41 King Street
Bedfordshire LUI 2DW
Telephone: (+44) 1582-589-400
Fax: (+ 44) 1582-589-401
Web site: http://www.luminar.co.uk
Incorporated: 1987 as Leadwise Leisure
Sales: £74.1 million ($117 million) (2000)
Stock Exchanges: London
Ticker Symbol: LMR
NAIC: 722110 Full Service Restaurants; 72221 Limited-Service Eating Places; 722410 Drinking Places (Alcoholic Beverages)
Luminar plc is the United Kingdom’s leading nightclub owner and operator, with more than 250 nightclubs, bars, and restaurants throughout England and Scotland, including the famed Hippodrome in central London. Luminar plc has long backed its growth on a number of core club concepts, particularly its Chicago Rock Café theme restaurant-nightclub chain. The company also has been rolling out an increasing number of club themes, including the minimalist Liquid nightclub, which uses DVD, MPEG, and oil filter lighting technology to “decorate” the dance hall; the Latin-inspired Rhythm Room; Jumpin’ Jaks, featuring live entertainment; and the family restaurant chain Tucker’s Smokehouse. Other brands include Life café and “the” bars. Luminar has been expanding aggressively since the late 1990s, leading an industry consolidation in the United Kingdom. In 1999, the company bought 27 nightclubs— including the Hippodrome—from rival Allied Leisure. The £392 million acquisition of larger rival Northern Leisure in mid-2000 catapulted Luminar to the first rank of U.K. nightclub operators, adding some 200 nightclubs and restaurants, including the Jumpin’ Jaks brand, and doubling the company’s revenues. Luminar is led by founder and CEO Stephen Thomas. The company’s shares trade on the London Stock Exchange. Mercury Asset Management, which funded Luminar’s growth in the early 1990s, maintains a 52 percent share of the company.
Disco Fever in the 1980s
Stephen Thomas began his career in the entertainment field in the early 1970s, when he joined the Rank Organisation, at the time one of the United Kingdom’s top pub and nightclub companies, as a trainee assistant in 1972. Thomas remained with the Rank Organisation through the end of the decade. The buoyant disco music trend of the era laid the groundwork for a growing market for nightclubs in traditionally pub-oriented England. Thomas began developing his own ideas on how to run a nightclub business. “I would love to have run the Rank Organisation and turned it around,” Thomas told the Independent, adding: “I really fancied being CEO but they never asked me because I was so far down the organisation. I was second spear-thrower on the left.”
Thomas’s ambitions led him to look elsewhere. At the beginning of the decade he left the Rank Organisation to join pub and brewery group Whitbread, which had begun developing its own nightclub division. Thomas became director of Whit-bread’s Aureon Entertainment subsidiary, overseeing the operations of 35 discotheques and theme bars.
In 1987, Thomas determined to launch his own nightclub operations and test out his management ideas. Leadwise Leisure, Thomas’s new company, began operations in 1988, with just £24,000 in capital. Thomas initially began buying struggling nightclubs—which, for the most part in the United Kingdom, were held by single owners, rather than by large corporations—and redeveloping them into profitable businesses. Yet Thomas quickly saw the advantages of developing a growing new niche in nighttime entertainment.
Strict closing laws limited pubs from remaining open after 11 p.m.; people in most of England and the rest of the United Kingdom, at least outside of the major cities, thus had few opportunities for late-night entertainment. Thomas saw an opportunity to serve these markets by exploiting a loophole that allowed later opening times for restaurants. Changing his company’s name to Luminar Leisure, Thomas began developing a new theme restaurant format. Dubbed the “Chicago Rock Café,” Thomas’s new formula combined restaurant, bar, and nightclub features under a single roof, inspired by what the company described as, according to the Independent, “the sort of bars you would find if you got lost in Chicago and ended up in the blue-collar working class areas off the tourist track.” The company added to the cafe’s American-style theme by maintaining a “classic” music policy, playing songs that were at least ten years old. “The idea,” Thomas told the Daily Telegraph, “is that people don’t ask ‘Have you heard this?’ but say ‘Do you remember this’ and sing along.”
Although other companies had begun developing theme restaurant formats in the 1990s, taking the cues from such fast-growing chains as Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood, Luminar could boast that the Chicago Rock Café was the only venue to boast dancing, dining, and drinking in a single place. The company opened the first Chicago Rock Café in King’s Lynn in 1990. Luminar quickly began scouting for new locations, sticking to the small- and medium-sized town markets where it could gain more or less a monopoly on the town’s night time entertainment market.
