Find out about the Business Leader of the Year 2024 shortlist, sponsored by Poppleston Allen

By The Morning Advertiser

- Last updated on GMT

Inspiring operators: here is the shortlist for the 2024 Business Leader of the Year
Inspiring operators: here is the shortlist for the 2024 Business Leader of the Year

Related tags Events Publican awards Multi-site pub operators Pubco + head office

We’ve taken a look at each of this year’s operators in the running to be named Business Leader of the Year.

The shortlist is:

Sarah Willingham 


The entrepreneur, investor and CEO of Nightcap has a strong track record in the hospitality sector spending some of her early career managing restaurants for Planet Hollywood and Pizza Express.

She has been a Dragon on TV show Dragon’s 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’.

She was winner of this award in 2023 and on receiving the accolade said: “I was so surprised. I just didn’t expect it. I thought ‘you’ve not been here long enough.’”

Formerly a director of The Clapham House Group, she co-owned The Bombay Bicycle Club, expanding it to make it the largest Indian restaurant chain in the UK. She was also responsible for the development of well-recognised brands Tootsies and The Real Greek.

She came up with the idea to launch Nightcap after the first Covid lockdown. The aim to take advantage of the “exceptional opportunity” in the market to acquire and organically grow drinks-led businesses.  She told MCA’s Pub Conference in 2023 that she had “great visibility” to the “nightmare” unfolding for the sector.

Willingham was already an investor in The London Cocktail Club and this was Nightcap’s first acquisition, followed by Adventure Bar Group in May 2021. Later in the same year the company purchased the five-strong Barrio Familia and in June 2023 it acquired the Dirty Martini chain of cocktail bars and Tuttons Brasserie in a £4.65m pre-pack deal.

Nightcap now operates 47 bars under brands including The Cocktail Club, Barrio Familia and the Adventure Bar Group.  In January 2024 the company revealed it had acquired interactive live entertainment concept The Piano Works.

Willingham has been named as one of The Sunday Times​’ 500 Most Influential people in Britain. In 2017 she received an honorary doctorate from Staffordshire University and a year later she received honorary doctorates from both Cranfield University and Oxford Brookes University.

Martin Wolstencroft


Martin Wolstencraft, co-founder and CEO of Arc Inspirations, 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.

He is described on the Arc Inspirations website as having a “fantastic passion” for the industry and a “contagious” energy.

Move forward 24 years and that energy and passion has seen Arc Inspirations expand to 21 venues and operate three brands – Banyan, Manahatta and Box.  The business operators in a cluster model and is intentionally differentiated to target different customers, locations and occasions.

Arc Inspirations is set to accelerate its growth after letting external funding into the group for the first time with a £19m investment from the Business Growth Fund for a minority stake. The business had previously been self-funded and had a partnership with bank HSBC.

The group is set for further expansion this year and is currently eyeing new openings in London, Liverpool and Cardiff.

In November last year, the group opened its biggest ever development with the opening of Manahatta in Newcastle.

Under Wolstencraft’s leadership the operator reported record sales in December 2023. Its like-for-like sales for the four weeks to the end of 2023 were up almost a fifth (19.9%) against December 2022.  Wolstencraft said that to deliver these “record sales” was a testament to the “passion, commitment and flair” shown by the team.

Its brand Box, the sports bar concept, won best new Pub/Bar at The Publican Awards 2019.

In 2022 the company had also received two industry Oscars - Best Managed Company (2-50 sites) and Best Operations Team at The Publican Awards.

Clive Watson


Pub entrepreneur and reality TV star Clive Watson describes himself on his Instagram as a “Father of four, Husband, Avid tennis player, occasional beer drinker, flexitarian and passionate European.”

He has an enviable track record in founding and selling pubcos with his latest deal seeing Young’s purchasing his 54-site City Pub Group for £162m.

The boards of both Young’s and City Pub Group reached an agreement at the end of last year on the terms of a recommended cash and share acquisition to which Young’s would acquire City Pub Group and its mainly freehold portfolio of premium, individual and well-invested pubs. The deal is expected to complete on 4 March following shareholders voting in favour of the transaction.

Watson has a long track record of working in the pub sector.  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 in 1998, he joined Tup Inns, created by Slug & Lettuce founder Hugh Corbett, and then formed Capital Pub Company in 2001 becoming its chief executive in 2008.

It was only three years later in 2011 that he sold Capital to pub giant Greene King for £70m.

Watson founded City Pub Group in late 2011, financing it through an EIS scheme, alongside pub veteran David Bruce and Fuller’s managing director John Roberts.  He felt that there were great opportunities for a pub company operating in cities outside the capital in places such as Oxford, Cambridge and Bath.

Watson is known not only for his pub success but his starring role in TV reality show Made in Chelsea along with his daughters Lucy and Tiffany. The Phene, a City Pub Group gastropub near the King's Road in Chelsea, was often used as a location for filming the show.

Jillian MacLean


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. Under her direction, the group has paved the way for many other operators, to offer fresh and exciting concepts.

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.

Alex Reilley


It was in August 2002 when three friends, Alex Reilley, Jake Bishop and Dave Reid, opened their first Lounge venue, in Bedminster, Bristol.

It is now one of the most successful bar groups in the country with over 250 sites including 213 of its Lounge concept, Cosy Club venues and Brightside, with Reilley at the helm.

During a year out after A-levels both Reilley and his friend Reid started work at a Holiday Inn. The work didn’t suit Reilley who moved on to wait tables at The Case, a high-end restaurant and champagne bar in Leicester City Centre.

It was when Reilley was working as operations manager at 250-cover venue Byzantium in Bristol and its three sister sites when Reid returned from travelling and they decided to open their own bar. All three friends put money in to open their first site, a neighbourhood café-bar combining the elements of a restaurant, pub and coffee shop.

It proved successful and they kept adding one site per year and in 2006, with five sites in Bristol, decided to take the brand further afield to other cities.

Reilley became managing director in 2008, and by 2012 Piper Private Equity had acquired a minority stake in the company. Only three years later in 2015 Reilley became executive vice-chairman. The following year Lion Capital acquired a majority stake in the group, Piper Private Equity exited its investment and Alex Reilley took on the role of executive chairman.

Success of the company has been rapid under Reilley’s leadership and by 2019 the company became listed on AIM and revenue hit £153m.

Fast forward to 2022 and a new brand Brightside is launched to appeal to roadside diners.

Under Reilley’s leadership the company intention is to continue to pursue an organic growth strategy, driven by the rollout of new Lounge, Cosy Club and Brightside sites with an ongoing focus on operational improvements to drive further sales and margin improvements across the existing estate.

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