The Unicorn’s 17th-century ceilings are 6ft high and Steve George’s 21st-century frame is 6ft 4in. He bows his large head and shuffles between the beams and pillars like a shire horse in a stable meant for a pony. He is a big man in a small pub.
The Unicorn is in Cublington, Buckinghamshire. The village has 330 people, one church, one pub and 17 cricket teams. There are 17 cricket teams because of George. That there is still one pub is partly his doing, too. He is also on the church committee. No one would be particularly surprised if the congregation of St Nicholas trebled and it ended up with 12 choirs, if that’s what George decided the five-year diocesan strategy should be.
All over England, people are struggling to keep alive their pubs, their cricket teams and their churches. Well-meaning and successful men and women are going mad trying to manage crumbling steeples, tattered practice nets and moth-eaten lounges on tiny budgets. Yet here in the village, our institutions are run with proper profit and loss accounts, monthly management meetings, succession strategies and, above all, mission statements. That’s down to George.
Cublington is my village, but only in the very limited sense that I live in a small cottage by the church. My social and economic footprint is pretty insignificant: the occasional night in the pub, a one-off stint editing the village magazine and, this year, finally, glory be, a place on the churchyard mowing roster. To say Cublington is Steve George’s village – well, that is closer to the truth. Majority owner of the pub, chairman of the cricket team, church committee member, charity organiser, omnipresent. A house on the high street has just been renovated and put on the market. “That’s Steve George again,” my neighbour said.
“Nothing to do with me!” George sighs. I’ve got the tape running and he is, frankly, anxious about doing this. “People expect me to have a finger in every pie. My concern in doing this interview is that I don’t look – you know… The big power trip, ego thing. When you stick your head above the parapet people shoot at you. I just want to be a man of the community.”
George says things like this. He has a calling, sometimes expressed in management-speak (“I feel we’ve chosen to be here so we should input”); sometimes in the language of the country parson (“I put God first, then neighbours. I’m a people person…”). His beliefs in community and responsibility are sincere, yet he’s aware how they might sound to someone like me. I don’t have a calling; I have a cottage. Same village, different planet.
His house is on an unmade country lane. Beyond are glades, copses and fields – the high Chilterns. “Midmost, unmitigated England,” Henry James described the country around here – a line recalled by the poet John Betjeman when, in the 1960s and 1970s, he led a successful campaign against the government’s decision to put London’s third airport here (they chose Stansted instead). Chilterns people have always had a rebellious, anti-authoritarian streak. They don’t like people lording it over them.
That’s why George is so nervous about heads and parapets. He says people mutter about his ubiquity. I haven’t heard it. A friend of his says it does happen, “but for every one who complains, there are six or seven who think he’s doing a great job”.
We’re sitting in the large and lovely kitchen of George’s house, The Stables. It’s the kind of place a rock star might choose as his country retreat. Did, in fact. George bought his home from Ian Gillan, the singer with Deep Purple.
That was in 1995, shortly after he relocated the information business he ran to Bucks. He had always lived in soft, southern Bucks, in the commuter belt. The move allowed him, his wife Sarah and their five children to explore these more rural lands north of the A418. “It was an adventure north, out of the comfort zone,” he says. The village had the church, schools nearby – and the pub. Just. In 1998, it was announced that the run-down Unicorn was to be sold and developed as a private house. That Chilterns fighting spirit re-emerged. There were meetings, protests, and the pub was reprieved.
Then George became a properly rich man. He sold his business to a Swedish company and, in his mid-forties, didn’t have to work again.
This is a story about how and where energy gets redistributed: human energy. We’re used to the idea of that energy slowly dissipating on the golf course and in the garden as people retire at 65 or 70. But what about the people who get out young – not burnt-out, not ill, not old, just set up very nicely? Where does that energy go – that drive to manage, build, challenge; and how can a 900-year-old village absorb it?
First, it went into cricket. John Gregory was chairman of the Cublington Cricket Club. They’d secured the ground, funded a pavilion, but had only one team playing friendlies on a Sunday. “Stalky Steve arrived,” he remembers. “A very enthusiastic and very good cricketer. But he also had a strategy, that he undertook with gusto: and we prospered mightily.”
“He had a vision,” says Niall Mackay, managing director of international relocation specialists ICM Gerson, who has just been “inveigled” into becoming vice-chairman of the club. “He sees what the thing can be like five, 10 years down the line.”
For those occasional cricketers among us, the kind who turn up in old polo shirts and chinos for a bit of exercise and a beer afterwards, the Cublington club is a revelation. There are professional coaches from New Zealand and South Africa driving around in sponsored cars. The 12- and 13-year-olds on the pitch jog briskly around between overs shouting encouragement and discussing tactics, just like test players. The ground is so good it’s used for junior county matches. There are teams for every age from seven to 17. On the home page under “Documents”, there’s a 1,200-word paper detailing the club’s “Five-Year Strategy and Initial Decisions”.
