If you’ve got it, then flaunt it!
Joe Robertson believes in doing things in style. It’s a philosophy that has made him a wealthy man. Now the man who changed Newcastle nightlife has designs on London. RICHARD GIBBON reports on the flamboyant Mr. Robertson and his fast growing empire.
Exporting wine bars to London might seem like a highly risky business. Rather like carrying coals to Newcastle, you might say.
Exporting winebars from the beer-soaked confines of Tyneside to the heart of the trendy West End of England’s capital might be construed as a particularly crazy notion.
Not to Joe Robertson, however! He sees it as an eminently good idea, well worth the £300,000 he has pumped into the venture and full of potent profit potential.
Robertson is the bearded, open-shirted, doormat-chested wine bar wine bar wizard of Newcastle city centre. A man who loves to spend money and make it – a man who once confessed:
“At school I used to write the lines out for other boys in exchange for cash – I was always looking for ways to make money.”
And he is worth a lot of money. Two years ago he sold out a chain of then very up-market wine bars for £2m. Now he has built up another chain, again spending lavishly on them, and he has more lined up for further expansion. His company, the City Leisure Group, has a £5m turnover and a string of assets which have excellent long-term growth.
The jewels in the Robertson crown, however, are not just plush watering holes. The firm has a commercial development under way in St. Mary’s Place, Newcastle, which will provide shopping, a pub, restaurant and antiques market in what will be the nearest lure for the wage packets of the Civic Centre.
Then there is a car park in High Bridge, slap in the city centre, where 26 spaces are available from £650 a year and a “free wheel clamp” for those that shouldn’t be there! Plus all of 23 to 29 High Bridge (property), the freehold on Thoms store in High Bridge, a coffee shop in Eldon Square, a shoe repair bar in the Greenmarket, the freehold on no’s 44 to 48 Cloth Market and a thriving design consultancy company call City Design Services which, itself, has a turnover of more than £½m.
Says Robertson: “Our rent roll is around £200,000 a year which is extremely useful income”.
The property portfolio, of course, includes his three new Newcastle wine bars; Macey’s (which used to be the Lord Chancellor in the Groat Market), Masters (formally the Post Office and next to the building of the same name which sells stamps etc) and Berlins (which used to be called the Midland). Robertson owns and runs all three, bricks and mortar, the lot. In total they have cost him around £1m in cash. There is also a pub called the Brandling in Jesmond which is a joint venture with Vaux. And then there is … London. Says Robertson: “London is slightly different in that we just have the leasehold – but we will make a lot of money out of the two bars we have just opened. We spent £300,000 on them. We intend to get it back and a lot more!”
The London bars are Maceys in Duke Street (near Selfridge) and Duke’s in New Cavendish Street. Both are in the heart of London’s wealthiest business and shopping area. By night the same region is a night club and wine bar gold mine – especially in the main tourist season.
Yet the London wine bars presented problems even before they were opened. Says Robertson, age 37: “I had big problems getting people to work down there. They are so laid back and casual about work. Up here people are hungry but, in London, they turn a blind eye unless you pay them a small fortune.”
“I had trouble with contractors who thought a £300,000 work contract was peanuts. I had trouble with London workers who wouldn’t take off their jackets for less than £65 a day, and I had trouble with finding the right properties for renovation work. I was gazumped six or seven times in my search.
But you have to keep on truckin’ as they say and, in the end, I was able to get the whole road show together”.
This was done by ferrying down busloads of North East workers to London to carry out the wine bar refurbishment programme; by employing local contractors to do the work (Tunnah and Clifford of Chester-le-Street and Southrens of Dipton, near Stanley) and by “bashing a few Cockney heads” when people got “Stroppy” in London.
Has Robertson any desire to move to London? “Absolutely not,” he says. “I am a typical Geordie. I could never leave the place. I would miss it terribly. I fully intend to stay in the North East. Newcastle has charisma, character and style and its night life probably outstrips any other city in Britain. Coachloads of people come here to drink and dance the night away.”
They do a lot of drinking in Robertson’s bars – just as they did in the chain that he sold (Ricks, Legends, Pumphreys, Sloanes etc) back in 1984. In spite of the city centre’s “crazy” rates Robertson can make his business ventures pay – and pay well. He believes the money he puts into expensive fittings is repaid by punters who like to be surrounded with style.
Joe Robertson celebrates the opening of Berlins.
Whether Robertson sells off his bars a second time around remains to be seen. He’s not indicating either way! But he will admit that he has “several other ventures lined up” in this region and that he is currently negotiating over eight major property sites “here and there”… “We acquire property, in the main, for development, regularisation and investment and I believe in it as an asset. It will always be the mainstay of the balance sheet of the City Leisure Group company,” he says.
What about Robertson’s own profile? He’s been dubbed flash and brash. He’s been seen spending huge sums of money on wild and fancy schemes.
“I like to do things in style,” he confesses. “And what’s wrong with that?”
Shortly before our interview ended we got talking about marriage and weddings. And he admitted: “There were a couple of things I didn’t do at my wedding which I regretted”.
What these two things were typifies Robertson the man, the businessman and the success story.
“Firstly, I should have gone from the hotel to the airport by helicopter. Secondly I should have served up champagne on trellis tables to all my guests as they milled about in the church grounds waiting for the pictures to be taken. Those would have been excellent touches!”
For a man who honeymooned, anyway, on the QE2, who has a villa in the south of France, a vast house in one of the most exclusive parts of Newcastle, two large Mercedes coupes and may, many more trappings of wealth, such remarks are… straight from the heart!