Typically known for our credentials in the retail landscape, Vista’s origins in the hospitality market is something not everybody knows!
Greenalls Pubs and Restaurants was once the front-runner of the pub trade and operated for more than two centuries as a regional brewer and distiller. The early ’90s saw the pub chain grow exponentially as it embraced a different, pub retailing model. This is where Vista, made up at the time of only Phil Pepper and a handful of engineers, made its entry into the market and helped Greenalls bring the industry’s latest IT visions to life.
This week, we sat down with former Retail Systems Manager of Greenalls Pubs and Restaurants, Rob Poole. Read on to discover the customer that earmarked our entry into the hospitality industry over two decades ago, and why Vista owes a large part of its success to what was once Britain’s largest independent pub chain.
What can you tell us about Greenalls Pubs and Restaurants and what was your role at the time? How long did you work there?
Greenalls started off as a family-run brewer, but ceased brewing in 1991 after the government introduced the Beer Orders regulations. Brewers soon realised that there was an opportunity in pub retailing instead of brewing, which is why a lot of Greenalls’ success is credited to the decision to concentrate on growing the retail end of the business.
I joined Greenalls in 1991 as the Retail Systems Manager and worked there for a total of 8 years. When I joined, there were about 650 pubs spread around the North West and East of England and I began managing the installation of new technologies into the pubs in 1992.
In 1993, there was a big change in scale as the company grew significantly. In 1993, Greenalls acquired Devenish, a competitor of the company, which grew the estate to around 800 pubs in total. Then, in 1995, they acquired the pubs of Boddingtons, which brought the total estate to over 1,000 pubs and subsequently made Greenalls Britain’s largest independent chain of pubs and restaurants.
What was your favourite thing about working in the pub/hospitality industry, as well as your favourite thing about working for Greenalls?
One of the great things about my time working for Greenalls was that the hard work was always compensated by a fun, social environment. Hospitality was a great industry to be involved in, particularly because after a day’s work you were already in the right place to treat yourself with a pint!
When I joined in ’91, there was next to no technology within the pubs other than mainframe computers and by the time I left, there were fully integrated IT systems. Being in hospitality at that time was great because it was a time of change, and everything we did was new. We weren’t replicating other people’s rollouts or starting something that had already been done. It was exciting because we had to overcome new challenges as they presented themselves.
What IT challenges were you experiencing at the time that led you to engage Vista Retail Support? How did you know of us?
One standout challenge was that at the time, IT services were sort of considered as a ‘one size fits all’. For example, we used to use the big players in the market such as Fujitsu and IBM, but software and services was a relatively small part of what they did. Of course, it’s different now, but at the time the challenge was there.
Although we had about 650 pubs at the start of the rollout, they were all in fact very different from one another in terms of their size and each was unique. We weren’t like typical retail shops that replicated the same look and size in all of their locations. Ultimately, we struggled to receive a flexible service from these large IT providers as they struggled to understand our individual business requirements.
I knew Phil Pepper from his Omron days where we had built up a great working and personal relationship. Phil presented an opportunity where he understood more about the reasons behind our business challenges, and how he believed he could tackle these himself with the support of a few engineers, and this was when I was first introduced to Vista Retail Support.
Why did you choose to select Vista for the rollout so soon after the company came into operation?
In 1992, the technology in the Greenalls estate was limited with very old-style cash registers. We were already working with Omron as we had chosen to select their EPOS system for our new hardware, but we wanted someone who could be those ‘feet on the ground’ and understand exactly what we were trying to achieve when it came to rolling out the new technology into the pubs.
When Greenalls acquired the Devenish estate, I needed somebody who I could trust down in Devon and Cornwall who could fix problems as they happened, and Phil was that person for me. Although only just starting out, Phil had a nimble operation and was a lot more flexible to handle the wider rollout. Having soon after acquired Boddingtons, we then needed to do a retrofit with different equipment and this was where Phil and his small team of engineers became heavily involved.
What value did Vista bring after you had engaged them for the project?
Flexibility! Vista had the flexibility we required to deliver the work in terms of timing. A lot of the work had to take place out of hours or overnight, it wasn’t a 9-5 operation. They also had flexibility when it came to the ability to deliver the work. Phil was always very good at working towards the end result and not just ticking off a task list.
I remember there was a new pub in Huddersfield and a couple in Liverpool where Phil had to work late nights after the pub had closed. Some of the projects were very technically difficult which was challenging as this was all very new to the industry, but nonetheless, I could ring Phil at 11pm and ask him to go somewhere to fix a problem and he would. That was just the nature of Phil and the culture he had created at Vista.
How long did you work for Greenalls and what did you do next? What are you up to now?
In my next position after Greenalls, I worked for Crown Management Systems, and part of my role was to deal with customers and oversee pilot and new installations, many of which were pubs. Vista was then an important part of our offering as we had a service partner that we could trust, and who understood hospitality. I worked in hospitality until 2006 and after this, I worked for New Look for 5 years within Logistics & Warehousing.
Now, I’m 18 months into retirement and enjoying it!
Was there anything you would have considered Vista the best at?
I would have said that they were the best in the field at hospitality IT services and project rollouts. They were the right size and they were best suited to delivering the project for us.
There were lots of sizeable pub estates around at the time and we would always recommend Vista, simply because they were the best for the job.