The nine pubcos who control over half of all pubs

In the second of a series of articles on pubcos, Paul Ainsworth surveys the major players

A pub company (pubco) is simply a company that owns pubs and there are literally hundreds of them, many with only a handful or even just one pub. We’ll concentrate here, though, on the bigger companies who, between them, own over half the country’s pubs.

Stonegate (4,470)

Founded in 2010 with the purchase of 333 pubs from Mitchells & Butlers, Stonegate grew quite slowly over the next ten years, making a series of acquisitions including brands Slug & Lettuce, Walkabout and Be At One, until its pub numbers totalled 765. All the pubs were managed houses. A seismic change came in 2020 when Ei Group was bought for £1.27bn, making Stonegate the largest pub company in the UK with 1,270 managed pubs and, as a result of the Ei purchase, 3,200 leased and tenanted businesses.

The White Horse in Oxford is one of M&B’s local pubs

Ei itself had been founded, as Enterprise Inns, in 1991, initially with 333 pubs from Bass. The company built up its estate, gaining 2,200 pubs in batches by buying them from other companies or taking them over. In 2002, 1,864 pubs were bought from Whitbread and in 2004, 4,054 from Unique. By this time, it owned nearly 10,000 pubs and was in the FTSE 100 list of top companies. However, it was loaded with debt and the 2008 financial crash required a good deal of retrenchment. Ei also started building up its managed estate, including pubs on retail agreements under the Craft Union brand (we’ll look at this operating model in the next article). By the time of the sale, it was down to fewer than 4,000 pubs.

Punch Taverns (1,282)

My first article included a brief history of Punch to illustrate the volatility around pubco development. In summary, it grew quickly to around 8,000 pubs, suffered under the crash, sold a lot of pubs including its managed division and was taken over in 2016 when 1,900 pubs went to Heineken and 1,300 to Patron Capital, who retain the Punch brand. At takeover time, all pubs were leased or tenanted but it’s also now pushing retail agreements (which it calls Management Partnerships). Some pubs were sold but in June 2021 it announced the purchase of Young’s tenanted division, bringing the current total to 1,282.

Admiral Taverns (1,500)

Admiral was founded in 2003 by two families and grew quickly to 2,300 pubs by 2007, many being “bottom end” houses disposed of by other pub companies. The financial crash had the usual consequences for over-extended businesses and numbers were down to 1,700 by 2011 and continued to fall. By 2017 it was in the hands of Cerberus Capital Management who sold up to a joint venture by Magners cider-makers C&C Group and estate investor Proprium Capital Partners, by which time there were 845 pubs. The acquisition trail was hit in 2019 with 137 pubs coming from Marston’s and 150 from Heineken. The big one arrived in July 2021 when Admiral bought 674 Hawthorn pubs from property firm New River, taking the estate to over 1,500.

Admiral’s pubs are all tenanted or leased, and tend to be wet-led community operations. It has a relatively good reputation in the trade though there’s certainly no aversion to flogging off pubs as “development opportunities”.

Sold by Greene King to Star, the Brewery Tap in Abingdon has retained a great choice of real ales

Star Pubs & Bars (2,500)

In 1995 Scottish & Newcastle, one of the original “Big Six” breweries, bought another of them, Courage, making the combined group Britain’s biggest brewer. By 2011 the pub arm, then known as S&N Pub Co, had 1,500 tenanted pubs and 600 in management. Come 2008, Scottish Courage was gobbled up by international brewer Heineken and the pub business rebranded as Star Pubs & Bars. Many pubs were sold but then, in 2017, as previously mentioned, 1,900 were snapped up from Punch. Again there were disposals and the estate currently stands at 2,500.

Star vigorously promotes its retail agreement scheme, Just Add Talent. In 2020, it was fined £2 million for breaches of the Pubs Code (which we’ll cover in a later article).

Greene King (3,100)

In 1995, Greene King was a long-established family brewer with 900 pubs, nearly all in East Anglia and the South-East. It then embarked on a ferocious acquisition trail, swallowing up many breweries including Morlands, Belhaven, Morrells and Hardy & Hanson, and other pub companies. GK itself is now owned by a billionaire Hong Kong property developer. It has some 3,100 pubs, restaurants and hotels, of which 1,200 are tenanted or leased. Its strategy seems to be to move in the managed direction and the “Pub Ready” retail agreements are pushed hard. GK was once renowned for not letting other people’s beers in its pubs but now has a more enlightened attitude.

The Broad Face in Abingdon is one of the Greene King pubs given plenty of choice of real ales.

Marston’s (1,400)

The company was known as Wolverhampton & Dudley until 2007 when it rebranded as Marston’s, one of the many breweries it had taken over in recent years. At that time, 2,500 pubs were owned but the total is now down to 1,400. The tenanted estate, in particular, has been reduced through sales such as 200 to New River in 2013 and 137 to Admiral in 2019. In late 2020, the company took on the running of 156 Brains pubs in Wales. Also that year, Marston’s merged its brewing operations with Carlsberg but this does not directly affect the pub business.

Mitchells and Butlers (1,650)

Formed originally out of the old Bass estate, M&B has 1,650 pubs and restaurants. The multitudinous brands include Ember Inns, Toby Carveries, Nicholson’s and All Bar One – as can be seen, the emphasis is on food. Pubs are mostly managed although around 50 are on a lease arrangement.

J. D. Wetherspoon (925)

Since opening its first pub in 1979, ’Spoons has expanded to 925 pubs and 50 hotels, all managed. Plans for 18 new pubs are in the pipeline.

Wellington (850)

Owned by the billionaire Reuben Brothers, the company leases all its 850 pubs on a free of tie basis.

The Four Candles is one of three Wetherspoon pubs in Oxford