Make mine a double: Charlie Fenton

Charlie Fenton has seen a few pubs in his 63 years. He's drank in them, run them, owned them and now the RE/MAX Xtra commercial hospitality specialist sells them. But, as Charlie tells Rowan Crosby, his love of pubs is about a lot more than just making a sale. It's about helping others forget their troubles and realise their dreams.

When Charlie Fenton walked into a fellow publican’s hotel in Alexandria only to find the owner “crying into his beer” at the end of the bar, he quickly realised the pub game wasn’t for everyone.

“Charlie, I didn’t know what was involved, I never wanted to do this, and all I want to do is get out of it – I hate it,” the publican told Charlie.

While a lot of people love the idea of owning and running a pub, you need to have the right mindset.

“Not everyone can do it,” Charlie says.

For Charlie, pubs are all he’s ever known.

As a fourth-generation hotelier, he started in the pub business in 1977 at The Lord Dudley Hotel in Paddington, and went on to own and run 10 pubs across New South Wales over the years.

Charlie knows better than anyone that it takes a special type of person to operate a successful hotel.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to enjoy what you do and you’ve got to have the right mindset,” he says.

One area where Charlie could excel throughout his career in the pub game was his ability to turn around a failing hotel.

“I bought them when they were absolutely broken,” he recalls.

Charlie would take over hotels and bring them back to life, introducing a combination of great food, creative promotions and through connecting with the community with his trademark charisma and genuine interest in other people.

“The business is all about being able to connect with people and understand who they are and where they come from,” he notes.

“It’s about bringing people together and making them feel happy – that’s why it’s called hospitality.”

Publican turned agent

After decades in the business, Charlie got out of his last pub in 2017 and told his wife he wanted to have a crack at selling them instead.

He spent some time working with a hotel broking firm for 18 months, but all the while he had a nagging feeling there was more he could do.

Most hotel brokers had never actually owned a pub or knew what was involved in the day-to-day running of one – but Charlie did.

So he caught up with old friend Morris Short from RE/MAX Xtra and came on board as a specialist in commercial hospitality transactions.

“As a fourth-generation hotelier, I thought that as a hotel broker with RE/MAX Xtra, I could offer a lot more than just being an ‘agent of sales’,” Charlie explains.

“I am a specialist in knowing the game and in knowing how to fix up a place for a seller. 

“For example, you should always leave something for the next bloke.”

Since he started selling hotels, Charlie has successfully sold several pubs and poker machine entitlements, largely across regional NSW.

Charlie’s experience over many decades has been a key reason he’s transitioned to selling so smoothly.

His insights allow him to not only successfully transact a deal, but offer great value to the buyer as he can help them see where the upside lies and how to turn a pub around.

Running a country pub

Charlie says if you’re trying to run a successful regional pub, there’s nothing worse than employing someone who wants to hide behind the bar. 

“The whole idea is that people walk into a pub to enjoy themselves and forget about things,” he says.

“If there’s a nice person behind the bar who’s willing to have a chat, it takes their mind off their own troubles.”

According to Charlie, running a country pub can be very rewarding, but it’s very different to operating in the city.

“In the city, people don’t have to chat and connect,” he says.

“So when you walk into a pub, it’s important that you ask them how they’re going and try to connect with them.

“In the country, sporting clubs and community clubs are really important. It’s about creating that sense of community. 

“The guy that goes in there and runs it and tries to give something back is really valued by the community.”

Charlie says everyone wants to know the publican in regional NSW, but you still need to run a good operation so people will support you.

“They don’t want some cranky bastard behind the bar because they won’t go back,” he says.

“If your food’s no good then you’re playing catchup, and that’s really difficult.

“In the end, it is simple, but you do need to have the right frame of mind.”

In years gone by, it was less common to own a pub.

A publican would usually take over the lease of a hotel and run it for a few years before handing the reins over to a new owner.

“I had the Leeton Hotel at Leeton, and there was a customer by the name of Charlie Molnar,” Charlie recalls.

“He lived upstairs and had done so for many years. He said to me that he owned the hotel. 

“I had this argument with him for about 20 minutes, then I realised that he was right. 

“As he said, ‘You will be gone in a few years, but I’ll still be here. So, this is my hotel, you may fix it up, thank you, but it’s my hotel’.” 

“Charlie was spot on and in a couple of years, I was gone.”

The pokies boom

Charlie suggests now is a good time to buy a pub, but you need to know the business landscape.

“You can do a lot with a $1 million budget,” he says.

“That will get you a hotel in great condition, though forget the pubs with poker machines as you need a minimum of six at $650,000-plus each. 

“Around $500,000 will buy you a good country town pub, but you have to make it work as a business.”

Charlie says one of the biggest changes in the hotel business over the past two decades has been the role of poker machine entitlements and how people are buying and selling pubs just to obtain the entitlements.

The recent boom in pub sales has largely been driven by buyers looking to get access to those poker machine entitlements, Charlie says.

“Back in 1997, nearly 400 pubs across NSW were going broke,” he says.

“The State Government allowed poker machines and that helped the pub environment.”

“In the last two years, poker machine entitlements have gone up $200,000 to $650,000 per entitlement, so it’s just gone nuts.

“Where it’s going to end, I’m not sure.”

Learnin’ the pub game

With the wealth of knowledge Charlie has built up over the years, he’s felt the need to give back and help others entering the hotel industry.

He authored The Publican’s Mate, a guide for pub owners on how to run a successful business and enjoy yourself along the way. 

Charlie also wants to set up a “pub school”, which helps teach would-be publicans what’s involved in running a pub as a successful business before someone dives in a makes a decision they’re not ready for.

“I’ve asked a number of people why they bought pubs and how’s it been going, and many have responded with ‘not good’,” he says.

“If they knew what they were getting themselves into, they would never have done it.

“If you don’t know what to look for, what you’re getting into and what to expect, you can turn a good pub into a disaster.”

Despite being heavily focused on his work with RE/MAX, Charlie still has the drive to turn pubs around and loves helping others do the same.

“I’m only 63, so I’m only a pup,” he contends.

“Every time I walk into a pub, I always ask myself, ‘are you serious? – why don’t you do it this way?’”

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Rowan Crosby

Rowan Crosby is a senior journalist at Elite Agent specialising in finance and real estate.