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How to succeed in the hospitality trade

PUBLISHED: 15:03 20 August 2019 | UPDATED: 15:07 20 August 2019

Philip Turner, owner of The Chestnut Group  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Philip Turner, owner of The Chestnut Group Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

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When ex-banker Philip Turner entered the East Anglian hospitality trade in 2012 he admits that he was "really swimming against the tide".

Philip Turner, owner of The Chestnut Group  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNPhilip Turner, owner of The Chestnut Group Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

He bought his local pub in a village just outside of Newmarket - the Packhorse at Moulton - but he was at that point a hospitality novice.

"That was the accidental publican in me. I live in the village and bought the pub in 2012 not really understanding what I was going to do," he says.

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The ex-Greene King pub, which he opened for business in October 2013, had gone through 19 tenanted landlords in 20 years. At the time he bought the business, it was the only pub in the village. "I had no background in pubs and a lot of people thought we were buying it to get change of use to housing."

In fact, far from wanting to develop it for housing, he wanted to expand the business. He increased the number of guest rooms from four to eight to make it more viable.

Ashley Norton and Philip Turner from The Chestnut Group  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNAshley Norton and Philip Turner from The Chestnut Group Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

From there, he spied another opportunity to take on a pub business - the Rupert Brooke at Grantchester - which met his criteria for being in a key cultural area with scope for growth, and then another. In the last seven years the Chestnut Group has built up an impressive portfolio of nine freehold properties and one leasehold, chosen because of their locations in the heart of the region's most important cultural, historic or sporting assets.

The Chestnut Group is focused on an area framed by the A1 to the west and M25 to the south, taking in the Norfolk, Suffolk and Norfolk coastline. It includes The Northgate at Bury St Edmunds, the Black Lion at Long Melford, the Eight Bells at Saffron Walden, The Weeping Willow at Barrow, near Bury St Edmunds, the Westleton Crown, the Ship at Dunwich, and most recently the Crown at Stoke by Nayland.

So far, it's been a story of growth and success against a challenging backdrop for the sector, with only one very dark moment when the newly refurbished Blackbirds Inn at Woodditton in Cambridgeshire burned down 11 months after its launch.

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"I don't think I have ever felt so low as seeing the Blackbirds burn down," says Philip. Most importantly though, no one was hurt. Now the 16th century inn is being rebuilt and nine bedrooms added, and "in a perfect world", it may be ready for reopening by Christmas.

The ex-banker sees enormous scope for economic growth across the East Anglia as Londoners head north, lured by lower property costs and a better quality of life.

His ambition to grow the business through further acquisitions - Norfolk is a target area - is only limited by the teams he can recruit and the willingness of his 50-strong group of investors to support his plans.

"I think we are less than halfway there - it's a big area," he says. "I'm choosing what's the historical significance of the place but where are the changes going to happen. If you look at the north Norfolk coast (well served) and you look at the Suffolk coast (far from saturated), I don't think we are finished yet."

He has invested heavily in many of the properties, and his aim is to capture a customer base within an ambitious 25 to 30 miles radius. Some properties need less work than others. The Northgate, at Bury St Edmunds, which lies very close to the ruined abbey, was reworked following permission for change of use from a bed-and-breakfast, but has recently been given another makeover and re-launch after he and group growth manager Ashley Norton decided the original signage wasn't hitting the mark.

The son of bespoke furniture maker Edwin Turner, of Gislingham, near Eye, Philip grew up around Suffolk and Norfolk, going to school at Old Buckenham Hall and studying economics at Bristol University. He worked in London as a banker, and had a weekend home in Wiltshire, where he enjoyed the roaring fires and cosy atmospheres in the West Country pubs, which eventually became a template for his future business.

After divorce in 2006, he remarried and moved to Moulton - where his new wife lived - and was struck by the dearth of good quality hostelries. "There was nowhere to go, there was nowhere to celebrate. I think of East Anglia as having some of the best countryside the best foods we have so many assets in this region," he says.

The group now employs 295 staff and a turnover of £12.5m. Good staff is key, he believes, and his young team has wholeheartedly embraced the company's move to becoming more environmentally sustainable and playing an 'influencer' role in communities. It is currently carrying out an audit on its throwaway plastics use with a view to banning them completely, and uses local contractors on its projects wherever possible.

The hospitality trade has been a big learning curve, he admits, to someone coming from a sector where people are highly financial motivated (banking) to one in which employees can only think as far as their next rental payment. But if you get it right, "it's a complete and utter home run", he believes.

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