

The new year game of awarding knighthoods and damehoods, as it relates to high-profile business people, has long felt like a nonsense. As the examples of the de-gonged Fred Goodwin at Royal Bank of Scotland and James Crosby at HBOS (who gave up his knighthood voluntarily) should have taught us, at least wait until these people’s careers are over before trying to judge their contributions. In any case, the boardroom brigade doesn’t need extra baubles. No harm would occur if they were excluded from the show.

But, within this imperfect system, let’s acknowledge that Sir Tim Martin, the founder and chair of JD Wetherspoon, is a deserving candidate for a gong via standard criteria. He was a controversial pick in the new year crop, presumably because so many people loathe his Brexit sermons and in-your-face “no deal” beermats, but, if we’re talking about services to the hospitality industry, Martin has put in a shift that is hard to match.

Back in 1979, when he founded the company, the beer trade was in such a uncompetitive and customer-unfriendly state that the Beer Orders were needed a decade later to break up the dominance and tied estates of the big six national brewers. JD Wetherspoon prospered in the liberalised environment because it concentrated on selling a decent pint at a low price, and ensuring real ales (an imperilled category back in the day) were available.

Unlike other pub-only operators that emerged in that era, Martin refrained from balance sheet financial engineering, which is to his credit and another reason why the chain has proved a long-term winner. It can afford to invest for the long-term and Martin, still touring the country three days a week to inspect the premises, is on top of tiny details.

The unfussy pubs obviously aren’t to everybody’s taste, but they operate a basic “open to all” philosophy: you’ll struggle to find similar establishments where college students and retirees coexist. The pro-Spoons view that the pubs provide a modern form of social hub is an exaggeration, but it’s directionally correct. The task of reinventing high streets would certainly be harder if the 800-strong chain had not re-purposed so many premises vacated by banks, building societies and cinemas.

On pay for staff – which seems to be the non-Brexit objection in some quarters to Martin’s knighthood – JD Wetherspoon can hardly be blamed for low salaries in an entire industry. For the record, the company says starting pay is above the national minimum wage and that 10,600 staff have been there for more than five years, which suggests a certain level of loyalty in a sector with high levels of turnover. An employee share ownership scheme has distributed 26m shares since 2006, which will amount to tiny sums in many cases but also equates to 20% of shares in circulation today, which one suspects is a far higher ratio than most companies with similar schemes. The company also pays a lot of tax when there isn’t a pandemic.

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There is an effort by the usual suspects to cloak Martin’s gong with an “up yours” message to “remoaners”. Don’t rise to the bait. In business terms, Martin has built an operation that is popular with its customers and genuinely different from its competitors. That’s roughly what the flawed system is supposed to recognise.

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