To finance the expansion of the Chicago Rock Café chain, Luminar sold a majority of its shares to Mercury Asset Management in the early 1990s. Meanwhile, Luminar continued to expand its interest in discotheques, building up a portfolio of mostly provincial discos. This category also was undergoing strong growth as the booming rave culture—propelled by the popularity of the house and techno music styles developed in the late 1980s—began to attract increasing numbers of the youth market to the United Kingdom’s discotheques and nightclubs. Over the course of the 1990s, the nightclub scene slowly began to lose its negative aura—nightclubs were often associated with violence, a hangover from the punk scene of the late 1970s. The newer, disc jockey oriented nightclub scene was to gain its own negative image, notably with the rise of hallucinogenic drug use that accompanied the techno scene. Yet nightclubs began to take a larger share of the night time entertainment scene in the United Kingdom.
The vast majority of the company’s nightclubs remained small, single-owner venues. Yet a number of corporations, like Luminar, began building strong portfolios of discotheques. Luminar’s rivals were to include the JD Wetherspoon restaurant chain, Northern Leisure, Allied Leisure, and Thomas’s former employer, the Rank Organisation. The industry remained far from consolidation in the mid-1990s, however. Less than 15 percent of the country’s nightclub scene—venues with capacity of more than 400—was held by the six largest players.
Luminar was fast on its way to joining the top ranks of nightclub operators. By the end of 1995, Luminar Leisure had grown to revenues of £21 million. At the beginning of 1996, the company’s operations included 14 Chicago Rock Cafés and a growing portfolio of 18 discotheques and nightclubs. In that year, Luminar shortened its name to Luminar plc and took a listing on the London Stock Exchange. The relatively modest offering, which raised just £5 million and left Mercury Asset Management in majority control of the company’s shares, enabled it to pay down debt and begin a more aggressive expansion program.
“Lifestyle Interpretation Company” for the 21st Century
In the mid-1990s Thomas and Luminar began rolling out a number of new theme bars and nightclubs, expanding its offering to capture an increasingly segmented night-going public. As Thomas told the Sunday Telegraph, “There is a dissection of age and a dissection of the market. Younger people 18 and 24 prefer nightclubs, older consumers prefer the bar experience. You have to understand how each market works. You have to have a clear strategy for getting people into both. You have to run them differently, otherwise people get confused.”
Thomas was quick to show his own understanding of the night-going market. At the end of 1996, Luminar rolled out its Cuba-inspired Rhythm Room bar-restaurant-disco concept for the somewhat older customer; the chain was to become one of the company’s key brands. Luminar also prepared to debut its venture into family-style restaurants, opening the first Tucker’s Smokehouse in 1997. Meanwhile, the company’s Chicago Rock Café underwent a strong expansion, opening ten new locations in 1997 alone.
Luminar’s expansion continued strongly into 1998, when the company opened nearly 15 new Chicago Rock Cafés. By the end of that year, Luminar’s portfolio included 60 venues, and Thomas was asserting that his company could one day grow to more than 600 locations. Luminar also was debuting a new discotheque concept, the minimalist Liquid clubs. With little more decoration than its bare white walls and empty space, Liquid represented a new type of “virtual” disco, using DVD and MPEG technology, coupled with oil-based filters and related “liquid” graphics to create constantly changing decors.
Luminar’ s growth had brought it to the number four position in the United Kingdom’s nightclub industry by the beginning of 1999. Yet the coming year was to mark the beginning of a transformation of the country’s nightclub scene. As the industry’s leading corporate players began a consolidation process, others sought to exit the nightclub market in favor of other entertainment areas. Such was the case, for example, of then market leader First Leisure, which spun off its nightclubs division in a management buyout. In 1999, several major deals were transforming the country’s nightclub market. Rank Organisation sold its 37 nightclubs to fast-growing Northern Leisure, while Allied Domecq acquired European Leisure, which, among other venues, owned the famed Hippodrome in London.
Our mission is to achieve the highest standard of customer service and entertainment in the leisure industry by offering value for money within our venues, to support our employees and develop their potential, to achieve and exceed our income targets and maximise shareholder value.
