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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 21st Feb 2014 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Debt versus equity, landlords and tenants, liberty and public health and reinventing the wheel in Nottingham
Authors: Martyn Cornell, Stephen Evans, Paul Chase and Matt Shelton

Debt versus equity and the rise of alternative lenders by Martyn Cornell

For small businesses eager to grow, one of the big problems is and always has been finding the funding to finance that growth. And despite the fascinating rise of “crowd-funding” peer-to-peer lending platforms, for many entrepreneurs getting hold of finance seems more difficult now than ever.

Banks, in particular, seem to be ultra-cautious on small business loans. This looks to be a combination of a heightened aversion to risk after the disasters of the past seven post-crash years, and the loss, through retirement and redundancy, of that layer of bank branch management that had the experience and local knowledge to know whether it was worth lending restaurant owner Joe Blogg the money he needed to acquire a second or third outlet in a neighbouring town.

In particular, if Joe is operating out of leasehold premises, and the place he wants to expand into is leasehold, he is likely to find it a challenge to obtain funding from a bank or financial institution, most of whom want the security of a freehold to lend against and don’t really feel particularly comfortable about leasehold property.

Joe could try getting equity funding. But that involves a long-term involvement with the supplier of the capital, and, quite likely, Joe is wary of giving up a slice of his equity to someone else at, what may later appear to be, far too cheap a price. All small businesses need to know the cautionary tale from the very early days of The Body Shop, when founder Anita Roddick, desperate for cash, borrowed £4,000 from a local garage owner in Sussex, Ian McGlinn, in exchange for a 50% share in her business. When The Body Shop was sold to L’Oreal 30 years later, McGlinn disposed of his stake for an extremely pleasant £137m, a compound growth rate of some 43% a year, not counting all the dividends.

Other ways of raising cash without the risk that it will make your lender as rich as Mr McGlinn for no effort are currently becoming more prominent, filling the obvious gaps in the lending landscape. One is the business model run by Tony Hamlin of First Merchant, who has been lending to the hospitality, retail and leisure trade for almost 20 years. Hamlin began his career as a broker, and after 28 years in that business, formed First Merchant in 1995 to fill the niche he spotted involving lending to leaseholders. “We only lend on leases, which nobody else likes,” he says.

Hamlin is critical of equity lenders who muscle in, he says, on successful newish restaurant or pub groups and persuade them to sell an equity stake when those groups don’t need to sell equity at the stage of their development – and shouldn’t be selling equity yet to finance their expansion. Selling equity, he says, has its place at a certain stage in a company’s life-cycle but later than many businesses currently seem to think. As for crowd-funding, he argues, “you’re open to the whole world knowing what you’re doing” with a business plan that enters the public domain.

For many small businesses, especially those with leasehold properties, Hamlin believes his company is a far better solution for funding than other sorts of lending. He reports that the current lending picture means there is “tons and tons of work coming in, but by word-of-mouth”. Over the past 18 months, he says, the quantity of business coming to First Merchant has increased considerably – a reflection, the company believes, of the renewed confidence among entrepreneurs in the hospitality market in London, in particular, but also of banks remaining cautious.

Hamlin says he is currently dealing with half-a-dozen small groups with three or four restaurants each who want to buy an empty leasehold site that they can get for a small premium and, sometimes, for nothing. But, he reports, “nobody will fund that.” Banks and other financial institutions “have no appetite for risk.” However, “we will lend using the ‘security’ of a company’s established restaurants to fund a new venture. So they don’t need to sell equity, which nine out of ten people would be forced to explore.”

First Merchant gets around ten to 20 calls a day, Hamlin says, and completes around £2m of lending business a month. “We’re not Barclays Bank, but it’s growing,” he says. The company won’t charge fees, and it can make decisions far quicker than most lenders can or will, though it is no push-over: applications are rigorously tested for loan serviceability and around 80% are rejected.

The company’s interest rates are not cheap, Hamlin admits, at between 20% and 30%, “but they’re commensurate with the risk.” He says: “If a leasehold business goes bust, you have to walk away – there’s no security involved. But we know the sector and we don’t lend unless we can see there’s a clear ability to service the loan for the new venture from the existing outlets.” The argument is that Hamlin’s short-term lending at a 25% interest rate is preferable to giving away a large chunk of equity for eternity. Within 36 months, borrowers have paid down their loan and still own 100% of their business. It’s an interesting view and, moreover, it can only be a good thing that specialist lenders are emerging to provide entrepreneurs with alternative funding for expansion.
Martyn Cornell is managing editor of Propel Info

Landlord and tenants – love and marriage or chalk and cheese by Stephen Evans

I was fortunate enough to attend the recent Restaurant Property Advisors Society (RPAS) Question time event titled “Owners and Occupiers – Conflict or Harmony”. Chatham House rules applied, so I don’t propose to regurgitate the night’s content. However, it was interesting to hear the cross-section of opinion, with respective parties hesitant to breach the party line. The overriding message of the evening centred on the need for landlords and occupiers to develop more of a “partnership” approach. While this view is entirely sensible given the turnover rents that prevail, it seems to me that owners and occupiers are still light years away from understanding each other’s business models well enough to truly adopt this approach.

