Belfast Telegraph

JD Wetherspoon: Belfast-born Tim Martin runs one of Britain's biggest pub chains and is creating 100 new jobs in the city

In 1946, writing in London's Evening Standard, George Orwell set out his ideal of what a pub should be. His view was that beer was not the most important quality of a great pub, but "what people call its 'atmosphere'." Orwell's fictional Moon Under Water would always be "quiet enough to talk" and not have "a radio, nor a piano".

The Animal Farm writer's archetypical tavern was an inspiration for JD Wetherspoon founder and chairman Tim Martin. The former Campbell College pupil's chain of pubs is synonymous for not having any music, having space between the tables, and, most importantly, cheap drinks.

The fictional pub created by Orwell has played such an influence on the chain's chairman that Wetherspoons now owns 14 pubs called Moon Under Water.

Orwell called for his pub to have architecture and fittings which were "uncompromisingly Victorian" and not be what he called "modern miseries." Tim Martin has embraced the old tavern feel and has been drawn to landmark buildings when making acquisitions in Northern Ireland.

Its Coleraine pub occupies the old courthouse, in Ballymena the chain is housed in a former spinning mill, while in Enniskillen its based in a former linen hall.

This has been a pattern the discount pub chain has adopted throughout the UK, with it occupying a former swimming pool in Sheffield, a former theatre in Cardiff, and a former bank in Leeds.

Hospitality industry blogger Belfast Barman believes Wetherspoons's policy of restoring ageing building sets it apart from other pub chains. "Wetherspoons can't be looked on in the same way as an O'Neills, or a Walkabout, pub; many of them are distinct and individual, often restoring fantastic buildings into thriving businesses," he explained.

Within the industry, Tim Martin has been viewed an innovator and someone who will always embark on a path of his own. Under his leadership, Wetherspoons banned smoking in its pubs in 2006 - a year before the smoking ban was introduced in the UK.

Timothy Randall Martin was born in Belfast on April 28, 1955. His father worked for Guinness and became the brewer's Malaysian marketing director. The family travelled constantly (Tim went to 11 schools in all).

After his parents divorced, he won a place at Nottingham University to study law, but hated it. Early jobs included working on a construction site and as a sales representative for The Times.

The JD Wetherspoon journey started when he opened his first pub in north London in 1979, with the name coming from JD 'Boss' Hogg in American TV series The Dukes of Hazzard. (The second part of the name came from his geography teacher in New Zealand, who told him he would never amount to anything.)

At 6ft 6ins tall, he has been described as a "giant of the British pub industry". He is also known for sporting a mullet haircut. He is married with four children.

The year 2014 was a strong one for JD Wetherspoon; in the 52 weeks to July 2014, revenues rose to £1.41bn from £1.28bn, while pre-tax profits increased by 3.1% to £79.3m.

The firm is now a publicly listed company, after floating on the London Stock Exchange in 1992, but Mr Martin still owns a major part of the business.

Belfast Barman added: "I think Tim Martin is a great figurehead for the pub industry, he has achieved fantastic things and grown the company whilst setting trends, not following them.

"However, while many jobs are being created year-on-year, the vast majority are minimum wage and zero-hour contracts. Tim Martin is a fantastic business leader, but it remains to be seen if he's a good boss, too."

One area which Mr Martin has received criticism over is Wetherspoons use of zero-hours contracts. The widespread use of the contracts has been controversial - staff only get paid for the hours they work and the contract does not require the employer to offer any guarantee of work.

In 2013, it was revealed close to 80% of the company's employees were on these contracts.

Tim Martin has defended this practice, saying Wetherspoons' staff on zero-hours contracts are still able to claim holiday pay, sick pay and maternity pay, as well as being able to claim free shares and bonuses, unlike at many other companies that offer them.

He said: "We paid £29.2m in respect of bonuses and free shares to employees in the year, slightly more than the previous year, of which 96% was paid to staff below board level and 82% was paid to staff working in our pubs."

Last year saw the firm acquire two new sites in Belfast - the first pub it will open in the city since 2000, when it launched its Bedford Street branch.

In October, it announced it was taking over a former Methodist church on University Street and, last month, confirmed it had acquired a building on Royal Avenue, which was previously JJB Sports.

"It's early days for the new pubs and we have to go through the planning and application process," he said. "It's been very successful so far and I'm hoping for between £3m-£4m being invested between the two outlets, creating 100 jobs. I believe people will think it'll help improve the scene in the city."

The firm will be hoping to attract student clientele to the new pubs from Queen's University and Ulster University, which moves to York Street from Jordanstown in 2016. Mr Martin added that, if these two new pubs were successful, the firm could open many more in the province.

The discount pub chain already has 931 pubs in the UK and Ireland, of which nine are in Northern Ireland, and plans to open another 200 pubs over the next five years.

Last month also saw the company clash with Heineken, over the chain selling the brewer's pints of Heineken lager and Murphy's stout at around 40% cheaper than its competitors in Blackrock.

This has led the discount pubs to stop stocking Heineken products, a contract worth around £60m annually.

This is not the first time Mr Martin has fallen out with a drinks distributor. Wetherspoons no longer works with Diageo, the supplier of Guinness, after a fallout over pricing.

A life so far

  • Born: Timothy Randall Martin, Belfast, April 28, 1955
  • Education: 11 schools (including Campbell College, Belfast) and Nottingham University
  • Position: founder and chairman of pub chain JD Wetherspoon
  • Status: Married with four children
  • He says: “I’m hoping for £3m-£4m being invested between the two new Belfast outlets, creating 100 jobs.”
  • They say: ”Tim is a great figurehead for the pub industry. He has grown the company while setting trends, not following them.” — Hospitality blogger Belfast Barman

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