With a well established career in ‘fitting out’ and interior design, Rob was probably the perfect choice to lead the community project for the acquisition and refitting of the Denmead Fox and Hounds Public house.
What’s your background career wise?
I started my working life off doing an engineering apprenticeship down a coal mine in South Wales.
Are you Welsh by birth
No, no, I’m from Birmingham. My father was sent to South Wales to open a factory for Lucas Girling the automotive company, so the family went with him. That was character building, going to a Welsh secondary school with a ‘brummie’ accent [laughs]
I bet! Do you miss the Black Country?
All my family are from Birmingham and I’ve got one aunt still living in Sutton Coldfield to the North of the City. I also have some good friends of over twenty five years who live in the centre that I occasionally visit. I actually quite like the road network in that area, and the Midlands in general. It doesn’t mean that I want to move back, but it wouldn’t be a pain if I had to.
When I was nine, we all went to Melbourne, Australia, with dad opening another factory. That was great because our education system was a year ahead of the Australians, so when I arrived I was a brain box [laughs]. Not so good when I came back to the UK though! Then we had six months in Lichfield before we were off again, this time to South Wales.
Quite an upheaval during my early years, so I was never quite sure where I belonged, Birmingham, Australia or Wales. A lot of my working life has been spent travelling around so all in all I’m a bit of a nomad really.
Did you have any grand plan for a career?
After leaving school I had a brief six months foray in the Royal Navy, as an Artificer Apprentice. My dad wanted me to be an engineer, because he’d been one. One of my best friends at school, who I’m still in touch with to this day planned to join the Royal Navy and he persuaded me to joined up with him. However, I quickly realised that life in the Royal Navy was not really what I wanted to do with my life and after 6 months opted for discharge by purchase as they officially term it. In other words I bought myself out for the princely sum of £20, which when your weekly wage was £3-10 shillings (£3:50p in new money) was quite a bit to save up.
When you buy yourself out of the Royal Navy you are encouraged to secure a job or alternative training course before leaving. So, with my father’s help, when I left the Navy and I joined the National Coal Board and spent the next 3 years doing a mining engineering apprenticeship at Bedwas Colliery which included a day release course at Cross Keys College of Technology. Bedwas Navigation Colliery was the deepest mine in the South Wales coalfield and it was while I was there that the first national miners strike took place and I had to drive through the picket lines in my mini every day. There wasn’t any trouble as staff had to turn in to keep the mine safe and free of water, so we were waved through the picket lines without drama, although it was very scary at times.
After obtaining my general engineering apprenticeship certificate, I decided that a career in mining was not for me and I tried a few things before finding out what I wanted to really do.
What sort of things?
I took a training position with a retail petroleum company who were taken over by Amoco where I learned all about running petrol stations and worked all over the country, after which in 1976 I left and took on my own petrol station and garage business before selling it in 1980.
I then went into partnership in a clothing wholesale business on Stapleton Road in Bristol and during the next 2 years we secured 2 retail premises in both Bristol and Bridgend plus a franchise within “Fine Fare – Shoppers Paradise“ and a van sales business that ran down into Cornwall. We were on our way until my partner discovered an penchant for gambling and the partnership was dissolved, much to my relief.
That was when I fell in love with interior design and fit-out.
After that I moved down south and joined “Beanstalk Shelving” a shop fitting company in Chichester. That was when I fell in love with interior design and fit-out.
I was at Beanstalk for eleven years before taking redundancy and then joined the Swedish furniture manufacturer Kinnarps, who provided total furniture solutions for large corporate customers like IBM. I enjoyed over 13 years when my position became redundant and I took the opportunity of voluntary redundancy to branch out on my own as a consultant in workplace acoustics.
Can you explain what you mean by ‘workplace acoustics’ a bit more?
