‘Derry man’ behind pub chain’s success story

Tim Martin
Tim Martin

Believe it or not but Tim Martin - the man behind pub chain giant JD Wetherspoon - was raised on the streets of Derry.

A millionaire many times over - and one of the great characters of British business - 56-year-old Martin makes no secret of his Shantallow connections.

Founded as a single pub in 1979 by Martin, JD Wetherpoon now owns 800 pubs - including two in Derry. The chain champions cask ale, low prices, long opening hours, and no music.

Raised in Shantallow, Martin took up his lifelong love of surfing as a young boy during six idyllic years in New Zealand where his father, Ray, who worked with Guinness, was transferred when Martin was nine.

On his return to Northern Ireland, this time to Belfast, in 1970, Martin abandoned the sport, only to take it up again at the age of 52 from his home in Devon - a home he sees just at weekends because of his duties as chairman of JD Wetherspoon.

“It was just too cold for it in Northern Ireland,” he says. “Even in New Zealand, in the winter, we didn’t surf. While there were such things as wet-suits, they didn’t seem to keep you warm, so we just chucked it in.

“Now, you can surf any time you like and you don’t get cold. I last surfed in 1969 and I took it up again in April 2007 at 52.

“It is too late to call it a mid-life crisis, but I reckon it is the longest non-surfing gap in history,” he says.

“It is only recently that I have discovered that the west coast of Ireland has better surfing than anywhere else. I haven’t been back there to surf, but we used to go there as kids, because my grandfather used to fish,” he says.

The return to the North, then mired in some of the worst days of the Troubles, was a culture shock.

“When we came back to Belfast, as far as anyone was concerned, I was a Kiwi, which suited me just fine.

“After living on the beach for years in New Zealand, Northern Ireland seemed - how I can put it for an Irish audience without offending anybody there - like a less-friendly climate.

“When we came back, we lived on the Newtownards Road, near Stormont. I went to Campbell College at 15 for the last three years of my education but I would say that I am a hybrid: a third New Zealander, a third Irish and a third English.”

In his early 20s, Martin founded the JD Wetherspoon chain of pubs – named after one of his teachers in New Zealand – in London, with others following quickly.

Although the original pubs have long since been sold off, JD Wetherspoon today has 800 outlets, and is soon to add 50 more, employing 24,000 people.

Martin, who now spends more than two weeks a month visiting his far-flung empire, believes pubs have a future, even those in small villages.

“People still like to go out. We can’t stay in the house all bloody day,” he insists.

“People like pubs. So, if you have got a good pub company which hasn’t got too much debt which owns a pub in a village and rents it at a reasonable rate to a tenant and invests sufficiently in the building, people will like to go out to that pub.”

However, Wetherspoon is a chain, and sometimes the public do not like chains.

“I think that customers like individuality and community and personality,” says Martin. “In a way, they don’t like chains and they certainly don’t like the word ‘brand’.

“But they don’t mind if a pub is part of a bigger company provided the company respects the need for individuality.”