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With the possibility of another lockdown ever present, who knows what state the hospitality industry will be in this winter. Might it dent the confidence of the bullish, seemingly imperturbable, founder and owner of the Chestnut Group, Philip Turner? That’s unlikely.
A recent visit to London, where he started his banking career financing private equity funds, showed Turner how the fallout of Covid-19 continues to ‘fracture’ the pub sector. “I saw many places still closed, they are the kind of pubs that rely on bar or ‘vertical’ drinkers and without space and the ability to safeguard customers it is not yet possible for them to reopen.
“Luckily with the majority of our properties we have space and our offering is food as well as drink. From The Packhorse near Newmarket to The Ship at Dunwich our establishments are ‘destinations’ and East Anglia is a great place for staycations.”
Even more reassuring was the fact that over 3,500 Chestnut guests replied to a survey during lockdown asking them whether, or when, they might return and outlining hygiene and safety meaures the hotels and pubs were going to put in place. “I thought we might get a few back but nothing like the eventual figure,” says Turner.
And kitchen staff were not idle during this time of national inertia. “Thanks to the generosity and goodwill of our communities and local businesses, our new charitable foundation, The Giving Tree, donated over 25,000 free meals to frontline NHS workers, care workers
and communities in need across our region.”
But surely, going back to March when the economy was starting to suffer under the stay at home restrictions, there were fearful moments?
He admits there were but his positivity and instincts told him to press on with important business decisions. (His Twitter tagline of “Building a business, fighting battles - trying to win more than I lose” gives a clue to the Turner mindset.)
“We were buying The Globe at Wells about then and the town’s festival, held almost next to the pub, was later cancelled which was unfortunate timing-wise. Some wondered why we should be doing it but I’m a glass half full person and buying it has been vindicated as trading all summer has been exceptional,” says Turner.
Similarly an expensive revamp of rooms at The Westleton Crown went ahead during lockdown, a decision reached while Turner was walking his dogs. Such strolls give him valuable thinking time, he says.
So where did the great adventure into owning pubs and hotels start for this former Gislingham boy, and Old Buckenham Hall School pupil, who went on to study economics at Bristol University? The answer is at his home village of Moulton during a fireworks night on the village green. The local pub, then called The King’s Head, was hugely undermanned serving a long queue of customers and Turner thought it was a crazy situation.
Not everyone would be in a position to turn that observation into a purchase of the pub - and renaming it The Packhorse Inn - but that was what followed.
The Chestnut Group has grown steadily since, backed by a group of investors who are clearly a high priority.
“I can tell you what all of our shareholders think and I’m in constant touch with them. During the lockdown they were getting regular emails from me keeping them informed and updated.”
Turner says he tries to be a good delegator, allowing his management team to do their work, and he rarely plans his weeks. However, there is an ever-present sharpness on detail. He can read a balance sheet and home in immediately on any figure that looks questionable. Currently the language the group use in their marketing is all important too, so a certain amount of honing goes on to get it right.
Turner says his wife Amanda (who took on the role of interior designer for some of the early Chestnut properties) is a perfectionist, but it is a trait they share.
“You can instill a culture of always trying to improve and learn . . . of
Food & Drink
The Turner prize
Acquisitions aplenty and fast growth have seen the Chestnut Group blaze an impressive trail through East Anglia’s hospitality sector. Richard Bryson talks to the founder of this stylish collection of inns, pubs and restaurants
 The Chestnut Collection
The Packhorse Inn, Moulton Rupert Brooke, Grantchester
The Black Lion Hotel, Long Melford The Northgate, Bury St Edmunds The Three Blackbirds, Woodditton The Ship, Dunwich
The Westleton Crown, Westleton The Weeping Willow, Barrow
The Eight Bells, Saffron Walden The Crown, Stoke-by-Nayland
The Globe Inn, Wells-next-the-Sea

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