In Property by Clyde Mooney

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Public House Management Group CEO Ben Lawler has taken the plunge with his first title in Dubbo’s Commercial Hotel, as vendors Brett Harvey and Greg Pilon pick up a local freehold.

Around five hours’ drive north-west of Sydney, Dubbo is a thriving town in the Orana region, reporting around 40,000 locals and eleven pubs.

The partnership of Harvey and Pilon has built a modest stable in the town, including the food-focused Commercial Hotel, the nightclub-driven Pastoral Hotel, and the Railway Junction – aka the Buncha …

Having grown up in Dubbo as the youngest of seven boys and number 12 of 14 kids, Ben Lawler moved to Sydney and has risen to the role of CEO at Mitchell Waugh’s Public House Management Group (PHMG), overseeing big-ticket operations such as the Woollahra and Narellan hotels.

Lawler has held shares in other venues, including PHMG’s purchase of the Royal at Paddington mid-2015, but while the Commercial will enjoy some benefits from his metro connections, it is the first he can truly call his own.

“First one solo … so very exciting,” he says. “It seems like a good pub. Run well, great food and beverage offering, and very friendly staff. The guys have been very good in their dealings with me, and sharing of knowledge.”

The freehold going concern is well established as a place for quality pub meals, with a well-patronised function room that has replaced the former nightclub. Much of this is courtesy of a big renovation at the Commercial a few years’ ago, including new amenities and kitchen.

‘It was one of the things that attracted me to the pub, that all the heavy lifting had been done,” continues Lawler. “I’m looking to just enhance what they’re doing now, then I’ll probably do a very small DA toward the end of the year, for some minor cosmetic changes.”

While his new heart will be back in Dubbo, with some of his 13 siblings, the Ben Lawler family will remain in Sydney as he splits the week between responsibilities.

“I’ll still run Public House and this will be one of the pubs that sits under the banner, but I’ll take a personal interest in it obviously.”

Far from reducing their pub exposure, Harvey and Pilon immediately invested in another Dubbo pub – passive freehold of the Amaroo – although its 40-odd year lease means a lot less hands-on work than was the Commercial. The mixed-trade Buncha still has unrealised upside, and the 90 per cent nightclub Pastoral, with its leased-out Chinese restaurant Mr Yip’s, continues to trade well.

“It’s been a good pub for us, and I think Ben’s run some good ones in Sydney, so he can probably add his touch to it and get it going a bit better, and I hope he does,” offers Harvey. “I reckon he’ll do well – he’s a nice fella.”

Benefitting from prominent polly Troy Grant as local member, the town has been going through something of a building boom, bringing infrastructure and both government and public investment.

The two pub transactions show combined value of almost $15 million, and were executed off-market through Ray White’s Blake Edwards, who notes the sustained rise of regional strongholds amongst Sydney-based buyers.

“I think it comes down to the strong cap rates on country hotels and the relativity low entry point compared with Sydney assets,” responds Edwards. “Regional hotel prices are now as high or higher than those reached prior to the last global financial crisis.”