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Publican Awards 2024, Business Leader of the Year Award

Licensing solicitor and partner James Anderson presents the 2024 Business Leader of the Year Award

Business Leader of the Year Award winner Alex Reilley of Loungers (centre) photographed alongside Poppleston Allen Partner, James Anderson (left side) and Publican Awards host, Tom Allen (right)


At a glittering black tie event in London’s Battersea Evolution, Alex Reilley of Loungers Plc, scooped the Poppleston Allen Licensing Solicitors ‘Business Leader of the Year Award 2024’.

The award, presented by licensing solicitor and partner James Anderson, was presented at The Publican Awards, the biggest event in the pub calendar. And Alex received his accolade in front of a record attendance of over 1500 at the Publican Awards 2024,.

Loungers is a fantastic success story in the incredibly difficult hospitality market, which has been hit hard by the Covid pandemic and, more recently, the cost-of-living crises.

Under the stewardship of Alex and his co-founders Jake Bishop and Dave Reid, the trio opened their first Lounge in an empty opticians on Bristol’s North Street, Bedminster. The firm grew steadily at first, opening its 100th site 15 years after its maiden 2002 venture, but just seven years later, in 2024, it opened its 217th site called Vitello Lounge in Ilkley; winning the MCA Award for Best Pub / Bar Group at the same time.

Loungers has experienced rapid success, solidifying its position as one of the most successful bar groups in the country. Their brands include Lounge concepts and Cosy Club venues, with the addition of the newly launched Brightside in 2022, catering specifically to roadside diners.

The company remains steadfast in its commitment to pursuing an organic growth strategy, aligning with its overarching vision for sustained success.

Carl Weston, head of marketing and partner (non-solicitor) at Poppleston Allen comments: “It’s brilliant to see another fantastic gathering of industry leaders coming together to celebrate their remarkable achievements, and those of the trade in such challenging times. And a massive congratulations to Alex for winning this year’s Award. He has done a fantastic job in growing their business and building a very enviable hospitality brand. This award is all about honouring hard work, determination and real grit, and Alex truly embodies that spirit.”

Other leaders short-listed for the Award on the night were:

Sarah Willingham, CEO of Nightcap Plc and winner of the award in 2023 Publican Awards

The serial entrepreneur, investor and CEO of Nightcap Plc was again shortlist for the award which she won at last years Publican Awards.

Sarah has a strong track record in the hospitality sector, spanning time at movie-star themed Planet Hollywood and Pizza Express. Sarah has been a Dragon on TV show Dragons Den as well as being an investor and judge on The Restaurant. Willingham is also chair of the PE-backed Tonkotsu Group and a shareholder of the UK’s largest subscription business for alcohol, ‘Craft Gin Club.

Under Sarah’s stewardship, Nightcap Plc has almost 47 sites under 11 brands, including: 50 sites operating under the brands:

  • Barrio Familia
  • Dirty Martini
  • The Adventure Bar Group
  • The Cocktail Club

Martin Wolstencroft, Co founder and CEO Arc Inspirations

Martin started his career with Whitbread in 1990 after graduating from Leeds University.

He was its youngest manager at 22 and was promoted into key operations and marketing roles within the business. It was in 1999 that he founded Arc Inspirations and opened his first site – Arc in Headingly a year later.

After 24 years of running Arc Inspirations, the business has 21 venues and operate three brands –

  • Banyan
  • Manahatta
  • Box

Further expansion is on the cards for the company as, following external investment of £19m, it is now seeking new sites in London, Liverpool and Cardiff.

Clive Waston. Co-founder and Chairman. The City Pub Company

Pub entrepreneur and Made in Chelsea reality TV star, Clive Watson, has an incredible track record in business.

He qualified as a chartered accountant in 1986 before joining Regent Inns in 1990 and becoming its finance director. He was part of the team that took it from 27 outlets to an 80-unit operation listed on the Stock Exchange.

Only eight years later he joined Tup Inns, created by Slug & Lettuce founder Hugh Corbett. Then, in 2001 formed Capital Pub Company, becoming CEO in 2008. Eventually selling, just 3 years later, for £70m.

Then in 2011 Watson founded City Pub Group, building it into a highly successful 50+ group of pubs, eventually selling to Young’s for £162m.

Jillian MacLean MBE. Founder and CEO. Drake & Morgan

It was in the middle of an economic recession in 2008 that Jillian MacLean decided it was time to set up her own company and Drake & Morgan was born.

According to an interview with the Morning Advertiser MacLean said that she made her move into setting up her own pub and restaurant chain when she noticed women were buying new lipstick.

She said: “The great thing about a recession is that people go out more. And they buy more lipstick. It’s for the same reason. They want to feel good about themselves.”

MacLean got her first experience of the hospitality sector in a hotel run by her parents on the west coast of Scotland in the picturesque resort of Largs where she was brought up.

She then worked in a local hotel owned by Tennent Caledonian breweries and stayed with Bass, the parent company, for more than two decades, finishing up as operations director of Mitchells & Butlers. She also worked at Spirit Group and ran operations at Novus Leisure.

But it was in 2008 that she saw her opportunity to create a new proposition for a casual, accessible bar-restaurant with good design.

She now leads the innovative bar and restaurant group, which consists of 18 venues in landmark locations across London and Manchester.

MacLean has received numerous industry accolades for her work with Drake & Morgan and in 2013 was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2013, for services to the hospitality industry.

She now sits on the Board of Trustees for The Drinks Trust, a charity and community organisation providing support, care and assistance to those working in the drinks industry.

For further information on this news item, contact head of marketing and partner (non-solicitor) Carl Weston on 0115 953 8500.

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