Taking a business approach to a community project behind White Horse Upton’s success

The White Horse, Upton. Peter Crook, left, and Malcolm Steward.

The White Horse, Upton. Peter Crook, left, and Malcolm Steward. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

When you walk into the White Horse at Upton there is one face you cannot help but spot.

In the photos on the wall, Prince Charles focuses intently as he pulls a pint of ale behind the bar, shakes hands with volunteers and grins as he unveils a plaque commemorating his visit.

'If you have a visit from someone like him you might as well shout about it,' said Peter Crook, one of the trustees behind the White Horse's success. 'It is a good selling point and it really helped put Upton on the map.'

And capitalising on that selling point encapsulates not only the entrepreneurial spirit which has allowed the community-owned pub to thrive – but also Mr Crook's PR background which helped promote the day.

Merchandise including Christmas cards and picture CDs were sold in the neighbouring shop to commemorate the Prince of Wales' visit, as patron of the Pub is the Hub initiative and the Prince's Countryside Fund, which gave grants towards the project.

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Other money-making ideas include a series of walks starting and ending with at the White Horse – published in conjunction with Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

Mr Crook said: 'People want to show their friends and relatives the pub that they are part of. If we can make a bit of money from that, which goes back into the pub, then it is good for everyone.'

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The White Horse was bought by villagers in the summer of 2012 but after the first 12 months it was losing around £10,000 a year and that was when a new committee led by Mr Crook and Malcolm Steward took it on.

Mr Crook said: 'In many ways we were the first community pub, there wasn't really a model for how to do it.

'The previous committee had done a fantastic job to acquire it but they didn't have the time to run a pub. Malcolm and I are retired so we could be involved on a day-to-day basis.'

Putting their skills together, former PR man Mr Crook and Mr Steward, an engineer, threw themselves into the job – painting posts, going through paperwork and assessing procedures.

Mr Crook, who first drank in the pub in 1967, said: 'As soon as we took over we started putting out a newsletter for shareholders to tell people about anything we had to announce. We wanted people to feel like they were involved and it was their pub.'

Overtures were made to various bodies including the Broads Authority and local councils as well as generating plenty of publicity.

Mr Steward added: 'We have always wanted to be up front with people. We regularly invite people in to see what we are doing and tell us what we are doing wrong.'

In the early days the project relied on volunteers and one of the first things the pair decided to do as part of a turnaround was to bring in professional systems, paperwork and staff. They switched banks and breweries as they searched for the best deals.

'Because the pub is owned by the village we have to account for every penny,' Mr Crook said. 'If you want to be professional you can't have volunteers behind the bar or in the kitchen if you want to produce quality meals.'

The focus is now on growing the business and maintaining its place at the heart of its community – aspects of the venture which saw it crowned as winner of the Small Business category, sponsored by Farnell Clarke, at the 2016 EDP Business Awards.

Mr Steward said: 'Because we can be here all the time and we have that attention to detail we are able to save money that perhaps other landlords can't.

'We have the time to look into things because other people are running the day to day side of the business.

'We still find it fun and it is still challenging. I don't think we would do it if it wasn't.'

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