Young’s boss Patrick Dardis: Britain’s boozers deserve a big cut in VAT

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Like every good landlord, Dublin-born businessman Patrick Dardis has a few tales to tell from his 20 years at Young’s Pubs. For a start, the rugby-mad boss of the 190-year-old pub chain makes no secret of the enjoyment he still gets from socialising. At a recent Ireland v Scotland rugby game, Dardis was putting away pints until the early hours – he says he didn’t count exactly how many.

But, over a glass of Brooklyn Pilsner at The Britannia pub in Kensington, West London, he says the days of raucous sessions with his rugby pals when he used to sink 20 pints are long in the past: ‘I’m 63 years old, no I couldn’t do that any more.’ 

Dardis announced his retirement in March, after six years at the top of Young’s. He will formally stand down at the annual meeting in July, when Simon Dodd, the chief operating officer, will take over. 

Calling time: Patrick Dardis is leaving after 20 years at Young’s, which he says has bounced back from lockdowns

Not that there has been any question of slowing down. In his final months he was still on the lookout for new properties, adding to more than 200 in the portfolio. Earlier this year, he went to a pub in the Cotswolds, which he said was ‘the best designed I have ever seen’. He sent his team to compile a ‘full report’ on what Young’s could learn. 

A few weeks later Dardis had a meeting with the owner. ‘I tried to buy it, of course, but he is not a seller at the moment.’ 

He did purchase a handful of upmarket Lucky Onion pubs and hotels earlier this year, also in the Cotswolds, from millionaire Superdry founder Julian Dunkerton. The acquisition capped his ambitions – first as retail director from 2002 to 2016, then as chief executive – to transform the group from a chain of ‘male-dominated boozers’ to ‘the most premium pub company in the country’. 

Its customer base now is evenly split between men and women.

Even as he steps down, he remains a champion of the pub trade, which has been hard hit by the pandemic lockdowns and now by the cost-of-living crisis.

Last week, a survey found the price of a pint in London exceeded £8 for the first time in history as business costs rise. The 5,500 location survey by hospitality research firm CGA found the average price across the UK had increased from £2.30 in 2008 to £3.95 this year, an increase of more than 70 per cent. 

There are fears price hikes could encourage drinkers to stay at home. Over 10,000 pubs and restaurants could face closure thanks to a ‘perfect storm’ of inflation soaring energy costs and rising rents, according to UK Hospitality. 

Kate Nicholls said the hospitality sector is facing ‘as big a crisis, if not bigger’ than during the pandemic. She estimated 20,000 of UK Hospitality members’ businesses are operating below break-even and 30,000 have no cash reserves. 

Dardis says the hospitality sector needs more attention from politicians. ‘The industry looks after 3.2million jobs – one in every six in every community in the country. It needs a full-time Minister, looking after the people of that industry,’ he says. 

He also wants a permanent reduction in VAT and an overhaul of the business rates system to give pub and restaurant operators some financial breathing room. 

‘The Government needs to start respecting and appreciating how important this sector is to the UK economy,’ he says. Dardis’s retirement from the business next month comes after a meteoric career – he describes becoming a chief executive as like a ‘boyhood dream’. 

One of eight children, he says he was the only one from his ‘very humble background’ to leave Ireland. He jokes: ‘I am the black sheep of the family. I am the only one over here and they are back home.’ 

He kicked off his working life as a lifeguard at London’s Tooting Bec Lido aged 19. Life at the time was ‘a party’, he says. When it became time to find a ‘proper job’, Dardis wound up at an employment centre in Wimbledon and was told he could interview for the nearby Courage brewery. 

At the time, he had never heard of it. The well-lubricated interview process wound up with Dardis dancing an Irish jig behind a bar with Courage’s director and general manager. The job centre thought he had blown his chances, but Courage invited him to start straightaway. 

It was his first rung on the pub and brewing industry ladder, which he would spend 35 years climbing. 

Dardis stayed at Courage for seven years before moving to Premier Inn owner Whitbread and then Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries, overseeing its takeover by Marston’s. After a stint at Guinness, he wound up at Young’s. 

His ascent to the top came at a cost: the breakdown of his marriage to Heather, 53. She said he ‘was always so knackered on a Friday’ when she wanted to go out. But the couple, who have two sons in their mid-20s, were remarried years later. 

‘When we got back together I told myself when Heather says, ‘Oh darling, it’s Friday night, are we going to the pub?’ I say, ‘Of course we are.’ 

The company’s shares rose from £12.13 when he took the chief executive’s job to a peak of £18.00 two years later. They crashed during the pandemic but have recently recovered to around £12.30.

After selling the bulk of its 63 tenanted pubs last year, Young’s can now focus on its directly managed business which has almost doubled in size since his arrival to 222 properties. It used the £53million from the sale to further spruce up its estate and make new acquisitions. One analyst described the pubs as a ‘golden standard’. 

Young’s is also hoping its well-heeled customers, already spending £2.30 more on a bottle of wine than before the pandemic as they try out more expensive varieties, are nicely positioned to help it weather any economic buffeting ahead. Simon Dodd is expected to continue in similar vein. Insiders say it will be a case of ‘same menu, different chef’. 

But it is a bittersweet time to leave Young’s, having steadied the ship and set the chain up for a post-Covid bounceback. 

Dardis says: ‘If I thought we were not through this and in a good place, I would stay on another year, have no doubt about it. But we are in a stronger position.’ 

He says he is looking forward to more time walking his dogs and playing golf, but insists he will not leave the industry completely. He hopes to take up non-executive roles – and spend more time in the pub.

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