Mike Baxter says identifying the key people in your business is critical to success and longevity – and peace of mind.
As I’ve become older, I’ve increasingly stepped away from the wood, becoming that intolerably pretentious thing: a mentor. I now work with bartenders many years younger than me, redistilling my passion for the industry into fresh blood, with better knees. Inevitably, many of these bartenders leave – no longer able tolerate the hours, or they decide to finally do something with that degree – but a few, a special few, stay. Those who do, I cherish. I took them from a love of Malibu & Cola to Sazeracs and St Emilion, and eventually on to question how to distil old veg from our kitchen.
Among those who do stay are an even more special group: the grizzled veterans. Sure, their knees are knackered, but with jokes as cynical as a seasoned soldier, they are the “lifers” who I build my businesses around. At this point in their bar careers, their operational knowledge surpasses mine to the extent that my input is hardly necessary. They run the floor, they create the menus and leave me, regrettably, with the time I need to pay the electric and meet with the council.
I now relegate myself to guest shifts in my own venue. Like Wayne Rooney at Derby, I’m suddenly an overweight player-manager; a background character in my own story. But at the same time, I’m happy to watch my team succeed, while I get some sleep and raise my family.
Everything is going so well and you start to think that maybe dreams do come true – maybe I really can grow old in this industry.
Your trusted lieutenant leaves. The person who, at this point, is running your entire business. This just happened to me. After years of service, my right-hand man, my colleague and friend, decided he wanted out of Neverland. He’s off for “a real job” as a police officer. And I can’t blame him – it has growth, a proper pension scheme, and a staff uniform.
In almost all cases, even when they seem so much of a fixture you can’t imagine the bar without them, these people do leave. They have ambitions beyond their role. Some will eventually have their own venues. Others will become events managers, brand ambassadors or – god forbid – day walkers. And that’s okay. It’s not personal, it’s about their personal development.
The point is, owners like me need to recognise the pillars that our businesses are built on. When you have one of these treasures, your job as an owner is to prolong their stay – with the right conditions and treatment, some may stay on for an extra two or three years, some might stay for 10. Above all, be grateful and acknowledge their achievements – you can never praise people enough. But also you need to pay them what they are worth – don’t wait until they leave to find out how much you valued them. Over pay them even, whatever it takes. If you’re brave enough, and they’re good enough, consider profit shares. That may come at a financial cost, but it’s the best-known way to keep good people in a business – make it their business too.
When the pillars do fall in our venues, as they inevitably do, and over and over again, we must be ready to stand in their place to hold the roof up while we rebuild. As an owner, you don’t want to be playing Atlas for too long, so start nurturing and rewarding the next pillar of your bar who might be coming through.
So, take a moment to look at the pillars that hold up your venue. Be a good boss, listen to them and give them what they and their team needs. My goal now is to be a good bar dad. That means looking after the people who do the work that you can’t.
Who work the nights when we sleep, who drag the kegs when our backs give up. Give them a hug (or at least a good drink, depending on your HR policy) for everything they do for you.
And if and when they fly the nest, wave them off with gratitude. And always have a good glass and a warm meal ready if they need to come home.