Welcome back to How I Made It, Metro.co.uk’s weekly career journey series.
This week we’re chatting with Billy Pither, a 67-year-old from Hertfordshire, who left a simple life on the beaches of Greece to head to London and design some of the cities most high-end bars.
In 1978, at the age of 22, Billy went with friends to Elounda in Crete and loved it so much he went back two weeks later with his guitar to stay for good.
Windsurfing was just emerging as a sport so Billy taught himself and started working for a guy helping him to teach water skiing and wind surfing, before setting up his own water sports club a year later.
In 1986 Billy was forced to come back to England after changes to laws involving operating water sports and finding out his father had become ill back home.
In one of the biggest career change curveballs we’ve heard, he now designs the bars at some of the most exclusive venues in London, including Annabel’s, Sexy Fish, The Ivy and Scott’s.
Unsurprisingly, venues pay a lot for these eye-catching structures – around £500k for the most expensive designs. Smart move, Billy.
Hey Billy. What made you get into the bar building business?
An old friend told me that his family business had started manufacturing stainless steel bar equipment. He wanted to start a company to sell this and asked me to go in with him, so we started just supplying the equipment on the bartender’s side.
People became familiar with cocktail mixing partly due to the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail (released in 1988) and places like TGI Fridays became very fashionable.
For several years we supplied all the major leisure and nightclub operators and got to know a lot of companies who supplied the joinery, metalwork, stonework, lighting etc in the bars we worked on.
We began to broaden our horizons and started to design bars and then pull together the people we knew who could build them, earning ourselves a reputation for being ‘bar experts’.
What was switching careers and moving country like?
Actually, I enjoyed the change in scenery. I knew I couldn’t be a beach boy all my life and I had had eight fantastic years.
I learnt to speak Greek and made some friends who I am still in contact with. I missed the weather, the sea, being active, but enjoyed the excitement of starting a business.
Financially speaking, how much does it cost to do the type of work you do?
We design and build very high quality products so nothing we do is cheap.
It is unusual for us to build a bar which would cost less than £50k but sometimes we do.
We also design and build bespoke beer fonts and they might only be £1,000 to £2,000 but some of our most expensive bars have been more than £500k.
An average day in the working life of Billy Pither:
7am: Take my dog Franklin for a walk. He needs to stretch his legs before his breakfast
9am: Breakfast at the office and chat to the team about our to do list for the day
10am – 1pm: Catch up on emails, work on our ongoing projects and designs, and check the accounts
1pm: We all have lunch together round a big table we made, then play pool
2pm: Take Franklin for a walk. The office is in the countryside and he loves the fresh air
What do you love the most about your job?
I think I have always been a designer inside. I understand colour and materiality and I love order.
A bar is that unique combination of form and function. It needs to look beautiful on the outside but function efficiently inside.
I had had 20 years of understanding the function side of things and loved having the chance of wrapping that up in beauty.
I love the creative side of my work, but I also enjoy running the company. I have a fantastic talented team and we know we are at the top of our game. We still love a challenge.
When a client wanted his bar to have a fish tank in it but the 500kg stone counter needed to lift up pneumatically to access the fish, we rose to the challenge!
What do you dislike the most about your job?
The contractual red tape and nonsense in the building industry.
What’s your favourite bar you’ve designed?
Lots of favourites, for different reasons. Some in private residences, some in private members’ clubs, but The Mexican Bar at Annabel’s is gorgeous.
I always wanted to design a bar based on the beautiful lines of the Riva Aquarama boats. We achieved this at the Dog & Badger in Berkshire. Stunning joinery work.
Where do you get inspiration from?
The function bit is easy because there are certain things you need like fridges and ice makers and that might relate to the size of the place you are trying to fill.
If it’s a big place it needs a big bar and more equipment, so that bit comes easily.
The pretty bit generally comes from what someone is trying to create. If it’s an old style club in London it’s going to be dark wood panelling. If it’s a trendy place with a younger vibe it may be more metal and glass.
In private houses people have a vision in mind and send us Pinterest boards – sometimes of the bars we’ve done!
Did you ever picture yourself in this line of work?
I don’t think so. I’m artistic and creative. I like order and making things look nice but I never had a burning ambition to be X Y or Z.
I’m just following life where it takes me.
MORE : How I Made It: ‘Pregnancy made me realise I was in the wrong job’
MORE : How I Made It: ‘I’m a professional matchmaker and help people find love’