Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin criticises Boris Johnson’s ‘pillar-to-post’ handling of the pandemic
The name Tim Martin, founder and chairman of Wetherspoons, seems to have a Marmite effect on most people. The outspoken Brexiteer sends some into a frenzy of vitriol, while others applaud his strongly held views about leaving the European Union.
Mr Martin has built his Wetherspoons empire up over the last four decades and still continues to play a very hands-on role.
We caught up with him, when he paid an unscheduled visit to The Hatchet in the Market Place, Newbury.
“I like to visit at least 10 of our pubs every week,” he explained “It’s important to meet up with staff. It’s amazing the information you can pick up. You have to keep moving in my job.
“Newbury was a difficult town to find a site – then like the buses two came along together [the first Newbury Wetherspoons opened where Walkabout is now].
"This has been a very good pub for us – we’ve extended it and have the garden out the back – it’s right in the centre of town, near the station, so it’s in a great central location.”
Mr Martin had stopped off at the Newbury venue on his way up from the West Country.
He had already visited other Wetherspoons in Bath, Swindon and Chippenham that morning and after a chat with the staff and managers at The Hatchet, he intended to visit a couple more before giving a talk in central London.
As one of the most vocal supporters of Brexit, you might assume that Mr Martin is a big fan of the Prime Minister.
“Fair play to him for getting Brexit done. The shall-we-shan’t-we debate had been going on too long. He grasped it and he saw it through.”
But Mr Johnson’s handling of the pandemic is another matter.
"I don’t think they [the Government] have handled it very well at all.”
He recalls an article written by the journalist Mathew Parris: “He pointed out that Boris is basically a columnist.
“That’s how he thinks. Each week he wants to come up with something interesting. That is not how to run an army or a hospital – or a country. You have to set a path which might vary a bit, but you don’t change direction all the time just because it’s interesting.
“I much prefer the Swedish approach – they’ve stuck to social distancing, hand-washing and trusting people rather than the pillar-to-post management style of Boris. I think it causes a lot of unnecessary angst and economic trouble.”
How has Wetherspoons weathered the pandemic storm of the last 18 months?
“It’s been extraordinarily difficult for pub managers and staff – mainly because they’ve got to try and implement whatever rules there are at the moment – it’s come down to people who are quite young having to go up to older people to tell them to put their masks on… most customers are fine, but it’s still stressful.”
Opening up on Monday he says was the right thing to do, provided it is sustainable.
“But if six weeks later we have to shut, then four weeks later change again, it’s no good.
“Last year we went from lockdown to reopening and Eat Out to Help Out, to curfews, to tiers, to closures and circuit breakers – whatever anyone says that’s extraordinarily inefficient and extraordinarily expensive for the UK and not very good for health, because people become confused about what they can and can’t do.
“Part of the problem as a business owner is that you can’t prepare – you just have to follow in the slipstream.
“It’s not just about the hospitality industry either – the travel industry has really suffered and the collateral damage includes newspapers.”
His sympathy for the press is perhaps a little surprising, given the roasting he received over remarks he made at the beginning of lockdown in 2020, which he says were taken out of context.
“Wetherspoons became fashionable about five years pre-pandemic, so everybody wanted to interview me etc, but at beginning of lockdown I had to face a tsunami of criticism based on misinformation. I’d always got on with the press up until then, but we had to get it clarified and corrected and that was a lot of hassle – people believe what they read.
“We’ve come out the other end and turned things around, but it was very time-consuming.”
If the Newbury team are anything to go by, Mr Martin has nothing to worry about from his staff. They were all at ease with ‘the big boss’ and indeed one of the bar staff was excited that she had finally got to meet a man she greatly admired – he, in his turn, seemed slightly bemused by her enthusiasm.
As we stood by the bar, one of the customers came up and asked him if it was ok if he took a photo, saying how he was a huge supporter. The business supremo was again a little disconcerted, perhaps more used to brickbats than plaudits.
On Brexit, he remains just as enthusiastic and sure that the country has done the right thing.
“Brexit has become subsidiary, relegated because of the pandemic, but the underlying principle is that self-determination and democracy work.
“It doesn’t mean you have to be hostile to your neighbours. In fact, the democratic Germany, Spain, France – the old enemies – we’re not going to go to war with them as long as they remain democratic, and we stay democratic. There is no reason to fall out with them.
“From an economic and liberty point of view democracy works and, in my opinion, the EU is going in the opposite direction, reducing the level of democracy.”
In the long term he believes trade won’t suffer, but “we have to get the other side of the pandemic first”.
“It has been tough, but there’s been collateral damage across the board for so many industries.
“We now need to get out of it in a coherent way and keep a sense of direction – stay on course. It is a pandemic, a virus, it’s not going away anytime soon so we have to use common sense.”
Mr Martin says he has had both vaccines and feels lucky that his family have not been affected by the virus.
During peak lockdown he says he was kept very busy dealing with the business finances and keeping the organisation going.
When I asked about the future of Wetherspoons, he laughed and trotted out a quote from Macbeth: ‘If you can look into the seeds of time, And say which grain will grow and which will not, Speak then to me…’
“Wouldn’t we like to know the future. We are subject to the economy, like all customer services, but I think the best we can do is to keep doing what we’re doing and keep improving.
“It sounds trite, but little tweaks on a weekly basis may be mundane, but they’re necessary.”
And at the age of 66, the businessman is showing no signs of stopping: “I’ve been in the business for 41 years and could keep going for another 41 – retire at 108 – who knows.”
And with that he heads off to surprise the staff at Bracknell.