Joe Robertson Smooth Operator News Article

Smooth Operator

Joe Robertson, synonymous with street cred and big deals, is one of the UK’s most innovative entrepreneurs. Kate Trollope reports:

In the early 1980s there were two queues on Tyneside – the ever lengthening dole queue as thousands lost their jobs, and the crowds of young people trying to get into one of Joe Robertson’s bars.

The man who made his fortune bringing fashionable bars to Newcastle during the last recession is about to take advantage of the latest slump. Robertson is on the prowl. The objective is, once again, to build a new generation of pubs and bars.


In 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher came to power, Robertson borrowed £500 from his mum and opened Pumphrey’s, his first bar. Soon he had Legends, Brahms and Liszt, City Vaults and Sloanes. Money was tight but people still enjoyed themselves at Robertson’s bars. He sold out to Allied Breweries for £2.4 million in 1984.

It was the first of several big deals Robertson made as property prices soared and the leisure industry flourished in the 1980s. The flamboyant entrepreneur soon became a self-made millionaire. And to many he represented the resurgence of Newcastle, which was rapidly assuming the mantle of the UK trendsetting city.

“Even if people are on the dole they still go out on Friday and Saturday night”

Robertson’s current vehicle, City Leisure, is now investing in bars in London, Leeds and Newcastle because, Robertson believes, the themed pub business is as recession-proof as you can get. As a result, he has put his other business, property development, on hold to invest in projects he thinks will deliver a healthy cash flow. Robertson wants to create pubs where the staff perform dance routines as well as serve drinks, where you’re as likely to see a snake charmer as a pop video, and where every night is party night.

His skill lies in creating environments which appeal to 18 to 25 year olds, who have few financial commitments.

“The people who come don’t have a mortgage, often as not they live with their folks. They are young and they are looking for a partner,” he says.

“Even if people are on the dole, they still go out on Friday and Saturday night – it’s important for them to go out and meet other people.

And as property prices continue to fall, Robertson believes it is the perfect time to pick up some good sites. “There are bargains,” he says. “Rents haven’t moved ahead as rapidly as they did in the late 1980s. Landlords have realised they can’t over-charge our sector. And premiums don’t exist any more. The market is crying out for something new and I’ve got half a dozen London outlets in the pipeline which will meet this demand”.


Robertson has a sixth sense for pubs. He has spent years running them and many hours drinking in them. Even his critics describe him as a first rate operator. But Robertson’s timing in buying and selling has been as important to his success as the management of each unit.