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Simon Collinson

Oak Taverns

It wasn’t as simple as just leaving University and walking straight into the family business for Simon Collinson, who took over as Managing Director of Oak Taverns, started by his father, Ian in 1991. Simon was encouraged to go out and learn all about the trade, eventually bringing knowledge and experience back to Oak Taverns.

Working in various areas of the licensed trade, from the wholesale division of Gallo Wines, through to Charles Wells and Corona, he then joined Oak Taverns as an Area Manager in 1999 and has since taken over from Ian, who has now retired.

In a time where pubs are serving more and more food, he took the decision to focus on really great wet led pubs, a decision that is bearing fruit. Simon champions the diversification of pubs, but says that is isn’t all about offering everything to everyone at the same time.

“In the towns and villages where we have some of our pubs, there are 4 or 5 really great restaurant or gastropub options for eating out. Why would we try to compete with that, when people still love a venue they can just pop into for a catch up with their friends over a drink?”

The Oak Taverns ethos is all about being exceptional in your field. They are focussed on quality and doing one thing really well instead of many things poorly. This focus led them to launching their microbreweries and distilling their own gins – Gin &’er and Guildhall Island.

Wanting to change the way they worked, they also believe in investing in the under invested pubs that could really be great – rather than focussing on those that you can’t make any real impact in. The Oak Taverns estate used to have 37 pubs at its highest number, but Simon worked with Christies to restructure the company with the venues that he really saw potential in.

“We were incredibly busy, but never had the space or time to really look at operations and improve on things. Restructuring the estate gave us the chance to take stock and invest in some underperforming sites that we knew we could make a difference to.”

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing though, as their first attempt at brewing in a site in Dorset didn’t pan out the way they wanted. Instead of having to deal with all of the additional admin of logistics, invoicing etc. they have adapted to the concept of on-site micro and now, nano-breweries. The beer brewed comes from the site it is served in, making it the most local concept possible.

It allows each manager to learn about the brewing process themselves, meaning they are more knowledgeable and can pass that wisdom onto their staff and customers alike. It also means that they have more autonomy in choosing the beer they serve, a way of working that Simon is keen to promote.

“We are now in the situation where we have managed houses, working almost on a tenanted model. Our General Managers are often also Head Brewers and are training their staff to follow in their footsteps.”

Simon has used the BII helplines in the past when faced with some tricky HR queries, but feels that being part of a professional organisation is the most important aspect of his membership.

“People look for Cask Marque as a sign of the quality of the ale they are drinking, and the BII is that kitemark for us as venues. We take pride in what we do and like our customers to know that.”

It seems that with the success of the Oak Taverns model, there is plenty of room for many different types of pub in the UK, all offering something different.  The BII offers its members support from helpline calls through to training and professional development, no matter the type of venue you are running. Our members range from mobile bar owners through to multiple site operators – a diversity of which we are especially proud. If you work in the licensed trade and are not yet a BII member, call us today and Join Our Family.

Oak Taverns Ltd is a family run pub company based in Thame in Oxfordshire. They operate several pubs dotted around the South of England, ranging from large food led bars to small award winning cask ale pubs. 

What’s one thing you would tell your younger self starting out?

Time is precious – what have you done with it? Make a plan and stick to it!

How do you train your staff?

We train on the job, but also use online training modules very successfully. If a staff member shows an interest in a specific area, they can develop that themselves at their own pace – be it coffee, cocktails, spirits or ale.

What’s the best advice you could give?

Bigger doesn’t always mean better – invest in the underinvested where you see potential.

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