In an effort to understand occupiers’ needs, many landlords have taken to recruiting “in-house experts”. These are typically professionals with little or no property expertise, but with some previous exposure to the chosen sector. While this move is understandable, the danger is that it adds an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy to the acquisition and development process. I have seen first-hand how the influence of these “experts” has clashed with the needs of asset managers, who are driving the financial aspect of the process, or more worryingly, how the “experts” have little or no understanding of what makes the respective organisations tick.

The property sector has always been regarded as a sociable and people-oriented industry, and this is something that landlords could use to their advantage in respect of in-house expertise. I have seen an incredible shift in the mind-set of some young, hungry asset managers looking to gain exposure to new concepts and align the demands of their customers (shoppers) to individual brands. Unfortunately, many landlord organisations are still led by the “old guard” preferring to make business decisions based on an individual’s golf handicap rather than what is actually relevant and right for their asset.

Having been an agent in a former life, I empathise with the questionable reputation agents hold, possibly due to their counterparts within the residential sector. That said, some agents do little to expel the myth that they are little more than “shop shifters”. I have lost count of the number of times I have been emailed a photograph of a property, no address, “intro” in the title bar and a simple question mark in the email body, and an expectation of a £25,000 fee! When did this become acceptable?

One might argue that the occupier should hold agents to account a little more, but with competition for sites hotter than ever, we have, unfortunately, become used to this type of behaviour. Irrespective of the market we are in, the best agents are those who make the effort to, first, understand the sector, then the individual needs of both the landlord and tenant. Our preferred agent, CWM, has spent time working in our restaurants in order to fully understand our operation and is therefore more than capable of acting on our behalf and selecting the right sites. If more agents were to aspire to strike the balance between clients’ individual needs and the sector drivers, they would be in a powerful position to really play a positive role in the marketplace.

It is very common for landlord developers to commission lengthy and (probably) expensive reports to illustrate factors such as drive-time catchments, demographic profiling, sales drivers and infrastructure requirements, but fall short in really understanding what their customers want from a new scheme. Many outlet centre developers, for example, will describe their scheme as the “Bicester Village” of the north / south / east /west (delete as appropriate), but will often disregard the fact that it took Value Retail many years and much patience (two luxuries most developers don’t have) to secure the tenants it required to make the Bicester Village scheme as strong as it is. The reality is there will only ever be one Bicester Village in the UK because the majority of the demand, from both customers and retailers, comes from the mass mid-market. It will be interesting to see the resultant tenant mix at Battersea Power Station, with over 40 restaurant units to let!

The UK property industry is one of the oldest in the world and, by its nature, still driven by the principles of supply, demand and, to an extent, personal contacts. Despite the British Property Federation’s introduction of the Commercial Lease Code in 2007, I am yet to see any real evidence of it in practice other than a polite nod to its existence. With the property market picking up, it will be good to see more young surveyors coming through and adopting a more contemporary approach to the industry and even opting for positions within client-side organisations (whether retail or landlord side). It will take this shift in approach, and a hunger to learn and embrace each other’s different business processes to drive positive change in how landlords and tenants work together. This will undoubtedly reduce the need for time on the golf course!
Stephen Evans is development director at Gourmet Burger Kitchen

Liberty and public health by Paul Chase

I generally try to resist political labelling, at least insofar as it might be applied to me, because it just enables people to accept or dismiss one’s views without really considering them. But I guess I would not protest if my general viewpoint was characterised as “libertarian”, if only to distinguish it from its antonym, “authoritarian”. And this is why I find myself both intellectually and temperamentally opposed to the New Public Health Movement which, in my view, is authoritarian and which seeks to use coercive legislative measures to regulate personal lifestyle choices.

