Man With the Midas Touch
The man who changed the face of the Bigg Market here in Newcastle, put the city on the map for its luxurious and trendy pubs and queues of young people outside them, and became a millionaire when he sold out to one of the brewery giants, is all set to make his mark again.
But does the licensed trade’s blue-eyed boy still have what others see as The Midas Touch? Or is there another reason why Joe Robertson has switched from champagne to white wine…?
Joe Robertson is a happy man – even if he does say so himself.
Rocking and swinging in his swivel chair, he oozes the easy confidence of a man who knows how to succeed in business. And though he’s tried damned hard every inch of the way to do things better than anyone else, the effort is couched in a comfortable nonchalance. Making it all look easy is part of the game – but in reality it fools no-one.
Those who’ve known Robertson for years – nickname among friends Joe 90 after the TV puppet series – may well have grown accustomed to his sorties into an exclusive world of style and sophistication, albeit with his silken shirt unbuttoned halfway to his navel (hairy chest, gold chain).
Those who’ve come across the name relatively recently rightly associating it with the transformation of Newcastle City Centre into a trendy drinking place, have taken the J.R. tag to heart. It may not make him exactly the man you love to hate – but to see him driving around in £36,000 worth of white Mercedes, registration JOE5 doesn’t make everyone pleased for him, though smart car enthusiasts might like to have a look…
“The car is a good deal,” he says with a shrug. “I won’t lose money on it. It’s as simple as that. And I do enjoy driving it. It gives me pleasure. No, I wouldn’t want a Rolls. If you ever change a Rolls for something else, everyone else thinks you have gone skint. In any case, it’s a car for an older man.”
Robertson, 37, cares a great deal about what other people think. He doesn’t want anyone to think of him as a “clever so-and-so” nor as an inveterate show-of.
For years, he says he was careful not to tell his staff that he was going on holiday, say to Barbados, in case it made them feel small, or dissatisfied or simply uncomfortable. He’s learned differently, he admits. “They like people to know their boss is doing well, to be associated with success.
“They tell their friends ‘that’s my boss’s car’ and enjoy the link.”
These days Robertson mostly holidays in the South of France, where he has an apartment and an offshore motor cruiser name Louisa Scarlett. Her doesn’t like holidays much, he says, because leisure time hangs heavy on his hands.
Last year, with his £2.3m from the sale of his flash pubs to Allied Breweries accumulating nicely, the chairman of City Leisure Group took a four-month holiday with his wife, Sharon, and their daughter. There’s only so much lazing around you can do, he admits, so many meals to linger over, so much sun you can enjoy. “I thought about Newcastle and I looked forward to coming home.” As well he might…
In fact, when Robertson got back, he found a long line of people waiting to interest him in more city centre pub deals. “They all came to me,” he says. “In fact out of all the pubs and places we’ve been associated with, I only ever looked for one myself and that was Pumphreys way back in 1977.
Robertson has an amazing memory for times and places. Exactly 20 years ago, for example, he was working in a chartered accountant’s office in St. Mary’s place, Newcastle – by coincidence next door to one of his latest property acquisitions – for £3 10s and week.
“I supplemented my income by working as a D.J. in the jazz lounge of the Club a GoGo for 10 bob a night and a taxi home,” he grins. “I was always looking for a way to earn some money”.
“At school, which I hated, I used to write the lines out for the other boys in exchange for cash.”
It may have been way back then, perhaps, that he put down his ambition in a form that everyone would understand. He wanted, amazingly still wants, to be rich.
“I admit it,” he says strongly through the light beard. “I thoroughly enjoy the lifestyle that hard work brings. I like flying first class, the boat in the South of France, the cars. I drank white wine now instead of champagne but because of what it did to my stomach. And I like the work I do to get it all. The secret of long life is enjoyment. I don’t have sleepless nights. I don’t have stress”.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve been lucky. I’ve never found a way of making money that was easy”.
“There is no winning formula, no Midas touch. It’s all down to judgment, to keeping one’s ears open. There is something to be learned from every situation and yes, of course I’ve come a cropper. Lots of times.”
