Shaper: Henry Dimbleby MBE

Show aired on 16th February 2019

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Welcome to the Jazz Shapers podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however music has been cut or shortened due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers, I am Elliot Moss. This is the place where the Shapers of Business join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues. My guest today is Henry Dimbleby, Co-Founder of Leon Restaurant chain, Co-Author of the School Food Plan and amongst other things, the Co-Founder of London Union, the operators for street food markets. Henry and his Co-Founder of Leon John Vincent bonded over fried chicken and various hamburgers travelling together as management consultants. Intrigued by the lack of healthy options they set up Leon in 2004. It is as they say – our best attempt at creating fast food as it might be in heaven. Now Leon operates 62 venues, mainly in the UK with a Mediterranean inspired menu that is 48% vegan or vegetarian. Henry described Leon as having a radical environmental commitment to more plant-based food, renewable energy sources and less plastic. A movement he says, for the whole restaurant industry to get behind. Henry is also the Co-Founder of Chefs in Schools launched in April of last year, a charity aiming to recruit a hundred Chefs for a hundred State schools in five years. Hello.

Henry Dimbleby
Hello, morning.

Elliot Moss
Good morning, thank you for joining. Henry you do lots of things and you have done lots of things, you’ve founded a restaurant chain, you’ve got involved with fixing food in schools, you are interested in putting markets up for food and celebrating the loveliness of that stuff, you write, you broadcast, you do lots and lots of stuff. Behind it all, who is Henry? When is Henry at his happiest?

Henry Dimbleby
Well I’ve always done lots of stuff and I am still trying to work out what I do, although I did have dinner with my 80 year old father a few weeks ago and me and a friend and a few friends were all talking about our careers and what we were going to do and after about ten minutes my dad kind of got frustrated and he kind of said ‘well what I want to know is you know, what am I going to do with my life, how am I going to leave my mark’ so…

Elliot Moss
He said this?

Henry Dimbleby
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
Of course you’ve done nothing.

Henry Dimbleby
So obviously…

Elliot Moss
You’ve done nothing Mr Dimbleby, nothing at all, we don’t know… we haven’t even seen you. What kind of legacy will you do? Was he being serious?

Henry Dimbleby
Absolutely serious but I’ve always done lots. My Degree was physics and philosophy so it was kind of part science, part arts and then I was a, after University, I was a Chef and then I was a gossip columnist and then I was a management consultant and then with John Vincent, my friend and business partner who founded Leon and so I’ve always kind of you know, been restless I guess. I like starting things, I like making things come to life that weren’t there before. I think that is probably you know, in my business life that’s where I am happiest. You know, I recently founded a charity, started a new business, I am now working at Defra as the lead non-executive and been asked to devise a national food strategy so I like the creation. In my private life, that’s actually in a very small way so I am happiest cooking for friends actually at home and I like just creating a nice atmosphere and seeing people enjoy themselves.

Elliot Moss
The beginning of your first career, or let’s call it parallel because you’ve got a few careers here, you are a multi-career man in front of me. The cooking, I want to come to that first because you said you enjoy it and that’s when you are at home with family and friends and so on. What is it about cooking that you love and I know you had a big influence, your mum obviously kind of taught you – I think there was a quote around not just how to eat but how to enjoy food and how to understand food.

Henry Dimbleby
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
What is it about food and cooking for you at the core of things that pleases you, that gives you satisfaction?

Henry Dimbleby
I don’t know. My mum was Josceline Dimbleby was one of those people who cooked in the 80s, she sold millions of cookbooks without ever going on TV and people used to have Josceline Dimbleby dinner parties with her books and she never invited me into the kitchen because she was always writing books but we used to eat this amazing food and I guess there are kind of a number of pleasures with food; one is I guess I inherit this from my mother, I like… I am very sensory. She used to run outside on a warm day and she would feel the air with her hands and say ‘ah feel that air’.

Elliot Moss
A totally normal upbringing, there is no wonder Henry Dimbleby is completely straight, you’ve got it.

Henry Dimbleby
And so I love the taste and the smells, I love travelling and eating abroad and then I like the kind of flow of it, I am mentally kind of quite flighty, quite kind of active and I like, there’s just enough when you are cooking that you can’t really think, particularly if you are cooking quite a lot, it stops you really from thinking about much outside. I find that very relaxing and then I just love, the thing that I love, always love most about Leon, the thing that I find most pleasurable is coming into one of the restaurants when it was really busy, I still love this, coming into a restaurant when it is really busy and just standing at the back and watching people enjoying themselves. That feeling that you have created a space where people can be themselves and enjoy themselves and relax is incredibly satisfying.

Elliot Moss
In terms of the consultancy experience, so I am just moving into your, your… it was Bain wasn’t it? Is that right?

Henry Dimbleby
Yep, yeah.

Elliot Moss
And that is where you met John I think as well. Very disciplined world and I meet lots of people here who’ve worked in management consultancy. What is it for you about management consultancy that was useful? That as you think about chips in the Dimbleby box of stuff that he’s then gone and used in his career, other careers? What was it do you think if you could pin it down to two or three things?

