Timeline - Mark Warburton - The Cow & Sow

Cow & Sow Founder
Mark Warburton

Industry Timeline

The journey began as my late Father and my Mother acquired The Old House At Home, Burton, in 1984. This Ivy-clad pub close to Castle Combe was to become the foundation of The OHH Pub Company. The pub flourished through the 90s, winning the Publican award for best food offering in the UK in 1996 and achieving runner-up status in 1997.

 

I joined my father’s endeavours at 16 whilst studying and took on a more significant role in 2001 at the age of 18. As my father’s health declined due to coronary heart disease, I assumed greater responsibilities, marked by the following milestones:

The journey began as my late Father and my Mother acquired The Old House At Home, Burton, in 1984. This Ivy-clad pub close to Castle Combe was to become the foundation of The OHH Pub Company. The pub flourished through the 90s, winning the Publican award for best food offering in the UK in 1996 and achieving runner-up status in 1997.

 

I joined my father’s endeavours at 16 whilst studying and took on a more significant role in 2001 at the age of 18. As my father’s health declined due to coronary heart disease, I assumed greater responsibilities, marked by the following milestones:

After a short period as General Manager of The Old House At Home, I was fired by my Father. Having continually arrived late to work and having not taken the responsibilities seriously, my Father let me go in-front of some of his other team members. Ultimate respect for him. Time to take a career in hospitality seriously as I grovel to return to duty…

Following a full refit and strategic adjustments to the business as a now managed estate, the Crown’s weekly revenue jumped ten-fold by 2013, prompting Wadworth’s interest in reclaiming the site.

It was time to break the bank as we undertake a vast refit. Times were tough as cash was tight. Following year one I had considered pulling the plug as the site fell to a drastic loss of circa 90K. It was daunting times and I had to look at the business from afar. We had focused too much on “high-end” food and needed to pay more attention to the entire customer experience. It was time to get back to what we did best. Brilliant informal service coupled with fresh, gastro pub food without the fuss. The tide turned quickly and the site started turning a healthy profit. Plans began to add bedrooms 

This was at the height of the credit crunch and I knew we had to diversify and pull out all the stops. The unstable economy led to the bank partially pulling finance midway through the development. Surely this was the end of the company? I took out as many credit cards as possible, fought through the build and juggled creditors for over a year. The rooms finally opened and achieved a 5 star rating with the AA. Occupancy levels were strong and I could breath again.  

Conversations started with Wadworth as they began to push to take back the Crown as a managed house. I negotiated an option to purchase the Northey Arms freehold in return for the Crown. They duly obliged but I knew I had to boost the EBITDA to enable a bank to fund the purchase. Time to add 3 bedrooms above the tenanted site with our own cash. Thankfully the rooms were an overnight success as, once again, the cash had been depleted. 

Fullers had a close eye on our progress and I was being offered multiple sites with multiple landlords. I chose to take the Bear & Swan having recently moved to South Bristol with my now wife, Amy. A Fullers Managed House averaging 10k per week with no bedrooms, I took the OHH model to Chew Magna and before long the site traded in line with the rest of the group. 

I really enjoyed this deal. After my Father had landed a deal to purchase The Old House At Home from the Major Bartholomew in the 80s, it was my turn to negotiate with his son, Charles Bartholomew. I could see huge potential in the Northey Arms. We had 4 successful sites, but only one asset. Deal done and now I had two strong assets plus a thriving lease. Immediately I started to develop a further 2 bedrooms above the site, taking the total to five bedrooms, all rated 5 stars with the AA. 

We were back to 3 sites and rooms were working! I worked with Fullers and added 4 bedrooms to the first floor of The Bear & Swan, perfect for the airport trade. The Northey Arms was trading well and occupancy levels were exceeding expectations as all sites achieved 5 star status with the AA. My neighbour at The Northey Arms occupied an office building landlocked with me so I negotiated the transformation of the first floor into 5 bedrooms with an option for the freehold of the office. The Northey Arms was trading on a different level. The sigh of relief that I never gave up on this brilliant site after that loss in year one! We were now trading ten 5 star rated bedrooms alongside Rosette food.  