He goes back to the Sixties again, to his time as pop group manager, when bands travelled in vans and he had to hitch rides with lorry drivers because there was no room with the group. He remembers too a brief spell on a cruise ship as a steward – three weeks of making coffee in a tiny galley, three weeks too long…
And there was the mirror business – a phenomenally successful venture in which he and a partner Michael “Chips” Chippendale cornered the market for decorated mirrors worldwide until they reached saturation point, and the price of silver nitrate went up.
Robertson looks on Pumphreys as the turning point. Working sometimes 19 hours a day in the hamburger restaurant in the famous old coffee shop in the Cloth Market he once decided to go to the pictures on a night when heavy snowfalls kept all but eight diners away.
“Me and Sharon went to the ABC on Westgate Road to see Jaws 2,” he says, “And we couldn’t get in. There were eight people in Pumphreys eating and hundreds of people in the pictures. That’s when I realised that if people want to do something or go somewhere badly enough, they’ll do it no matter what. But you’ve got to give people what they want.”
“Far too may bars, for instance, get themselves all done up and then open the doors and wait for people to come in. That’s not our way. That’s why we do all the promotions and hand out leaflets and tickets and invitations. Invite people to come and see – and they will. Leave the door wide open and they may walk by.”
There’s a rhyme pinned on the wall in the reception area of this growing business empire. It reads:
“He who whispers down a well
About the goods he has to sell
Will never reap the pounds and dollars
Like he who climbs a tree and hollers.”
Robertson may not have a loud voice but when he talks people tend to listen, whether or not they’re paid to. When he sold out to Allied Breweries, he was retained for a year as a consultant.
Imagine his feelings, then, when last weekend, his year-long consultancy expired, on a walk through the city centre, he found Legends, one of his creations, had been literally disembowelled by the new owners.
“It cost £330,000 to create Legends three years ago,” he reveals. “And suddenly there was nothing left. I picked up a bit of the wooden bar moulding from a pile of rubbish inside as a souvenir. That’s it there, on the mantelpiece. Not much of a souvenir of a £330,000 investment, eh? It did bring me up with a start, I have to admit.”
Yet he knows he doesn’t have to worry, countless pubs and bars from one end of Britain to the other have been “Robertsoned,” his hallmarks of style and standards – polished wood, greenery, mirrors and plus – gainfully employed elsewhere, at a price of course.
The design work and perpetuation of the style are carried out by the eight-man design team, City Design Services just one of the 14 companies in the multi-million pound set-up under the City Leisure umbrella. Every major brewery has paid for that talent, he acknowledges. Every team of brewers who arrive in Newcastle are astounded at the luxurious emphasis on nightlife in the city.
Of course that makes it all harder to keep doing it, and to keep on doing it right. Roberson lays his trust in his team and his intuition in the lap of the gods. Style and attention to details he CAN do something about. He keeps lists at least a dozen, to tell him who’s doing what for him – and when and with what degree of success.
When Berlins, the first of the new acquisitions opens a week today, two “car jockeys” will park customers’ cars or them, and bring them back when they leave. A pianist will play at a grand piano and a real tree grows in the conservatory. A top London barman will dish up exotic cocktails. You get a lot of pub for £125,000, a lot of luxury.
It is a gamble, Robertson agrees. The old Midland pub round the back of the Central Station has never been a posh haunt – proving that you can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. And when that’s done, watch the others change, from The Post Office to the Lord Chancellors, a kind of natural extension of the Bigg Market success story he really made his own.
Then there are his two bars in London, both undergoing refits and refurbishment, The Bunch of Grapes in Duke Street (near Selfridges) and the Duke of York on New Cavendish Street (near Harley Street).
“It’s different down there,” he says. “London is nice for the buzz it gives you but I like coming home, being here, drinking in my pubs and listening to what people like.”
“Do you know, we put our staff through a staff training programme? People appreciate instruction and discipline. There are those who accused me of overstaffing my bars. But if a person is standing waving a £5 note at the bar then it’s a sin not to take it off them.”
Robertson never carries money – but has all the credit cards. He doesn’t shout about it but he gives freely and generously to charities and will go out of his way to help a child who’s suffering in any way he can. He’s sensitive to criticism, he agrees, and refers a dozen times to a newspaper article on him which he hated seven years ago. “I have it framed in the toilet at home,” he says.
Is the lad who started selling toys in Fenwicks in August 1964 nervous about his new Newcastle ventures – which are anything but playthings? “Scared stiff,” he says.