You could think of it as audio landscaping, mainly in office areas. The various work practices, within an office environment require different sorts of physical layouts. For meetings, areas where confidentiality might be an issue, personal spaces etc, and contrary to what you might believe, in most cases, offices are too quiet. Building technology has developed over the years and now utilise low noise level air conditioning systems, exterior double glazing is so efficient that exterior noise is eliminated. Subsequently we live and work in library type environments. Consequently, when you add people who start to speak, voices can be heard over long distances. The trend for minimalistic interior design which incorporates mainly hard surfaces has contributed to prolonging the degradation of sound over distance. In other words sound reflects off the hard surfaces and carries even further, resulting in serious speech privacy or noise level issues in most workplaces. Call centres and open plan offices are prime examples.
we live and work in library type environments
How did you get into that area, it seems quite a jump from fitting out?
Furniture has become a commodity, desks are a flat surface that holds paper or a computer off the floor. One of the key business areas for Kinnarps, was ergonomics. As a company they were one of the first organisations in the world to build the corner desk. It was designed to address the need for those chunky old fashioned computer monitors to be on the desk, but still allow the operators to rest their arms properly and have enough space to work. It sounds obvious, but somebody had to do it first, which was Kinnarps and we sold hundreds of thousands of them. Ergonomic task chairs them became a hot subject and Kinnarps were one of the leaders in the design of business seating.
During the last five or six years that I was with Kinnarps, we started to look at the influence of noise in the workplace. The increase in open plan offices started to create issues with noise, which in turn affected productivity, concentration levels and speech privacy problems. So, we sought ways of fixing the problem without having to rebuild, or reconfigure the fabric of the building. One of the solutions was to introduce sound masking. The experience that I gained during this period enabled me to specialise in that area when I left.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
You’ve lived in Denmead for twenty five years?
We’ve been in this house for since 1990. We started out renting in the village. We’ve done a lot of work on the house in that time. There wasn’t a garden to speak of when we came here. We negotiated a good discount by asking the builder not to finish the garden.
IWho’s the gardener in the family?
Me. Although I wouldn’t call myself a gardener, more of a landscaper.
Yeah – I like aboveground things [laughs]. I’ve got three pergolas. One is for the BBQ, the second is the ‘living wall’ and number three is work in progress. I’ve just been granted planning permission to add a pitched roof and add an inglenook fireplace and pizza oven.
I have some more plans for extending the home. I used to want a sit on lawn mower, but I think that might be a bit of overkill for the amount of grass we have [laughs]
You like playing the host then?
I do yeah. We do a lot of that. The pizza oven won’t just be for pizza’s of course, you can do the Sunday roast or whatever. They reach quite high temperatures. I love being outside.
A bit of a ‘foodie’?
Yeah, I like cooking. You’ve seen my BBQ. We even cook our Christmas dinner on there.
Are you the head chef?
Not at all, only when I’m allowed [laughs], my wife’s a very good cook. But when I get the chance to cook, I like to experiment. I like the BBQ, it’s not just a man thing, I love it because it’s a reason to be outside.
Do you cook for large numbers?
Oh yeah, the biggest gathering last year was for seventy-two people, for my birthday. That was stressful, but we do often have large numbers, just not quite that amount. We have one coming up in a couple of weeks for forty odd, which is more manageable.
Do you prefer to be with people, rather than your own company?
I don’t mind either really. I don’t like crowded places, which is why I prefer the pub a lunchtime or early evening. I was the same when I was a youngster and frequenting clubs and such like. I preferred it before eleven, rather than after when it got really busy. I like to be able to converse and meet interesting people. I don’t know what I am really, I like to entertain close family and friends. People that I feel comfortable with. The thought of owning and running a pub doesn’t appeal to me at all. My career in sales has been interacting with people that I don’t know. I can do it, and I’m pretty good at it. But if I had to do it in my home, which a pub would be, I wouldn’t enjoy it at all.
Friend of the fox
How did you respond to the announcement of the Fox & Hounds closure?
