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What is the cost of a conscience?
A case study of one hospitality business in England
Two weeks ago I gave my first public talk since 2017 at the Porky Pint Restaurant & Bar in Billingham, England. It is owned by my friend Paul Henderson, who also is founder and CEO of a tech company that I used to advise in my former guise as a telecoms guru. Paul has been persecuted by the British establishment for opening the business during the (violently unlawful) “lockdowns”, in contravention of the human rights of both him and his family as owners, and his patrons.
I have watched Paul be put under immense personal strain as a result of his courageous stance on behalf of us all. There are many stories like his, and the mass media isn’t telling them. “We are the news now” means that the responsibility falls to the rest of us as citizen journalists.
I sat down with Paul to capture the essence of his tale, and in particular to focus on the real cost of exercising a conscience.
MG: What is the history of the Porky Pint?
PH: On behalf of my family and with some contribution from them, I bought the business from a local couple who were friends of mine. We all used to go there and enjoy the venue, and it was popular with a great atmosphere. I had casually mentioned in 2016 that if they ever wanted to sell it that I might be interested. The first lockdown in March 2020 had closed the business, and that led them to offer it to me for sale.
It had a turnover of around £200k (c. $260k) at the time, and by July we had agreed the transaction, so that we could re-open it in August. At the time the government was paying people to support the hospitality industry via its “Eat out to Help Out” scheme.
What was the original business plan?
Our aim was to build on the existing success of the business. The intention was to expand the venue and business from being essentially a “passion project” bar operating three days a week, to a fully fledged dining and licensed venue with events, and food served all day, every day. The property had lots of potential to grow, both in terms of physical space and the service offering. For instance, we could also provide a breakfast and lunch venue.
The commercial goals were part of a broader strategy to support my parents in their retirement, and later to build a legacy of assets and income for current and future generations of our family. It was never the intention that I would run it personally, with the tech company keeping me busy full time. A professional manager would take care of day-to-day operations. My own role is as owner, to direct and fund it.
How did the pandemic regulations affect your ability to trade?
They shut it down! The government stopped it trading as a pub, the first time being in November 2020, and that ran through to April 2021. It didn’t open until May/June. In the interim the business was forced to change. As we didn’t want to furlough anyone we pivoted to invest in kitchen and staff to sell takeaway and delivery food. But that was not the original business: the Porky Pint Restaurant & Bar as a local social amenity and community hub.
How did you exercise your conscience?
I refused to enforce track and trace or participate in such grotesque state surveillance. I also refused to harass adults (or anyone) to cover their face up. Several times we just opened, despite the regulations. It was not a commercial decision, but rather one of conscientious objection. It was not something we profited from; indeed it was very costly.
What was the impact on the business?
The consequences of opening during lockdown were that I was personally attacked by the press and then the public. There was a smear campaign, and then an attack (still ongoing) by the local Council and Police Force. Their approach was not (only) to deal with breach of regulations, but to destroy the business as it stands. We have indeed been harassed constantly by the Police and Council. One staff member quit as she was threatened by the Police.
As I do not live in the local area, I could not continue to ask or instruct that the staff to open it under these oppressive conditions.
What was the financial cost of opening?
At a rough estimate I have spent £30k on the initial legal fees, plus £20k on appeal, as well as being liable for the council’s costs. Only a small percentage is covered by our legal insurance, and £9k+ from supporters of the case to contribute towards the legal fees.
There are revenue losses to the business which are hard to quantify, but are at least £10k/month. As a result of police action and bad press (that made it seem like we shut down completely) trade dropped dramatically. In the meantime, I continued to invest in the business, and tripled its customer capacity. This should have resulted in an increase in revenue, as we were capacity constrained.
The main business I run is a small telecoms software provider, and I need to support them all from a finite pot of capital. If one becomes unprofitable then I need to move money around, which sucks up time and causes disruption. But for the extraordinary persecution targeted at the bar and restaurant, that business would be profitable.
It has also been a huge distraction, taking lots of energy, with people attacking you all the time. October to December is the busiest time in the hospitality industry, and lockdown hit this directly. We had to pivot to replace this lost revenue, as well as keep the business running during the January to April quiet period. This is a revenue hole I estimate at around £110k.
We bought the business for £50k, and made investments of £75k. Overall I am looking at a personal loss of around £250k. The business is being destroyed, so do I now write it off, or classify it as unrealised investment?
That said, the real financial cost is in the second and third order effects of it being closed and me being attacked. When the money is not coming in there is an opportunity cost, as I need to redirect my energies away from entrepreneurship to keep replacing those losses.
What was the consequence for you personally?
There has been a high emotional cost, impacting my personal and family relationships. I have been under a great deal of stress personally.
My parents helped to provide some of the initial funding, and these setbacks and attacks have not been easy on the relationship we have either. My parents are now retired and on a modest income. Should we keep this family business going, or not? There is unnecessary contention due to the cruelty we have all faced.
It is not only the business itself that has been attacked, with brand damage and equity harmed. I have also been attacked for doing the right thing. The press portrayed it as if I am some dodgy irresponsible publican, using negative connotation language to assassinate my character. For example, customers were repeatedly referred to as “punters” in numerous articles, as if they were attending a dive bar or brothel.
This has all been especially distressing for my mother and really upsets her. An accountancy firm doing due diligence on my telecoms work found such a derogatory and defamatory article in the press, and it caused me problems.
Have you any closing thoughts for those reading your story?
For all the costs of conscience — financially, personally, and emotionally — there is a much greater cost that I have avoided, and that is the cost of having no conscience at all. I sleep fine at night. Live not by lies, a wise man once wrote. And that has been, and is, and remains my sole intent: to act and to live with honesty, in all things. If what I have chosen to do might give just one other person some hope that there is justice, or at least there are those still willing to stand and to fight for it, then it has all been worth our while.