Many of those who are fascinated with business are so because they are intrigued by human behaviour, especially that of the customer. Many of those who are absorbed by finance are at heart focused on institutional organisation. And many of those who associate themselves with the term enterprise are by instinct motivated above all else by the insights from discovery and invention.
Ask Sarah Willingham, the Helen of Troy of the hospitality sector and former doyen of Dragon’s Den, where she stands on “business”, “finance” and “enterprise” and her answer is strikingly candid and somewhat surprising. “I do the first and the second but definitely not the third. I am not to my mind an innovator in the traditional sense of the term. Do not show me an empty room and ask me to fill it in or give me a blank piece of paper and suggest that I create something. It will not happen. I have often asked myself if I can really call myself an entrepreneur – to my mind entrepreneurs are innovators. I am a businessperson.”
What does she mean by this seemingly self-deferential description? Her skill set is elsewhere. She can find potential in projects that others would pass on. She can seize a room which is half-filled and complete the task of making it look appealing. She can take a space where the furniture is already all in place and rearrange what is there so that it looks a lot better and is considerably more functional. She can stare at something and see what is missing. She thrives on carving some clarity out of chaos.
She has always been like this from her earliest years as a child in Stoke-on-Trent who dropped doing a paper round for working in a restaurant. She has always assumed that there would be some rival who was faster or smarter than her so she would need to mobilise other attributes to succeed in life. The power of persuasion has perhaps proved her most reliable asset. This is a woman who, after all, has never formally applied for a job in her life but instead has asked herself “what do I want to do?”.
It is an attitude that probably made her a natural for the vast but volatile hospitality industry. It has always been her home base. The reasons being that “I love it, I like the people, it is fun, there is energy and passion. It is a happy place for an extrovert, and I know that I can be very good at it.” Which is just as well as she concedes that she has “an extremely low boredom threshold” and she needs the hit that comes with the immediacy of delivering an occasion that has pleased people.
Furthermore, while much of the outside world regards hospitality as a risky, even dangerous spot to invest money in (in a typical year one in three bankruptcies in Britain involves a food outlet), she is more confident about it. The basics are straightforward as she envisages it. The business model has to be robust. You need to know what great looks like. A company must appreciate its audience.
Although thrown in the deep end at a young age, her formative experience was her Pizza Express exposure. She had been working for Planet Hollywood on business development and international expansion. She was far from convinced about the strategy. She did not have an MBA then (she has acquired one plus other business degrees since) but did not need this to realise that the numbers were not sustainable. It was in her best interests to move on before Planet Hollywood hit trouble.
So, she went out and bought a copy of the Financial Times (not her customary activity). Most of it was either incomprehensible or of little interest. Two articles did, however, stand out. One was on Pizza Express, then in the swashbuckling hands of Luke Johnson and Hugh Osmond. She must have read it a hundred times such was her captivation. The other was about Pret A Manger, then in the relatively early stages of its rapid development. She reached out to Pizza Express who hired her.
Her main responsibilities revolved around international expansion. This was an education by itself. She once found herself in Japan with a suitcase and a translator on a mission to open restaurants with scant experience of the local culture, regulation and tax, or how to recruit decent employees. It was breakneck speed stuff for a person who had not yet held her own 30th birthday party. In terms of personal development, it was fantastic but for professional development it was more limiting. She also sensed that the senior management team were scoping up a buy-out that she would be too junior to join in.
She indicated that she would like to leave. Pizza Express did not want to bid her farewell. An agreement was reached whereby she would concentrate on a variety of “special projects” directly for the Board. As a consequence, she shared an office with the Chair, the Managing Director and the CFO.
It was a phenomenal learning experience. She found out how a PLC really operated and the strength of the underlying business model. She fused an understanding of capital structures, the relationship between equity and debt, the pivotal position of the P/E ratio and meaningful shareholder value to what was an impressive existing repertoire rooted in branding, marketing and sales. She started to look around the wider hospitality sector and to wonder whether the Pizza Express model could be applied elsewhere with similarly effective results and potentially matching lucrative levels of profit.
The answer, it seemed to her, was The Bombay Bicycle Club which would be the vehicle (as it were) for establishing a dominant presence in the extremely fragmented curry quarter. She took the idea to the Pizza Express board, but they took the view that they did toppings, not tikka masala. She went solo and entered negotiations with the company directly, backed financially by a surreal assortment of investors whom she had met through a side-activity business named Sage Organic. The deal was about to be done when it then transpired there was another suitor called The Clapham House Group (whose leaders, ironically, included the ex-Chair and ex-CFO of Pizza Express she had worked with). The best way to avoid what could have become a destructive bidding war was to merge their forces.
Much of the rest is history. The Bombay Bicycle Group sped to success and swiftly became the UK’s largest chain of curry establishments. The Group grew to include the likes of Tootsies and The Real Greek. Sarah had, nonetheless, decided that at some moment she would want to start a family and a large one at that (she has four children), so she decided to sell her stake in the company. She would launch a new venture in NeutraHealth PLC (a supplements and vitamins retailer) which was bought in 2011. The one supplement that she obtained herself there was the man who would become her husband.
The switch from curry to cocktails was essentially accidental. She had been convinced to take part in a television series alongside Raymond Blanc entitled The Restaurant. She had been reluctant to do it as she had no appetite whatsoever for becoming famous. She wanted to travel through life in a way that, as she puts it, “I could shop in Lidl without being recognised”. The first two series were thought to have impressed but she would only do a third one of the format, if her co-star and the BBC would agree that she could invest in the winner if she wanted to. That victor was the London Cocktail Club.
Much of the next decade involved building up that business and investing in other small businesses at time when growing her family was her priority. Then the pandemic descended. It was a “total nightmare, a doomsday scenario”. In the late summer of 2020, she had to decide what to do with the company. Having noted the pent-up demand exhibited during the “Eat Out to Help Out” campaign, together with her husband, Michael Toxvaerd, they chose to double-down on cocktails. They were sure that customers would come back in droves when they could, that some of the competition would be closed by their creditors and that the balance of power between landlords and tenants was about to witness a huge transformation.
Although we all then endured a second wave of COVID-19 (that brought in the anarchy of the so-called Tier system ) followed by a short second national lockdown and then a third full-blown shutdown of hospitality for almost five months in 2021, they organised a roadshow and floated the business against these, what may be described, as sub-optimal background conditions.
The evidence indicates this was the right call. Nightcap PLC took over the London Cocktail Club and two other cocktail companies besides. Sarah is absorbed by the project and loving it. She spends most of her time working with Michael on consolidating the market, making sure they have the right team in place, operational implementation and planning the roll-out schedule. As she has done before, it runs on the maxim: create a whole that is more than the sum of the parts.
There is time (besides her charity activities such as feed5000 and overseeing her sizeable family) for her investments such as the extremely successful Craft Gin Club amongst others. In 2021, she was approached by EquityChair to be the Chair of Tonkotsu, a PE-backed restaurant chain that specialises in Ramen, an increasingly popular Japanese food. She had never thought about becoming a Chair until EquityChair knocked on her proverbial door, nor deemed that she might have a flair for it. Despite the subdued economic atmosphere at the present, Tonkotsu is looking towards the next year with confidence. For the majority of people, Christmas 2022, like previous years, will be one associated with mince pies and turkey. There will be a property in Brighton, where Sarah Willingham resides, with rum gin, outstanding cocktails and Ramen on the menu as well.