When Lee Price pulled his first pint at the Royal Pier in Aberystwyth on a cold December day in 1995, it would have taken the very best fortune teller on the seafront to predict that he would be working there 20 years later as the number one licensee in the business.
The then Theatre, Film and Television student hadn't planned on a hospitality career and he certainly didn't envisage standing on stage, nervously answering broadcaster John Inverdale's questions in front of more than 1,000 people.
But that is exactly what happened a few months back, when the 38-year-old picked up the coveted BII Licensee of the Year title at London's Grosvenor House. The award recognised his impressive work at the venue he has run since his employers spotted the potential in the novice barman all those years ago.
It's fair to say that when Inapub travels west to meet Lee he is on a more comfortable platform.
I arrive in June, shortly after the 8,000 students who hike the coastal town's population to 20,000 have left for the summer and just before the tourists start to arrive in their droves. It's a quiet, drizzly, typical British seaside scene but this pier is very different to so many others that look like they could crumble into the sea.
It welcomes an estimated one million visitors a year to enjoy a range of businesses including a brasserie, nightclub and a pub (with a 24-hour licence, though this has not been used of late). Lee also looks after an ice-cream parlour, amusement arcade, snooker and pool hall, pizza shop and the recent addition of a café to replace the once-popular video and DVD store.
It's a multi-faceted business that continues to evolve, much like any pub that strives for a decent return these days.
Systems for success
Lee explains that the foundation to the success of a multi-million-pound business that continues to grow is structure and having the right systems in place.
"What I identified from a very early stage when I was working 100 hours a week was that I couldn't do this myself," he says. "It was a job that could kill me unless I was prepared to delegate."
He also noticed fluctuations in revenue depending on the quality of his managers. So he created systems to "get the procedures to do the work" for everything from opening to closing, to toilet checks, glass collection, schedules of work and anything else that you care to think of.
As the business has evolved, so have his systems. And it turns out that the degree didn't go to waste either.
"I can orchestrate my business but it needs to be structured," he says. "I have always seen pubs as being a performance and if you have your cast, your crew, your props, your set, your sound, then you are there to hold it all together."
So that makes you the director, I ask?
"Well, executive director, after winning the award," he laughs. "I was an extra to start with."
The data from these systems allows Lee and his team to analyse the pier's performance and it provides him with the information he needs when dealing with any issues raised by authorities such as the council or police.
"It means I can say to them look at the things we have done, look at what we are doing when it comes to best practice," he adds.
And that base also gives the self-confessed "born worrier" the thinking time he needs to take the business forward.
"You need to be able to look for market trends and you can't if you are bogged down by worry and day-to-day stress," he says. "I want a procedure to bear that burden so I have the space to think about what's next."
Recent developments include the re-opening of the end of the pier, which the pier's private owner thought he would never see, due to the hoops that needed to be jumped through to satisfy the authorities. It has become a beer garden with arguably the best view in Aberystwyth. Lee is now focused on extending the brasserie's outside space, effectively creating a two-level garden.
As we walk around, Lee shows me the new café complete with stunning local photography, an area in the pub created to better showcase performers, new seating, a use of space that encourages customers to walk through the arcade to the snooker hall, a children's dining area. I assume this has happened over many years but most of these changes have occurred in the last 12 months, such is the recognition of the need to keep moving on.
On our tour, any sign of a crumb or a shred of paper in the wrong place is picked up by Lee, barely breaking stride or his thought process, as we go. Not only is he a worrier but he confesses to having a touch of OCD as well. It comes down to passion and high standards.
He is looking forward to sharing this and his ideas as he travels the country as the BII's ambassador over the next 12 months.
"I love this industry and I am excited about the prospect of speaking to licensees," he says. "I hope they will learn something and I will too, there are some cute ideas out there that I want to try. If I can ignite any fire in any bellies then great, I feel I will have done my bit."
He has clearly done that with his staff, many of whom stick around, with the average length of employment at the pier an impressive 14 years.
Employees are given a clear career path so they can see a future in hospitality.
"If you have no path of progression you will always have that element of the work force that deserts," says Lee. "I feel a duty now to speak up for the industry, to encourage young people to see it as a credible career. If you have passion, you care and you graft then you can be a success and work your way up."
He continues to speak with pride about the student worker who came to him recently to say they had changed their degree to focus on business after being inspired by Lee's approach. They could see a future in hospitality, which is what Lee hopes to impress upon more staff across the country.
And who knows, perhaps that student will be directing things and picking up awards of their own some time around 2034.
The Royal Pier,Aberystwyth,Ceredigion
Turnover Around £3m per annum