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Ex-Merrill Lynch Banker Uses Big Data to Save Pubs

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(Bloomberg) -- Noah Bulkin is not the man you’d expect to be pouring your next pint of ale.

The Oxford-educated Bulkin, 37, spent 15 years cutting deals as a mergers & acquisitions banker for Merrill Lynch and Lazard Ltd. before leaving last year to start his own pub company, Hawthorn Leisure Ltd. He’s acquired hundreds of struggling pubs and plans to turn them around by tracking everything from the price charged for beer to daily sales fluctuations to customers’ drink preferences.

“Understanding pricing and the mix of drinks is incredibly important,” Bulkin says in an office overlooking Hyde Park in London’s upscale Mayfair district. “A lot of pubs don’t have that data. If you can make them the core of your business, there’s a fantastic opportunity.”

Over the past decade, Britain’s 70 billion-pound ($120 billion) pub industry has fallen on hard times. About 10,000 outlets have closed since 2004, according to the British Beer & Pub Association, hit by the recession, a 2007 smoking ban and cheaper supermarket booze. The volume of beer imbibed in U.K. bars has declined 45 percent since 2000, leaving companies such as Punch Taverns Plc and Enterprise Inns Plc weighed down with debt after years of rapid expansion.

The industry is fighting back, thanks in part to investors like Bulkin. After years of declines, sales at pubs open at least a year have grown for 14 consecutive months, according to pub industry data provider CGA Strategy. Pub deals valued at $730 million have been announced in the past year, more than in the prior two combined. Shares of pub companies JD Wetherspoon Plc, Spirit Pub Co. Plc and Fuller Smith & Turner Plc have all bested the FTSE All-Share Index over the past 12 months.

JD Wetherspoon rose 1.3 percent to 762 pence at 8:22 a.m. in London, while Spirit fell 0.7 percent.

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