Don't bet it all on the house

How many times have you sat in a pub watching the footy or enjoying drinks with friends and someone has said, "This place is buzzing. I bet the tills must be full"?

How many times have you sat in a pub watching the footy or enjoying drinks with friends and someone has said, "This place is buzzing. I bet the tills must be full"?

Probably too many times to count. But it's a brave move, making the leap from customer to owner.

Nevertheless, in the past few years the lure has proved too much for some. But for the few who make a living owning a hotel or bar, the failures are three times as many.

If you read a newspaper during the past five years, it was very apparent who really made cash from pubs: receivers and managers.

Pulling a beer and having a clean, child-friendly beer garden, a well-priced steak-and-chips menu and some pokies were not going to save you, and in many cases didn't.

Despite the very fragmented industry, of the top 20 pubs across greater Sydney, most are held by families or long-term operators. These people live and breathe pubs. They know their clientele and realise there is more to making a venue a success than just pulling beers.

They offer a range of food, cater for kids and sports fans, and while gaming is not as important as in the past, they retain some machines.

Talk to a pub owner and you get the same answer: provide a safe, clean venue in a good location and don't overspend on the decor.

The most active pub families are the Laundys, the Shorts - of which Martin and sister Paris Ballantyne just relaunched the Royal at Leichhardt - the Bayfields, the Maloneys, the Savage Group and the McHugh, Green and Ryan families, among others. There are also the new corporate investors such as the Coles, Woolworths' Australian Leisure and Hospitality (ALH), as well as profitable listed landlord ALE Property Group.

Moving into the spotlight is the Riversdale duo of Paddy Coughlan and Rod "Ned" Kelly, who are working on a public float, Mark Carnegie's M.H. Carnegie & Co, John Singleton, former head of Qantas Geoff Dixon and Allan Johnston.

Having emerged from a number of years of being hit by high debts, receiverships and poor management, the next phase for investors is growth and stability.

In the end, borrowing too much at high interest rates to pay the high sale prices and then overspending on renovations, proved the undoing for the new entrants. Even those who headed to the sharemarket to raise money to buy pub portfolios were hit by the global financial crisis.

In June 2004, the first listed pub fund was the $70.5 million ING Real Estate Entertainment Fund. After a few tough years, the fund is now named the Lantern Hotel Group and is looking to expand.

Through Jones Lang LaSalle's Hotels & Hospitality Group, on behalf of Savage Hotel Management, Lantern has bought the Crown Hotel in Surry Hills. Sam Handy and John Musca of Jones Lang LaSalle negotiated the sale.

The hotel was sold discreetly off-market and was keenly contested, yielding six offers to purchase. No price was disclosed, but similar pubs have reached more than $16 million.

Russell Naylor, the executive director of Lantern Hotel Group, said he was excited by the opportunities the acquisition presented.

He said it was a strong fit with the existing portfolio of hotels and offered a variety of bar, dining and entertainment options while demonstrating upside and a strong underlying property value.

So next time you want to buy a pub, leave it to the professionals.

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