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Terry Lee, FBII - Leo's Red Lion

Terry Lee FBII is one of our longest standing members, having run Leo’s Red Lion, his pub in Gravesend, for as long as the BII has been around. With over 40 years in the trade, Terry has some truly incredible stories and lessons to share from his time at Leo’s.

The BII’s Peter Baskett MBII reports.

Leo’s Red Lion is not your typical pub – how many pubs do you know that have hosted the likes of Iron Maiden, Samson and Steve Marriott? Terry Lee FBII considers Leo’s to be more of a small venue than a pub, as they regularly feature British rock artists in their popular weekend music events.

Coming from a background in music as a DJ and promoter, he recalls how he originally took on the lease for the pub, which was conveniently adjoined to an old factory. He eventually 
got the freehold and transformed the venue into a staple for local rock fans.

“The lease on the factory next door expired and that’s when they approached me to ask if I would be interested in the pub.

“I had to take a lease out, and then I eventually got the freehold. To be 
perfectly honest, if I hadn’t had bought the freehold, I’ve got no doubt that the place would have been shut along with the other 10 pubs along this road.”

Terry explains how being resourceful has been key to his pub’s longevity. For example, when he first came into possession of the factory, rather than throw out the old workbenches, he decided to repurpose them.

“It had about 10 of these, what I call Victorian weld benches, which are bloomin’ solid, you 
know, four-inch legs on them – you could put a car on them. I removed all of these benches and, like Tetris, put them up one end and then covered them with inch ply. And I looked 
at them and thought, I know what to do – and to this day, that is the stage.”

Pubs are not only about food and drink; they’re also about community and entertainment, which is what Leo’s excels at. Talking about the recent shift in how people engage with pubs, Terry explains how he converted a quiet bar of his into a local boxing club, to make use of the space and to give back to the community.

 “My other half asked me when was the last time I had used that bar? It is the size of most pubs and I wasn’t using it because not enough people came here. So, when I saw that the children didn’t have a club anymore, I let them use it.”

Giving back to the community in this way builds loyalty among the locals, which is paid back to Terry when he hosts social functions.
“When we hold family functions, like our firework display in November, we’ve got 200 children, mums and dads out the front, half of whom come from the boxing club. It’s second to none, literally, there is not a fireworks display that matches it.”

Adapting your business to the current climate requires creative use of the resources available to you. Leo’s is fortunate enough to benefit from a large space, which they put to good use. When the pandemic rolled around and the venue had to shut, Terry was already thinking ahead: “I said to my missus, I’ve got a plan. I think the first thing we’re going to be able to do again is use outdoor facilities.”

Having an old and disused stage outside, he got to work on having it cleaned and repainted, posting updates to the pub’s Facebook page along the way to keep customers in the loop. When pubs were granted permission for a limited number of customers outside, as Terry had predicted, Leo’s was ready.

“During the pandemic, we were the only music venue in Kent that was able to put bands on.” These were big bands, used to performing into front of 1,000s but who, due to the pandemic, hadn’t been able to play.

“They were quite happy to come here and perform on this small, outdoor stage in front of 70-80 people, just to be able to play, because there was no other option. As a result, we’ve built up a very good reputation for music. In fact, we’re rated as one of the best privately owned music venues in England, let alone in Kent. So we are quite lucky.”

Try new things
When asked what advice Terry has for other pub operators, he replies that people shouldn’t be afraid to follow their ideas, take risks and try new things, while also learning from your experiences to understand better what works and what doesn’t. 

Know your costs
Having a thorough understanding of your business’ finances is crucial to maintaining 
a successful pub, as is the case with Terry and Leo’s Red Lion.

He referenced a recent example, where he was charged £5 extra for a crate of toilet rolls. Questioning the new £17 price tag, he was told the price of everything was going up. “They might be, but it means I will never be buying a toilet roll from you ever again. Because I can get them from Bookers for £12.”

Terry’s takeaway? Don’t forget there’s no return on the money you spend on toilet rolls.

He has also tackled the recent increase in energy prices, which have created a number of new challenges for publicans. Event venues, like Leo’s, have had to make big changes to their stage equipment to remain viable. Terry has swapped the power draining spotlights, which were 500 watts each and wired into a 60-amp supply, for LED spots on a 13-amp supply. 

As one of our most loyal members, we asked Terry how the BII has helped him over his 30 years of membership, to which he replied that his BII Fellowship had saved his pub in 2005.
He explains how, when the Local Authority didn’t want a live music venue, they put pressure on him to sell. 

“But I said no. ‘It’s far too important as a live music venue for you to shut’, these were my exact words to them.”

After refusing their offer to buy the pub, his operation was regularly visited by the police, which he believes was in an attempt to catch him out. Then he was told his licence, which he’d had since 1985, was to be reduced.

Speaking to the licensing officer of the time, Terry was told the change was due to misdemeanours, which he said was ironic, when he had just been awarded a Fellowship by the BII. 

Not one to give up, Terry contacted his local newspaper, the Kent Messenger, to tell his story. And when the news broke about the Gravesend pub of over 20 years, owned by a Fellow of the BII, being pressurised to close, Terry says the problems went away, which he puts down to his being awarded the fellowship at the time.

We’re delighted, of course, that Leo’s Red Lion is still here and hosting live music, as Terry’s approach is a great example of how being adaptable, taking risks, focusing on your community, and understanding your financials can bring long-term success

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