An enterprising couple returned from living in Australia armed with ideas to revive the British pub. Fifteen years on, the duo behind Geronimo Inns say their mission is succeeding
Jo Clevely I started Geronimo Inns with a partner 15 years ago. I wanted to create a female-friendly, warm and welcoming local pub that I would be happy to visit. We now have a selection of freehold neighbourhood pubs in central London, but we have also branched out to other sites, including three at airports and one in St Pancras station.
Rupert Clevely At the time of setting up I was running Veuve Clicquot in the UK and I was its worldwide marketing director. I was very busy and I didn’t want to give it up at that stage. I couldn’t because we didn’t know in 1995 if only one pub would be enough to look after the family.
JC We were lucky enough to live in Australia for three years in the early 1990s and we saw a lot of great ideas and food concepts, so when we got back to London we wanted to try to create something that was new and more upbeat. The English pub was really not a great and exciting place.
RC We wanted to take a traditional British pub and make it a lovely place to visit. That is what we set out to do and that is what I think the ethos of our business should still be.
JC Rupert is the boss; he is responsible for the operation of the company while I am involved in the property side. I spend all the money. He buys the pub and then I do it up—they are pretty clear jobs. He sometimes tries to get involved and has his opinion, which I value, but sometimes I tell him he is talking rubbish and other times I’ll agree with him.
RC I joined the business in 2000 when I was 43 and I just felt that at the time I had been in a corporate world for a very long time. I loved it, but I didn’t know whether I would outstay my welcome. I thought there was a great opportunity with what we were doing with Geronimo and it could give us an income we could survive on.
JC Because your working life is most of your time, we can share the experiences in the same way. Often if your husband is working in something different he doesn’t want to talk about it to his wife when he gets home so you don’t really know what they do. We can share in the trials and tribulations of the business.
RC I am a blue-sky thinker and Jo is a more detailed person. If we were both blue-sky thinkers it would be a disaster. There would be lots of great ideas, but the whole thing would collapse in a heap. If you gave me a clean sheet of paper or a pub I could make it lovely, but it would take me three times as long before I got to the right result. Jo knows exactly what she likes.
JC I think us being married can be difficult for the people around us because you can discuss things about the business when you are at home, which for the rest of the team can be slightly unnerving. We try not to discuss it too much at home but, of course, it happens.
RC For us being married and working together has been excellent for our relationship and for the business because we can be so frank and so honest with each other.
JC It does have downsides. Sometimes there is a conflict with family and work—that is why I say I take a backseat role because I have to be there for the family needs.
RC We live in Sussex but spend every day in London and maybe one night a week in a room above a pub. We do not ever go in the same car. If we travelled to work together it would be a nightmare—we’d both be on the phone and it just wouldn’t work.
JC Rupert has a wonderful way with people and communicating and handling relationships. He has lots of ideas and creativity and an eye for when there is a problem.
RC I know that Jo is thinking about her business and what she is doing all the time. I like the fact that it is second nature to her. She loves it; she gets a buzz from it.
JC It was a challenging summer for pubs, but I think people’s lifestyles have changed and although we are all having a tough time, you have to eat and you have to drink. Your friends are even more important.
RC We are performing well and we are expanding. The pubs that are closing are those that just do not work anymore. Why would people visit a pub in a terrace or on a roundabout, somewhere in the middle? You’d rather go somewhere where you get a nice glass of wine and a good bite to eat.