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Pints of interest: the rise of J D Wetherspoon

How did J D Wetherspoon become the most successful pub chain in Britain?

Early life of Tim Martin
Timothy Randall “Tim” Martin (born 1955), was born in Norwich, the son of Northern Irish parents. His father was a former Royal Air Force pilot who worked as an executive for Guinness. Due to his father’s career Martin was raised in New Zealand and Belfast.

His parents had a “fiery relationship” and “were not particularly well-suited”, and divorced when Martin was 15. He remained friendly with his father but had a distant relationship with his mother.

Martin credited his education at Campbell College in Belfast for instilling his work ethic. He recalled, “I realised how important the culture of an institution can be”.

Martin studied law at the University of Nottingham. He acquired a taste for cask ale from local breweries such as Shipstone’s and the Home Brewery, reflecting:

there were a lot of very old-fashioned, sleepy pubs run by regional family brewers. They hadn’t been modernised and I think subconsciously that inspired me.

Martin acquires the lease of Marler’s Bar
Martin moved to north London in order to qualify as a barrister in 1978. He described the pub scene in the metropolis as “bloody awful” compared to Nottingham, typified by “loud music, keg beer and high prices”. He reflected, “the keg beer they served was terrible. I used to head south of the river to drink Young’s Special and Fuller’s ESB. If there had been pubs near me like the ones in Nottingham when I was a student, I probably would never have started Wetherspoon’s”.

Martin eventually found a pub in his locality which appealed to him: Marler’s Bar in fashionable Muswell Hill. The proprietor, Andrew Marler (born 1953), had acquired the lease of a small betting shop, and converted it into a bar in early 1979. It was one of relatively few free houses (not tied to sell beer from a single brewery) in the capital at the time.

Martin later recalled that “I was convinced that if you put a pub like that in every suburb they would all do well”. He sold his flat and a half share in his house for £11,000 and used the money as a deposit to enter into a £70,000 eight year lease with Marler from late 1979. The pub was renamed Martin’s Free House.

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“It was reasonably chaotic at the outset”, recalled Gerry Martin (born 1957), brother to Tim, who managed the pub for a few months. Tim Martin reflected, “I was 24 and I became a landlord, a really bad one. I was willing to learn but it was a fiery crucible. By year three, I had just about learned how to run a pub”. However sales were brisk, largely due to the fact the the pub was free to sell cask ales from regional brewers that were relatively unknown in the capital, such as Greene King of Bury St Edmunds’ Abbot Ale.

Martin develops the Wetherspoons formula
Martin was keen to develop a chain of pubs, but he was hampered by the lack of prime location properties available on the market. He commented, “the key is position, position, and yet more position”. A converted car showroom in Crouch End became the second pub in 1981.

Martin quickly gained expertise in gaining planning permission and securing drinks licences. He reinvested his profits and acquired debt in order to expand the business. Further unconventional premises such as former banks, supermarkets, churches and cinemas were acquired. Freehold sites were preferred.

Martin eventually developed a formula of low prices, cask ale, and no music. Careful attention was paid to pub food and decor. Keen pricing attracted students and pensioners who provided regular custom and what Martin described as “a good mix of clientele”. Martin described the key characteristics of a successful pub as “cleanliness, good lighting, warm[th], happy customers [and] happy staff”.

By the time the business was incorporated as J D Wetherspoon in 1983 there were eight pubs. The Wetherspoon name came from a teacher of Martin’s who struggled to control his class.

Comparisons began to be made between the chain’s values and the ideal English pub as described by George Orwell in his essay The Moon Under Water. Whilst the similarities were initially coincidental, Martin consequently adopted Orwell’s template, and a number of outlets were named after the essay title.

Six prime North London sites were sold for over £2 million in 1987.

Tim Martin sold a 25 percent stake in the company to Scottish & Newcastle, a large brewer, for £1.5 million in 1988. The chain began to stock Scottish & Newcastle beers such as Younger’s Scotch Bitter and Theakston’s Best.

J D Wetherspoon becomes a public company
J D Wetherspoon was floated on the stock exchange in 1992. By this time there were 44 pubs, all situated in London. Scottish & Newcastle sold its stake in the business, although it continued to be a major beer supplier to the chain.

Wetherspoon introduced an all day food menu from 1993. Inspired by McDonald’s, he dedicated one third of his floorspace as smoke-free areas.

New properties were double the average pub size, and had almost 100 percent higher turnover, although margins were lower. The Moon Under Water in Manchester was opened as the largest pub in Britain in 1995. Martin commented, “The big pub is a winning formula for us. So much work goes into every application for a licence and permission to open that the bigger the premises the bigger the return for all that effort.”

J D Wetherspoon entered the FTSE 250 in 1996. It was the largest pub chain by volume sales in Britain.

The first outlet in Scotland was opened in 1997. 100 outlets were opened across Britain in 1998.

One third of profits have been distributed to staff since 1998.

Wetherspoon had grown to 300 outlets by 1999. An advantage of converting former banks and supermarkets was that the company was able to significantly reduce its tax bill due to capital allowance benefits. Its rate of corporation tax was three percent in 1998, and five percent in 1999. Wetherspoon therefore had a significant incentive to expand its number of outlets, and it helps explain how and why the company expanded so quickly. The legal loophole was closed in 2001.

Outlet sales were four times that of the average pub by 2001.

From 2001 Wetherspoon began to wholeheartedly push its food offering, taking on the likes of Starbucks and McDonald’s with its own range of coffees and burgers. Martin commented, “I was in central London going to one of our pubs and I went by a Starbucks. It was bloody full and when I went to our pub it was empty. So I said, ‘We’ve got to do coffee'”.

Pubs opened from 10am in order to cater to the increasingly important breakfast market from 2002.

Continued expansion
J D Wetherspoon banned smoking in all of its pubs in 2005, ahead of the national ban. 9am openings, and TVs (on silent) were rolled out across the chain from 2006. Food accounted for half of all sales by 2007. That year free wifi was introduced across the chain.

From April 2010, all pubs opened at 7am for the breakfast market. This was not altogether successful, and opening times have since largely been scaled back to 8am. Nevertheless, the company became second only to McDonald’s in the breakfast market.

Wetherspoon entered the Republic of Ireland market from 2013. Guinness and Murphy’s stouts were not stocked due to pricing concerns.

The number of outlets peaked at 951 in 2015. This number had declined to 809 by 2024. Martin explained, “I think what we found was that, in quite a lot of towns, we put two pubs where we should have had one. So we’ve tended to go back to one and enlarged the one that remains”.

What next for Wetherspoon? Tim Martin has stated that he is keen to open outlets in France, having explored potential sites in Paris, Calais and Lille.