In the UK, it is easy to find anti-Brexit voices in the business world. But when it comes to finding a favorable one, the first name that comes up — often the only one — is Tim Martin’s. “The others are cowards,” justifies the founder and president of JD Wetherspoon, the most popular pub chain in the country, before letting out a laugh on the phone. “It is true!”.
Martin has spent four years giving hundreds of interviews in which, with serenity and unbuttoned short-sleeved polo shirts, he explains that he not only supports an exit from the European Union (EU): he wants it without an agreement. A position that does not alter a pandemic: “The EU only brings problems.” For the irreverent businessman of 65 years and almost two meters in height, the European project is “wrong in a great variety of measures”, but, above all, “it is not democratic”. So in his 41 years at the helm of JD Wetherspoon, he says the only times he has been actively involved in politics have been to campaign against the adoption of the euro two decades ago and, more recently, to advocate for Brexit.
With 873 pubs and 43,000 employees spread across the UK and Ireland, JD Wetherspoon is listed on the stock market and is included in the UK index for medium-sized companies FTSE250, where it is valued at 1.16 billion pounds (about 1.281 million euros). The “McDonald’s of pubs”, as Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School calls it, owes its success to its low prices: pints of beer (588 milliliters) for less than two pounds, hamburger menus for less of five and unlimited coffee for 1.29. “It has established itself as a big and safe brand,” says Birkinshaw. “You know what there is: that the quality will not be bad and that it will be cheap.”
Martin owns JD Wetherspoon shares valued at more than € 500 million following a journey that began in 1979, shortly after signing up as barrister, a specialized lawyer who defends cases in court. He was 24 years old, but already at the beginning of his career he had decided not to practice. “I was very afraid of speaking in public,” he confesses. “And I had realized that I was not as good at law as others in my class … So I decided to start a business.”
In times when his competitors were in the hands of a certain brewery that imposed exclusivity and rates on them, Martin opted to acquire shops, theaters and even car dealerships and then fight in the courts for a license that would allow him to transform them into pubs. Thus, it got rid of the ties that came with already licensed stores, being able to offer a wide variety of brands and push prices down.
Born in England, but raised between New Zealand and Northern Ireland, he says so many license applications to judges helped him overcome his phobia of public speaking. Just in time to become an arduous Brexit advocate on television and even tour a hundred Wetherspoons to discuss leaving the EU with his clients. “I think that the primary law of humanity should be one vote per person and no one has voted for EU presidents,” he explains. “If you look at the rest of the world, you will see that democratic countries have better economic performance than those that are not. And the EU has been in difficulties for 20 years, especially since the creation of the euro ”, he insists.
His campaigns to promote the no-deal Brexit have made him famous and have included pro-Brexit coasters in his pubs and the replacement of various European products by British ones or from non-EU countries like Australia. “I wanted to show that everything you buy in the EU can be purchased in other parts of the world,” he recalls. Far from driving away the clientele, people like Peter, 77, took it sportily. “Personally, I don’t agree,” he says with a pint in his hand and another warming himself on a table at the JD Wetherspoon in Surrey Quays, southeast London. “But that’s not going to stop me from having a beer,” he says after two years resigned to the English Abbot Ale instead of the German brands he liked so much.
On the terrace, Steve, a 63-year-old retired truck driver, claims to be a faithful reader of the editorials Martin writes for the magazine that accompanies each table. “I think some of his opinions are very correct about what is happening today,” he says while downing a beer from San Miguel, which will be followed by two glasses of Canadian whiskey without ice. “He’s doing a good job and keeping everyone employed.”
Criticisms of Johnson
Actually, JD Wetherspoon has announced 450 layoffs due to the economic impact of covid-19. The firm had a turnover of 1,818 million pounds (about 2,005 million euros) in the fiscal year that ended in July 2019, with profits of 72.78 million (about 80.27 million euros). 7.4% and 9.1% more than the previous year, respectively. But the lockdown and the restrictions that followed have turned the tide, posting losses of 50 million pounds (55 million euros) in the year that ended last July, according to Martin. “I am concerned about regulations such as having to close at ten at night or limiting groups to six people. But, above all, I am concerned about the level of fear of the virus, “he said before the confinement announced for the entire month of November was known.
While supporting Boris Johnson in his Brexit steps, he disapproves of his handling of the pandemic: “I think what the government has done in the UK has greatly increased the level of anxiety about health, and recovering from that can take a long time”. In his latest editorial, entitled The Ice Swedes are right, he praises the measures taken by Sweden, which he defines as not closing deals, washing hands and keeping a safe distance.
Martin also has his own detractors. At the beginning of the confinement he was criticized for suggesting to his staff that they accept positions in supermarkets because the state aid would take time to arrive and JD Wetherspoon was not going to advance them out of his pocket. But the most common accusations he receives are that of paying low wages and not thinking about how his European employees might feel about the chain’s pro-Brexit stance. He insists that leaving the EU is a question of democracy and not xenophobia. “I think we should have a liberal immigration policy. I want all unemployed Spaniards to move to the UK to work in Wetherspoon when the pandemic ends, ”he says. Although, after a brief silence, he chooses to keep his back: “I’m joking, of course.”