Billionaire's boys moving on up in pub world
AS a bouncer on the doors of the Black Bull, it was once his job to keep the boozy hordes of the Grassmarket in order, but now Nic Wood has a very different perspective on the Capital's drinkers.
Having masterminded the 10 million-plus deal to take over and radically transform the Rutland Hotel, he has well and truly announced himself as a major player in Edinburgh's pub and club scene.
The Rutland will act as the 34-year-old businessman's statement of intent when it reopens its doors in the coming weeks after a 3.5m overhaul.
Theatrical, opulent and state-of-the-art – it will boast the UK's first interactive iBar, where visitors will be able to play games while they drink – the revamped bar, hotel and nightclub promises to be the hottest new venue in town.
It may be the biggest venture yet for the Signature Pub Group, which Nic runs with his brother Garreth, but it will surely not be the last.
Having worked in pubs in one way or another since he was a 19-year-old Napier University student, Nic is passionate about his adopted trade.
"It was really just something I started for beer money when I was at university," admits Nic, who also worked as a doorman at the old Fire Station bar in West Port, now known as Dragonfly.
"I then started working behind the bar but was always coming up with ideas of things we could do. The managers just looked at me as if I was mad, but I loved the buzz of the bar trade."
He has plans to expand his portfolio, which includes the Black Bull, where he used to work, and Rose Street's Element, formerly known as Breks, as well as venues run by his brother in Aberdeen.
He may be the son of one of Scotland's wealthiest men, the oil billionaire Sir Ian Wood, chairman of the Aberdeen-based Wood Group, but he points out that after a little parental help to launch the business, originally in Aberdeen, it has expanded so successfully under its own steam.
He can also claim with some justification to have learned the ropes from the bottom up, after his experience as a bouncer, and running several of the city's busiest bars.
Born and bred in Aberdeen, he moved to Edinburgh to study business and marketing at Napier.
By the time Nic graduated in 1996 he was already hooked on the pub trade. He became a sales rep for the Caledonian Brewery, then moved on to become relief manager for S&N, which saw him run such bars as Maggie Dicksons, Biddy Mulligans, The Southern and Fiddlers Arms, now known as Bar Alba.
"It was a completely different scene then. You didn't get dressed up to go out, and it was all much of a muchness. You just didn't think about it, really. But throughout the 90s when I was working the bars you did begin to see how the competition changed, and Edinburgh was changing as a city too.
"It's a lot more stylish now, more self-aware and the bar scene is moving towards the London market.
"That (time] was an incredible learning curve. It taught me how to – and, more importantly, how not to – run a bar."
Similarly his brother, 29-year-old Garreth, also worked the bars while at university in Aberdeen.
In January 2003, the brothers went to America and visited 300 bars in in two months, sometimes clocking up 15 venues a night. Though it sounds like riotous fun, they worked hard, taking pictures, researching bar concepts and meeting movers and shakers.
On their return, they launched Signature Pub Group, and Aberdeen's Bieldside Inn was bought that June for 700,000 in a family-funded move.
"My dad is where the finance started from," admits Nic, when asked about his father's involvement in the company.
"To be honest it was difficult to move away from that tag we had in Aberdeen. People knew the initial association so it was hard.
"But that was then, and the point is we've worked hard and done all of this on our own. I've been learning the trade for 15 years, after all."
The brothers went on to turn the Bieldside into a success story and within months bought the city's iconic Caf Society, which was sold three years later for a profit of seven figures.
In 2005, Garreth bought Paramount, the first bar he worked in. A year later in August 2006, Nic got his first pub, the Black Bull, bought with the former Rose Street pub Breks in a 6 million deal.
All the bars the brothers own are different and they strive to ensure they are sympathetic to the area, and the clientele. So the Black Bull got no style overhaul. But Breks – now Element – got a revamp. "That was because Rose Street just isn't the same as it used to be," explains Nic. "We couldn't believe we could get a Rose Street pub and while it was a traditional man's pub with two meals for 6, we saw a gap in the market to create something much more stylish."
They did just that, creating what they call a bar with style – rather than a style bar – which has been lauded as one of the city's most chic venues. Garreth says: "People want something that stands out, little points of difference. It's all about a new concept."
The Rutland follows that formula. Covering four floors, the Georgian building houses a 12-bedroomed boutique hotel, and a first-floor restaurant with views overlooking the city and the Castle. The head chef is David Haetzman, formerly of The Tower, and it will focus on modern brasserie style dining.
On ground level is the bar, with opulent parquet flooring, futuristic lighting, velvet seating and booths for around 120 people. In the basement is the nightclub, featuring private vaulted booths, champagne bucket tables and that interactive illuminated bar. Minimalist it is not.
Nic says the 10m-plus project has been a labour of love.
Architects, builders, tradesmen and design teams have completely revamped the neglected, listed building.
"There wasn't one part that didn't need to be heavily worked on. We thought it was time to give it a new personality," he says.
They have done just that. It's what Edinburgh has been looking for, they say.
Garreth explains: "We've looked at the likes of Tigerlily, but that's not the market we want. We want to appeal to a much broader range. We are going towards the George Street end of things, but it's a place where people feel comfortable and can come in and relax, not one of these places where there's people watching."
With a launch planned for the end of June, the Rutland isn't even opened yet but the brothers are already looking ahead with a few Capital sites on their radar. But Nic stresses they will pick and choose their next moves.
"This isn't about buying fifteen pubs and creating identical style bars across the country, this is a far more tailored approach.
"It's about looking at the environment that each is in and making sure it appeals to locals, flourishes and grows to become a part of its community."
SOME OF THE CITY'S PUB TYCOONS
Kenny Waugh: Chief executive and sole shareholder of Festival Inns, the 48-year-old cut his commercial teeth working in the pubs founded by his father, Kenny Waugh snr. Since establishing Festival Inns 11 years ago he has built up a business empire boasting 22 pubs clubs and hotels, including The Hudson, Cargo, Three Sisters, Biddy Mulligans and Oddfellows.
Billy Lowe: Owns Frankenstein's on George IV Bridge, The Golf Tavern at Bruntsfield and Le Monde on George Street. He sold The Rutland to Signature Pubs in 2006 for 7 million.
Stefan King: Bought the old Hermitage bar at the former Morningside Station, and renamed it Morningside Glory. Also owns the gay nightclub GHQ on Picardy Place.