Entrepreneur Interview: with Mark Hird, Tavistock Leisure

Posted on the 22 January 2015

Entrepreneur Interview: with Mark Hird, Tavistock Leisure

"I don't feel like I've ever worked a day in my life" so says Mark Hird, a man who’s found the holy grail of making a good living out of something he loves. When those things are beer and food it's enough to make even the least envious person feel a twinge of jealousy.

The reality, of course, is that nobody ends up with two hotels and seven pub restaurants employing a total of 250 people without grafting, especially in a sector renowned for hard work and long hours. 

What Mark has done is create successful businesses out of the things he loves; and now with a successful micro-brewery to supply his venues' beer as well, this is business meets the good life…

Did you always plan to have your own business or was there a particular trigger?
I always wanted to go into catering. One of my grandfathers worked in sales for a national food producer and the other grandfather was national catering manager on the Pullman trains before he became one of the first lecturers in catering at Newcastle College. I knew hospitality meant long hours so I had a vision that if I was going to work long hours then I was going to work for myself and get the benefits.

Finding the right people is consistently the biggest challenge for businesses. How do you find talent?
We try to find people who are quite raw then grow and develop them by identifying what their own plans are and what they need in terms of training and development. Everyone in the group who works more than 20 hours a week has a training and development programme. We work closely with NVQ training providers and national apprenticeships. We've formed a good alliance with Sunderland University and a number of our key personnel, including our brewery sales manager and our marketing manager, were post-graduate interns from the university. 

How do you retain good people? Do you have formal rewards and incentive schemes in your business?
We used to have a Christmas party, which was usually just a night of drinking. Out of 250 staff we realised the same 100 were coming, so it wasn’t engaging everyone. So this year we are having an awards dinner “a night at the Grafters” to celebrate and recognise our staffs hard work and achievements.

How have you funded your businesses?
We attracted Regional Growth Funding to launch Sonnet 43. When we bought the businesses from Tavistock Leisure and Durham Estates we got a loan for £3.5m from NatWest, who have been nothing but fantastic for us. They fully support what we're doing and treat our relationship as a partnership.

Most businesses have ups and downs? Which highs have you celebrated, and what’s been the worst low?
The highs come from the recognition we're receiving at national level. I've won a few entrepreneurial awards but as a business we won two Great Taste Awards for our beers in 2013, which were confirmed in 2014. We were runner-up in The Publican best micro-brewery owned pub company and have won a best cask pub award for Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland. When we felt the recession coming we decided to downscale, take out any businesses that weren't profitable and concentrate on the core business, which was hotels. When we were battening down the hatches I was quite disengaged because it wasn’t where I wanted to be. But out of that we have changed, formulated a new company with a strong direction, so it wasn’t all bad.

What did you learn from both the positive and the negative experiences?
Positive things like awards spur you on to do even better and push you to reach the next level. In the recession we stripped the meat off the bone and became fighting fit, which was a good process to go through. I don’t think we will return to how we were; we will always be lean in the future. It also gave me the time to think about what I really wanted to do. 

How have you made your businesses be innovative and stand out?
I realised that a lot of the guys who start micro-breweries are interested in and dedicated to brewing but a lot don't have marketing or brand acumen; they're literally brewing and selling. I wanted to build a brand. There was a time when I wouldn't have spent money on branding but since we've been working with Ian Smith and the team at Surreal Creative I've come to realise the value of working with great people. We're buying a pub in Consett in 2015 and we're working very closely with Surreal on that, as well as realigning the Roker Hotel brand and developing a brand for a new range of craft keg beers. Surreal live and breathe Sonnet 43; they understand what it's all about because they've been integral to its creation. I usually manage interior design but at the Roker Hotel I've brought in Collective Design from Newcastle - our clientele there is complex and obviously we want to bring in new customers; meeting everyone's needs is a challenge so I felt I needed some expert help.

What have been the biggest benefits to your business from technology?
Financial control and sales systems like EPOS have become very advanced and give you a lot of control, which helps you improve your margins. Social media is a huge and important part of the business. We used to use text marketing a lot which we found to be a great tool during the recession as it works particularly well with short lead- time offers as long as you’ve built up your customer database of mobile numbers. We also use an interactive, online training platform for customer facing staff.

Where will growth come from? 
With the brewery we have a lot of untapped markets in different parts of the country. Our sales manager and I have just completed an exports training course. In the UK producers only pay half duty up to a certain level of production and we are rapidly approaching that level so we have identified exporting to the US, New Zealand and Australia, Canada and Europe as critical new markets for us.

Where or to whom do you look for inspiration?
I do come up with a lot of ideas myself, but my father-in-law was very successful in business and is now turning that success into significance in South Africa. He started the Tyne and Wear youth football leagues and built a facility in Newbottle. Now they send the boys’ old football boots to children in South Africa. He also runs soup kitchens in the townships. 

Did you have a mentor when starting out? What did you learn from them? 
My father-in-law taught me a lot about quality of service, quality of product and that customers spending leisure time and money choose very carefully.

Where do you see your future?
In five years time, with the brewery and our target 12 pub restaurants, the business will be very scaleable and through VCs or company backing we will be able to take it to national level.

What does success look like for you?
For me it’s about sustainability, being able to help and support local producers. We have a good level of success now and we’ve very much set ourselves up to be significant in other people’s lives. It’s not all about the profit, but being able to make the profit puts you in a better position to try and be significant.