An Interview With Tim Martin, Chairman Of J.D. Wetherspoon
All content by Joff Alexander-Frye
Tim Martin is a well-known man, as the founder and long-time Chairman of national pub chain J.D Wetherspoon. He is also enigmatic, outspoken and controversial. However, none of those things is necessarily a negative thing. In an age where offence and controversy seem to be less and less tolerated (ironic, as tolerance is one of the main things that people profess to practice nowadays), it feels like sometimes, the world needs people who are willing to speak their mind and stand up for something, even if it isn’t a widely popular belief. Not to the point of criminal, unethical or immoral behaviour, of course, but if the future of the human race is built solely upon a foundation of what we agree on, it could be a rocky ride. Perhaps, instead, the challenge laid before us as humans is to work out ways of co-existing, dare I say collaborating, despite our differences and disagreements.
Tim Martin is one of those people who, unashamedly, stands up for what he believes in. This often makes him the focal point for ridicule and criticism because, as I found out when I met him for a coffee recently, some of his opinions are very strong indeed and he doesn’t mind who hears them.
Born in England, he spent most of his childhood years in Dungannon, County Tyrone in Northern Ireland where his parents and one set of grandparents were from. At the age of ten, Tim moved out to New Zealand for five years, before returning to Belfast and then going on to study law at Nottingham University.
He qualified as a Barrister at the age of twenty-four and, early on in his career used to go drinking at an independent pub in Muswell Hill, North London, which had been converted from a bookies; different from the traditional brewery-owned model in that area at the time. In 1991, the previous landlord left the pub and Tim chose to take over the lease, calling it Martin’s Freehouse for a month before someone smashed the window which the name was displayed on. After having second thoughts, Tim decided to call the pub Wetherspoon, named after a teacher who had taught him at school and couldn’t control the class. Tim felt like he couldn’t control the pub he had just taken over so, almost jokingly, named the pub after this former teacher. Some people have misinterpreted that story and believe that Tim named the company after a teacher who said he would never make it in life, but Tim confirmed that version of the story to be false.
This first Wetherspoon pub enjoyed the freedom to sell beer from any brewer that they desired (as they weren’t tied to a particular one). Even with no experience of running a pub and despite making many mistakes, this freedom from breweries meant that they achieved meaningful success in their first few years. So much so, that Tim implemented a unique expansion model of buying premises, initially in the Tottenham and Haringey areas of North London, which had never been pubs before and he re-licensed them. After thirteen years of fast-growth, Tim made the momentous move of floating J.D Wetherspoon on the Stock Exchange, with a total of forty-four pubs at the time. They were clearly doing something right.
Now with over nine hundred pubs, and employing over thirty-five thousand staff, Tim spoke openly about the culture of his business, his attempts to weave that into the very fabric of each pub and his desire to listen to both staff and customers from all around the country. He commented,
“The collective knowledge of the staff who work in the pubs is far greater than any individual. My aim is to absorb as much information as possible from staff and customers, to make better decisions that represent our teams and clientele more accurately.”
With family ties in South Zeal, near Okehampton, Tim is a frequent visitor to Exeter and commented on the changes that he has seen in the city, saying,
“Over the last twenty-five years or so, the city has changed significantly. From its much-improved retail offering to the growing food and drink scene and nightlife of the city, it really is a more buzzing and vibrant place to be. Of course, there are growing pains for a city like Exeter that is growing so fast, but better those than shrinking pains.”
We also talked about his outspoken opinions on Brexit and his assessment of the ‘democratic deficit’ of the European Union. He was actually far more level-headed than I expected him to be, stating,
“Our customers have been very tolerant of my opinions so far. I know fully that many of them will disagree with me, but if you can’t have an honest, frank discussion over a pint in a pub, then where else can you? Also, people won’t moan if it means cheaper pints once we have exited the EU.”
I came away from my time with Tim feeling pleasantly surprised at the actual man he is rather than the media-tainted version of him that is so often portrayed. Sure, he’s not perfect, but who is? ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’, as a pretty wise man once said…