When we bought this place, two doors down from a country pub, you would consider it idyllic really [Laughs]. But to start with I didn’t get any benefit from the location. All the time that I was commuting back and forth to London, leaving home early in the morning and getting home late at night, I would quite often come up the lane and see the guys there having a drink and think, ‘lucky buggers’, you know. During that time, for nearly thirteen years, apart from a couple of beers after playing golf on a Saturday, or the odd evening, I just didn’t have the opportunity to make the most of it. After leaving Kinnarps and going out on my own, the hours that I worked became a lot more sociable. So I started dropping in at lunch times now and again, and the occasional evening, that sort of thing. I enjoy a drink and I had more time to be sociable than before. I actually prefer lunchtime or early evening, before it gets too busy.
two doors down from a country pub, you would consider it idyllic …
Hence the 601 club from our earlier interview
Exactly, between six and eight o’clock is just right for me. I didn’t form that club by the way, it was already in existence before I became part of it. I’m more of an honorary member really. Jon Pocock, the other Co-operative member that you’ve met, was part of the original club. I’d always organised quite a few things with the pub, even though I was an infrequent visitor during the commuting years. The bonfire night celebration in the field opposite, that sort of thing.
So you get your social life back again and …
… they announced that they were going to knock it down and sell it. So I thought hang on, this isn’t right! But of course it wasn’t just about me. It’s one of the oldest buildings in the village, dating back to 1870. It’s a landmark structure and we felt that it wasn’t right to just knock it down. There was a lot of outrage when it was announced that the developer was thinking of building two houses on the plot, because we were having 240 houses built elsewhere in the village. It seemed completely unnecessary, and we felt the local community would have its soul ripped out. A pub in a small village, whether you like them or not, is like a community centre.
The church and the pub were the original focal points.
They’re the hub of a community. You get to know what your neighbours are up to, they’re a meeting place, I’m sure that many a local romance has started there [laughs]. Most of the kids in this end of the village got their work experience in the Fox and Hounds. My own daughter worked there. They might start out washing up, later on helping out in the restaurant, and eventually working behind the bar. A taste for a bit of responsibility and some pocket money. So everyones negative reaction to the building plans spurred us on do something about it.
Did you try to dissuade the owners?
We kept on at them about keeping it going, but it fell on deaf ears. It wasn’t until we saw the reference to the Localism Act to protect village assets, that we thought we might be in with a chance to fight it. As we’ve said before, we had to form a co-operative and we knew that we would have to raise the money. But idea of opposing the plan just grew and grew and grew. All the advice that we got from various organisations, the legal side of things, the amount of work that would be required, at every turn it got more serious. Eventually we realised that we had to make a decision, go with it, or get out. We’d come so far, invested a lot of time, effort and good will that it was an easy choice to make in the end. Full steam ahead.
The key people for the Co-operative are yourself …
Jon (Pocock) is an ex finance director and ex bank manager, so he’s the company secretary, responsible for all the accounting and money side of things. Nick (Jardine) has done some worked for the Parish Council in the past, and has some good connections there. He has a keen eye for detail, so he’s our main man for ploughing through all the rules, regulations and guidelines. Keeping on top of that, which is not small task, with all the i’s dotted and T’s crossed. My role is chairman, whatever that means. So, I guess I’m the salesman and the co-ordinator.
We must not to forget our 4th Director who prefers to remain anonymous and others behind the scenes such as Martin our Project Manager and Cathy, our Marketing Communications Officer without their help and of many others this wouldn’t have happened. Jon , Nick and I are the public face of the enterprise if you like.
How do you see yourself against the competition from other pubs?
The Fox and Hounds is in a great position, especially for the summer time trade. The front is south facing, which is where the new patio area will come into its own. We don’t really have any high calibre food pubs in the immediate area. There are perfectly fine watering holes with adequate dining, but nothing that I would call special, or within walking distance. So we intend to offer that extra something in the food department.