This brings me to the proposal to ban smoking in cars when children are present. By a majority of 376 votes to 107, MPs recently voted for the ban. The Liberal Democrat health minister, Norman Lamb, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight programme in support of this ban, said, “You have to ask yourself the question, ‘How important is the liberty that we’re infringing here?’. The liberty to smoke in front of a child doesn’t seem to me that important and protecting a child’s health does seem to me to be incredibly important.” After the debate in the House of Commons, shadow public health minister Luciana Berger described this vote as a “great victory for child health … it is a matter of child protection, not adult choice.”

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not in favour of people smoking in confined spaces when children are present, although I see little evidence that many do. But just because something is wrong, it does not automatically follow that we should ban it and make it a crime. Most people would agree that adultery is wrong, but I doubt they would want to see it become a criminal offence. So here is why I think this ban is wrong in principle and a step too far:

First, if this vote is translated into law we will for the first time see police officers enforcing a public health measure, backed with legal sanctions, on private property not open to the public. This, in my view, sets a dangerous precedent.

Second, I always believed that the ban on smoking in public places was just the first step in a particular direction of travel. It began in the tap-room and will end in the living room: it’s just that health activists were too coy to announce their destination at the beginning of the journey. Going straight to a ban on smoking in private houses after first banning it in public houses would have been too big a step for the public to accept. So the purpose of banning smoking in cars with children is a stopping-off point – it is a way of testing the water, and conditioning public opinion for a ban on smoking in your home, not just the living room, but anywhere in the house if children are present, because we all know how that pesky tobacco smoke will inveigle its way between the floorboards and get the kids hooked. For public health activists, utopia is always just one more ban away.

And here is an intriguing question: will the ban extend to the use of e-cigarettes? Will “vaping” be banned along with smoking? I’ll bet it will be, because public health activists will argue that any smoking-like activity renormalises smoking and will encourage little Jonny to give it a go.

If the New Public Health Movement really wants to strike a blow for public health in relation to smoking then they should start a campaign to persuade smokers to switch from tobacco to e-cigarettes. Notwithstanding his unfortunate name, Dr David Nutt, the former drugs adviser to the Home Office, declared that such a step would be a major step forward for public health in relation to smoking. But the reason why health activists will not do this is that the invention of e-cigarettes represents a private sector solution to a public health problem, and they are adamantly opposed to industry being involved in formulating policy. After all, they have their own vested interests to defend.

I find it depressing that MPs in such large numbers can miss the point about this measure and fall for the public health justification that it is just a small measure and we can consider it on its own. Our liberties are rarely taken from us in one swoop, but rather they are salami-sliced away by those who hope we won’t notice. Our parliamentarians need to remember the famous quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”
Paul Chase is a director of CPL Training and a leading commentator on health policy and on-trade alcohol policy

Nottingham doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel by Matt Shelton

Some days I wish I lived in Leeds, with its brand new shopping centre (ahem!), great hotels and vibrant nightlife that offers variety and quality to thousands of people every week. It’s a proud city and one that has spurned the government’s offer of a late-night levy on its night-time economy. Considering the size of that economy, that’s a big decision. Nottingham City Council, however, wants to implement the levy – which is simply an extra tax to “cover policing costs” on bars, nightclubs, and pubs that sell alcohol between midnight and 6am.

According to the council’s own estimates it will, at the very best, raise a relatively small sum in the bigger scheme of things and suck a thousand pounds of consumer spending out of the city every day. So it’s a work of gross stupidity. But it gets worse. It will not just be paid by the big clubs and pubs or even just premises in the city centre (including those that have never called police). It will be paid by all restaurants and pubs within the city council boundaries – regardless of their location or record on safety and crime.

Premises don’t even have to be open after midnight, they just have to have the licence. That’s like fining everyone with a driving licence just in case they buy a car and break the speed limit. Instead of a levy, Leeds decided to put its efforts into creating a Business Improvement District or BID.

The scheme is paid for by premises in the city and helps to promote safety and crime reduction. It encourages taxi marshals, street pastors and an approach of engagement and marshalling rather than policing. Leeds said it was worried that if they imposed the levy, businesses would start to resent the double tax and the council, reduce co-operation with the police and withdraw from the BID – and that would be an extremely bad thing for the city.

In its conclusions, Leeds referenced a city that has had a very successful BID scheme running for some years – one that the whole country looks to for its results in crime reduction; one that is so good that the Home Secretary visited to find out the secrets of its success. This BID scheme could also be destroyed by a late-night levy as many members have already stated they will pay for BID or the levy – not both – and that would be tragic, wouldn’t it?

Where is this successful BID scheme running? Nottingham.
Matt Shelton is a director of Nottingham-based Drophead marketing consultancy

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