He accepts that his involvement is … thorough. “I could be criticised for that,” says George. “And was, at a recent AGM. Someone – a good friend – said I’ve treated things like subscription rates in a too businesslike way: ‘Come on, we’re only a village cricket club.’”
Maybe, but it won’t change George’s mind. “That would be a disaster in my view. We’ve got to run it like a village cricket club but ensure that the income stream is sufficient to what’s required. You have to replace outdoor nets every five years and that costs £15,000. You have to take subs at a level that will deliver what the members want.”
He then treats me to a detailed analysis of comparable membership fees in nearby tennis and golf clubs. Like his critical friend at the AGM, you end up mildly, calmly bulldozed into submission. It strikes me that St Nicholas should put him in charge of setting monthly targets for the collecting plate. They could pass it around with a spreadsheet.
It’s important to note that the cricket rebel was a friend. Not only does George not mind doing business with friends and family, and arguing with them when necessary – that’s the way he prefers to operate. John Gregory’s son used to run the pub; now George’s eldest is executive chef. In this, as in all things, he adheres to the moral code of the cricket club: play hard, play to win, then have a friendly pint afterwards.
That code was put to the test when he, Gregory and another member of the cricket club drove down to an English Cricket Board meeting in Surrey to try to secure more funding. It proved to be a momentous journey. They secured the money and on the way back, got talking about The Unicorn – reprieved temporarily from the developers, but shabby and down on its luck. The three friends decided that if the place came on the market, they’d each pitch in and buy it. And thus it came to pass. John Gregory, at that point managing director of private bank Henry Ansbacher & Co, was the natural choice as finance director. The other member of the consortium was something of an entrepreneur, and his parents had run a pub: he would look after operations. As for George, he’d be in charge of strategy. “Which involved,” he remembers, “writing a vision statement and checking the product from time to time.”
This happens, especially in a Britain where pubs are closing at a rate of 39 a week, according to the British Beer & Pub Association. Saving the local is taking up more and more time and energy. Everywhere you look, consortia of chums are petitioning brewers or clubbing together to save the old place. “We ran it properly,” says George. “We wanted nothing more than a very pleasant local pub which sustained the wages of five or six people. Which it did. But in hindsight we deferred to each other and didn’t take the tough decisions any one of us would have made if we’d been in it for ourselves. It bumbled along. We failed to deliver a consistent experience.”
So the third member of the team volunteered to run The Unicorn alone. Within a year, he was out. George took the majority shareholding and spent £500,000 of his own money doing the place up. It was big news in the village and the new owner is still reluctant to talk about the split. The language of economic analysis comes to his rescue. “They say turnover for vanity, profit for sanity,” George says. “There was too much emphasis on turnover. Not enough on forward profit.”
I can translate. The pub started to have lots of theme evenings and live-music nights. They were popular with everyone except the villagers. The place was losing money. So hard conversations were had and the change was made. “It had to be a commercial discussion. It wasn’t as pleasant as you’d like it to be. But after that” – the inevitable refrain – “you go and have a pint together. He’s still a good friend.”
More than a year later, the pub has its new kitchen, a new dining room and, of course, a mission. “We aim to be the natural choice in a 10-mile radius whenever anyone thinks of going out for a meal. People have to go away thinking ‘that was a great experience.’ What really impacts on me as a customer is the value side of it.” George also wanted to make it the kind of place where women feel comfortable, “because there’s no doubt who chooses where you eat. So there are hand towels rather than paper towels. The mirror is at the right height. It feels comfortable, though we still need to make it a bit softer…”
So the retired businessman has become a businessman again, with all the moves and a fair bit of the jargon. With John Gregory in the background, they have bought another pub that needs the Unicorn treatment. Time for another George motto: “If you want something done, ask a busy person.”
He’s a phenomenon – and an increasingly widespread one. A friend who lives in deepest Kent tells me they have their own Steve George: a hedge fund manager who bought the pub, put a new wing on the school and transports kids from the nearby town to the village school. Whether through altruism, a sense of community or just that reservoir of untapped energy, this new breed is shaking up the countryside. Yet it’s one thing being a mover and shaker in the City. You have to be careful not to bring your M&A skills to running the village fete.
“I know people in the village look at me and ask, ‘Is this a takeover?’” says George. “It’s something I consider periodically – regularly. Just to keep my motives in line. To do a sanity check on why I’m doing things. To me, I’m helping the community to maximise its potential.”
We are bound to end up with the F-word. “I’m not looking for people to think of me as feudal,” he swears. “With what we have comes responsibility. It would be very easy to tucker down – to zip off to Portugal and play golf.”
I’m one of Niall Mackay’s villagers who think he is doing a good job. But for those of us who have tuckered down and have minimal impact – well, the big man’s example can make us just a touch uneasy. Show me the way to the churchyard mower.
Mark Jones is a regular contributor to FT Weekend Magazine. His last piece was on the demise of expenses. Read it at www.ft.com/expenses