Luminar had no plans to remain on the sidelines of the growing industry consolidation. After expressing an interest in acquiring First Leisure’s nightclub operations, Luminar turned to another dance partner. Allied Leisure’s acquisition of European Leisure had been merely a prelude to its exit of the nightclub circuit, concentrating its operations instead on its newly enlarged bowling alley, pool and snooker, and related holdings. Luminar now showed its interest in leading the consolidation dance, announcing its agreement to acquire Allied’s 27 clubs, including the Hippodrome, in a cash deal of £34.5 million. The Allied acquisition not only strengthened Luminar’s position in a number of English markets, it also brought the company’s operations into Scotland for the first time. Most of the Allied venues were rebranded under one of Luminar’s formats; the company disposed of seven of the former Allied properties.
The Allied acquisition proved, however, merely an appetizer for a larger meal to come: in May 2000, Luminar and Northern Leisure announced their intention to merge operations. The all-share transaction, worth more than £390 million, folded Northern Leisure’s more than 150 nightclubs—including those acquired from Rank Organisation some months earlier—into the undisputed industry leader, with nearly 250 nightclubs and more than 10 percent of the United Kingdom’s nightclub market, and total sales expected to top£600 million by the end of the 2001 fiscal year. The two companies, which had first held talks in mid-1999, were also highly complementary, both having long targeted the small- and medium-sized town circuits.
Absorbing its new holdings, Luminar also added Northern Leisure’s own lineup of brands to its stable, including the Jumpin’ Jaks live entertainment format. Unlike Luminar, however, Northern Leisure had preferred to develop its properties as unbranded venues, giving Luminar an opportunity to convert its new locations to one of its existing brand names. Meanwhile, Luminar continued to boost its Chicago Rock Café format, opening its 45th site in early 2000. By the end of March 2001, the company was operating some 60 Chicago Rock Cafés.
As it moved into the first year of the new century, Luminar gave no sign of resting in its expansion drive. While the company pursued continued expansion of the Chicago Rock format, it also was developing its other existing brands, such as the Liquid disco concept, which now boasted eight nightclubs. Luminar also was developing other brands, including the “the” chain of bars, Life nightclubs, and a new chain of jazz and blues clubs, Jamhouse, which was to see its first openings in such cities as Birmingham, London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Dublin in 2001. As many in the world had come to view England as one of the world’s most vibrant nightclub scenes, Luminar’s moves were certain to keep it a major player on that country’s dance floor.
Luminar Leisure Ltd; The Chelsea Brewery Company Ltd; Tucker’s Smokehouse Ltd; Chicago Rock Café Ltd; Savoy Leisure Ltd; Rhythm Room Ltd; Fitness Ltd; Luminar Properties Ltd; Intercede 1485 Ltd.
Carlson Restaurants Worldwide Inc.; Enterprise Inns plc; Granada plc; Greene King plc; JD Wetherspoon plc; Planet Hollywood International, Inc.; Punch Taverns Group Ltd.; Rainforest Café, Inc.; The Rank Group plc; Scottish & Newcastle plc; Whitbread plc; The Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries, plc.
- Stephen Thomas founds Leadwise Leisure.
- Leadwise Leisure begins operations.
- First Chicago Rock Café opens; Leadwise Leisure becomes Luminar Leisure.
- Public offering is made on London Stock Exchange; name is changed to Luminar plc.
- Rhythm Room format is launched.
- Liquid disco brand is launched.
- Acquisition of 27 clubs from Allied Leisure is made.
- Northern Leisure is acquired.
- Jamhouse format is rolled out.
Blackwell, David, “Buys Help Luminar,” Financial Times, November 2, 2000.
——, “Wetherspoon and Luminar Celebrate,” Financial Times, January 10, 2001.
Lafferty, Fiona, “Twenty Questions: Stephen Thomas, Founder and CEO of Luminar plc,” Independent, August 30, 2000.
“Luminar Dances the Night Away,” Investors Chronicle, November 1, 2000.
“Luminar Has Found a Niche,” Independent, October 24, 1997, p. 26.
“Luminar Is Looking for a Minimum Growth Development of 20% Year on Year,” Wall Street Transcript, October 23, 2000.
“Luminar Takes Northern Leisure in All-Share Deal,” Financial Times, May 11, 2000.
Reece, Damian, “The Big Remix,” Sunday Telegraph, October 24, 1999, p. 12.
—M. L. Cohen
"Luminar Plc." International Directory of Company Histories. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 16, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/luminar-plc
"Luminar Plc." International Directory of Company Histories. . Retrieved January 16, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/luminar-plc
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