Tycoons of the Giro Economy
Peter Hetherington profiles three men who are proving that money and reputations can still be made in Britain’s hardest-hit region, the North-east
The large white Mercedes – Joe 5 – draws up outside Joe’s prestige cocktail bar, a chrome and neon ‘thirties throwback called Berlins, once the humble Midland pub.
The place is heaving, like all Joe’s bars. Frank, the head barman – “he can mix 200 cocktails from memory, a real professional” – is pouring like mad. Weekend again. Big money time. With a half pint of lager at £1 and a gin and tonic at £2, big prices, too. But no one grumbles in big-spending, high-living Newcastle.
Joe Robertson, former sales assistant, trainee cinema manager, ships steward, [ ] group manager, mirror manufacturer and now boss of burgeoning pubs-to-property empire says he has definitely “profiled” Berlins high. It is unashamedly a Yuppie bar (“they’re happy to pay for something special”), flagship of his city leisure group and a model for other cities.
His other moneyspinning bars, like Maceys or Luckies, are being copied elsewhere in Britain, courtesy of Joe’s other offshoot, City Design Group. He has expanded into London and acquired a Soho site for what he calls a “mega pub”. And he has other plans.
Visitors from the big breweries come to marvel at his success. Just where is all the port this spending spree in the capital of the region with mainland Britain’s highest jobless rate, where almost one in five is officially out of work?
Behind his modest cigar the boss gives a clue. “On Thursday it’s £20 notes, Friday its tenners, Saturday its fivers, Sunday down to one pound, and for the rest of the week it’s loose change.”
A Giro economy? Well, perhaps. “They come out of school and go on the dole – maybe they’re at home and mum’s so soft she doesn’t take any keep so they go down town, buy a pair of jeans and come to sociable places like these.”
Joe Robertson, aged 38, left school in Newcastle with two O levels and a proficiency in arithmetic. After a string of jobs, he borrowed £500 from his mum in 1979 and opened an up-market bar and burger café in an old coffee house. “It took me three weeks to realise there was no money in burgers and a lot in drinks.”
He opened five other bars, sold out to a big brewer for a tidy sum in 1984, then returned 18 months later to start again. He says he now has commercial property worth £6.5 million in Newcastle alone and is attracted by London, where he has a spacious flat in Park Lane. He employs 350, including some YTS teenagers, and symbolises Mrs Thatcher’s enterprise economy. The Employment Secretary, Lord Young, long obsessed with the service sector would certainly be impressed.
Joe’s values are unashamedly Tory, and he has strong views about an “indisciplined” education system turning out teenagers difficult to employ. Yet he says he is not ideologue. “The staff know if they’ve got a problem I’ll help them, but we’re not a union company. We just sacked three employees for a very good reason. They ended up joining a union, and this official came on the phone saying we were the kind of company in the region that didn’t care about jobs, and I said, “Hang on a minute, what about all the people we employ?” Look, if someone came to me asking for a job I’d help them or point them to someone else”.
Rich? “No, not really. OK, the company is worth a few quid but I just get a salary like anyone. Nice car, nice house, nice holidays, that’s all. But remember this place is the pub and club empire of the UK.”