Owned by Punch, they were attempting to put houses on this site. I lived local and my reputation throughout my estate led to the locals making an approach to me, pleading for me to step in. Drawing on a close family friend to assist financially, we secured the freehold and immediately added 6 bedrooms to the first floor. The site was a tough ask as I felt stretched at times and it often felt lonely working on the business alone. But we continued to increase sales and develop the freehold sites throughout the group. 

 

2016 also saw the acquisition of two further leased sites. The George, Braunton and The Rose & Crown, Pucklechurch, through EI Group and Wadworth respectively. This was a bold move to 6 sites. At a time when I was being offered numerous new sites with landlords, these sites proved to be the wrong locations and standards started to slide. Time to mitigate the loss and both sites were disposed of within 18 months of acquisition. This was a sucker punch following so much success and my attitude towards the business and decision making changed dramatically. LESSON LEARNED….. 

Whilst we continued to drive margins on food and drink and control labour as our two key KPIs, room revenue was the driving force for the business. Again, I worked with Fullers to add another two bedrooms to The Bear & Swan, now operating six 5 star rated bedrooms in Chew Magna.  

Within 5 days of the mandatory closure in March 2020 I launched a Farmshop Menu offering. Complete with a brand and online shop I began to deliver fresh produce to homes of the isolated and vulnerable. The concept was a roaring success and well received by our local communities, a respite to ensure I could pay all of my 70+ team before anybody had even heard of “furlough”. 

 

I continued with our capital expenditure programs throughout 2020. The mandatory closures offered a prime opportunity to decorate all sites including a full facelift at both The Rising Sun and The Old House At Home as well as the addition of 2 more bedrooms at The Old House At Home, now operating eight. I also completed the addition of yet another three letting bedrooms to the Northey Arms, now ready to trade with a total of thirteen bedrooms.  

 

Our 70+ staff were moved in and out of Furlough throughout 2020 but the teams had remained positive as I consistently engaged with them, continued training logs and kept them fully up to speed with project progress.  

Our efforts throughout 2020 and Covid had led to the company being recognised nationally for it’s achievements, nominated for two prestigious awards in the Morning Advertiser’s Publican Awards; 

 

https://www.morningadvertiser.co.uk/Article/2021/01/26/Who-s-a-finalist-in-the-Publican-Awards-2021 

I knew I wanted to take on the Bristol restaurant scene and COVID gave me a chance to re-evaluate my positioning in the hospitality sector. Having worked with cattle on a farm from a young age, steak was always of interest. I had kept a keen eye on the development of steak brands such as Gaucho and Hawksmoor, and I had a vision to create a brilliant brand. Separate to the Pub Company, this would be something you just can’t build through Pubs. 

Following negotiations with St Austell to take on the closed “Graze” restaurant, this was a proud moment as my “brand” is born. Perfect timing given the sale of my two pubs was imminent.  

Butcombe/Liberation recognised the strength of my sites. I had taken additional finance through Government schemes and kept developing during lockdowns, focusing on the sale on the horizon. The Northey Arms and The Rising Sun are sold, brought about by my insistence on the upkeep and development of these stunning sites during COVID. Two brilliant sites that served me so well for so many years 

The Landlord, Greg, who knew my brand from Queen Square was keen to work with me so we agreed I would take my brand to what was once Cowshed, a very successful steak restaurant. The perfect chance to trial the expansion of the brand without stretching resources. Now the site is performing well, exceeding all expectations.  

This had been in the planning since COVID with my GM/Operations manager, Connor. In 2023 I finally helped him set up his own business and he is now the proud landlord of the pub after a five year stint proving his worth alongside myself. 

The continued success of the Cow & Sow brand is extremely exciting and a proud moment for me. We have teamed up with brilliant charities and Bristol businesses such as Bristol Sport and all affiliated sports teams. We are now poised to move into other parts of the UK as I work closely with both my Operations Manager, Tom and Executive Chef, Freek, both having worked with me for a substantial period throughout all of the businesses

TO BE CONTINUED……………………………

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