You won’t know what’s hit you when it’s all done and dusted.
Apart from the relief, we’ll be able to stand at the bar and admire what we’ve achieved together, as a community.
You’ll have every right to feel proud.
Yes I will. That’s not the reason that I’ve done it of course, but yes, it will feel good.
Would you do it again?
If somebody wants to pay me I might [laughs]. Good will can only go so far, you have to earn a living. The amount of things that we’ve had to get to grips with is phenomenal. From building regs, interior design, public and commercial funding, health and safety regulations, you name it and we’ve probably had to learn it. Jon and I have spent the last ten days filling out licensing documentation. Then, yesterday, I had a call to say, ‘these drawings aren’t to scale’. So I spent a frantic three hours redrawing the layout and putting in fire exits etc.
I guess that’s where your experience with fitting out interiors comes into play?
If the truth be told I quite enjoy doing the things like the drawings because, as you say, that’s back in my comfort zone. We could just do without the last minute panic when the time could be better spent. But that’s all part of the game.
Is the old pub sign still around?
Ahhh yes, the pub sign. The former landlady took it with her! So we commissioned a local artist (who wishes to remain anonymous) to create a new one for us. That in itself was not quite as straightforward as you would think. The Fox and Hounds name, and sign, has it’s roots in countryside hunting. So we thought, now would be an opportunity to drop the hounds part of the name and just go with ‘The Fox’. Thereby avoiding any potential conflict with the anti hunting lobby and related opponents. However, it turned out that it wasn’t that simple. If we changed the name, pretty much every piece of documentation that had been generated since we started, would have to be amended to comply legally. It just wasn’t worth it. However the artist that we commissioned has come up with a solution, which we think works rather well. He’s reversed the roles of the fox and the dogs. The fox is wearing the hunters outfit and is surrounded by the hounds. We refurbished the framework for the sign, and somebody has bought us a new post, because that was rotten. So we’re good to go.
If time & money were no object what would you do?
I like travelling, we do a fair bit of that during the year and if I won the lottery, a couple of million say. Would I move? Probably not, I love the area. We used to own a house in Portugal, when my daughter was younger, which we eventually sold. We had some great holidays there. In fact we’ve rented it back quite a few times for holidays since then. If I could afford it, I would love to spend four months of the year there from around November time.
So you like the heat?
Not so much the heat, I don’t like the gloominess that we get here during the winter months. I know it rains in Portugal, but it’s a different class of rain, it’s brighter and warmer [laughs]. So if I had a wish it would be to spend the Winter months in a better climate. Visiting friends in Australia in on the agenda as well.
Play more golf maybe, what’s your handicap?
Golf to me is just a pastime, nothing too serious, even though I’ve been playing for around forty-five years. Now and again I put in a good round or a good shot. Just enough to keep me coming back. So I’m never going to be a professional [laughs]. My handicap is seventeen, I play a couple of times a week at different clubs.
Where do you play?
I play at Furzeley. I used to play at Meon Valley, but I got fed up with it being a bit difficult and It was just making me grumpy [ laughs]. I like Furzeley, a nice little local course and it only costs a third of what the Meon Valley charges. I also play in the Construction Industry Society matches, and in the New Forest. A handful of different places.
And you enjoy landscaping …
When I was growing up, I used to help my dad build walls and lay paths when we moved around from house to house, so I suppose that’s where my interest in working outside stemmed from.
Hence all the work on the garden?
Our house, and next door, were built on the former bowling alley car park for the pub. And the two over the back were built on what used to be the old night club. It’s taken many years and a lot of work to get it to how you see it now.
So the pub at the time sold the land for housing?
Yes, ironic isn’t it. There used to be a night club in the village and, something like thirty years ago, another resident did the job that I’m doing now to get the nightclub closed! [Laughs].
History repeating itself
Some things are always worth fighting for …
Web Links and References of interest
Fox & Hounds
Web site: http://www.robstark.co.uk