Henry Dimbleby
Well it is interesting, I loved, when I was doing my Degree, I loved formal logic. It was like the thing in philosophy that I loved most which is kind of you know, taking an argument and then distilling it down into a mathematical formuli and if I think about kind of the things that help me, I actually think in terms of a lot of the skills that were required for Leon, being a gossip columnist was more helpful than being a consultant because being a gossip columnist you are told, okay I need you to get Tom Cruise’s mobile phone number and give him a call by 2.00 o’clock this afternoon and that’s it you know and that is, that creates a kind of never giving up, real resourcefulness that is required to be an entrepreneur. You know, I loved being a gossip columnist it was brilliant. The thing that consultancy gave, one was just an understanding of business. I didn’t know what PNL was or a balance sheet was before I went to Bain, before I became a consultant. You know, I’d been a Chef and gossip columnist.

Elliot Moss
Well how did you get the job?

Henry Dimbleby
Well so I applied as if I was an undergraduate, as if I was just leaving University.

Elliot Moss
Ah okay.

Henry Dimbleby
Because I thought, I kind of had this mad idea that I wanted to be Rupert Murdoch and so I thought because there is journalism in the family and so I thought well after being a chef, that was fun, and I thought well if I want to be Rupert Murdoch I’ve got to understand how newspapers work so I’ll become a journalist and then I need to…

Elliot Moss
So strategic. It’s very good.

Henry Dimbleby
…and then I need to understand how business works so I’ll go to a consultancy.

Elliot Moss
Yeah.

Henry Dimbleby
And that’s… I applied as a kind of as an undergraduate and they were foolish enough, lucky enough to let me and I also applied to McKinsey incidentally and in my McKinsey interview they asked me what is leadership and I had been sitting on the sofa watching something like Zelda Warrior Princess the day before and you know how at the end of these things they have kind of the moral of the story and Zelda had said, ‘well leadership is just about listening, it’s about listening as well as telling’ and so I sort of I’ve got no idea, it’s about listening as well as telling but I can tell anyone there who is applying for McKinsey, the Zelda Warrior Princess answer does not get you in.

Elliot Moss
It doesn’t work.

Henry Dimbleby
It didn’t no. McKinsey rejected me but Bain let me in.

Elliot Moss
But Bain let you in. The serious side of that of course that you didn’t just spend a couple of years and you know you went down in a whole heap of flames, seven years there.

Henry Dimbleby
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
It’s a number of years, that’s proper robust underpinned for you as you then think about business.

Henry Dimbleby
Yes I loved, what I loved about consultancy by definition because you are expensive, you are always there, you go from kind of crisis to crisis, you are always there for the really important issues that accompanies history so it is actually a very strange business upbringing because you are just used to dealing with only the most strategic difficult things and that is fascinating, as someone who is, who likes logic, who is a physicist, that kind of problem solving and getting your head around, getting around problems and trying to come up with problems is incredibly satisfying but in the end actually you know it’s not yours and that creative instinct came through and that’s you know, I remember calling John Vincent, who is a partner and friend who founded Leon and I was out in Japan, I was working for Nihon Telecom for their telecom business in Japan and I just thought, if I… I am getting paid so much that if I stay here I am never going to leave and I rang John and I said, ‘you know that fast food business that we have been talking about, I’m gonna leave and I am gonna go and do it, I just thought I should let you know’ and he said, ‘well I’m gonna leave too and do it with you’ and that’s how Leon came to be which is both of us wanted to make something.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for much more from my maker, that’s Henry Dimbleby, my Business Shaper today. He’s coming back in a couple of minutes. But first we are going to hear from one of our partners at Mishcon de Reya with some excellent advice I hope, for your business.

There are many ways for you to enjoy all our former Jazz Shapers and indeed to hear this programme with again with Henry. You can ask Alexa to play Jazz Shapers and there you can hear many of the recent programmes or just put Jazz Shapers into your favoured podcast platform and you can enjoy the full archive and there is quite a few excellent people in there. But back to today, it is Henry Dimbleby, Co-Founder of Leon Restaurants and non-exec board member at Defra, Co-Founder of London Union, ex-gossip columnist, ex-Bain and I could go on. I am going to stop for a moment. You said early on that you loved creating things and you ended as we were talking about Bain, about you know, I just can’t do this, I want to do it for myself, I want to create something. You talked earlier about creative things that weren’t there. You do like doing that, how do you come up with the gaps? People look at post-rationalising business decisions and positioning and they find some really dry language for it and some very left brain ways of explaining things but in reality what entrepreneurs do is they see something no-one else has seen and then they go, we are going to go there. Tell me about how you decided that that fast food as if it came from Heaven itself, was a proposition that could work?

Henry Dimbleby
Well I think you know, people…

Elliot Moss
And any other propositions?

Henry Dimbleby
…yeah no, people do it in different ways. You know the guys from Innocent Smoothies are friends of ours, they laid out okay what are the sectors which are growth sectors where there is no dominant player and they laid them all out and they decided smoothies and that was the most attractive one. The things that I’ve been involved in creating, whether that is Leon or London Union or Chefs in Schools, the charity that I’ve just founded. What are the things that instinctively and this is the case with Leon and Chefs in Schools, was something I thought needed to happen – I wanted, it needed to happen, it just seemed obvious. So it was no strategic thinking at all there and John and I really did it on a hunch. We then did… because we were consultants a ridiculously long business plan with all sorts of rational arguments about why it would work but actually it was just we were fed up with eating rubbish food on the go and wanted something better. So it was either that or people had asked me to be involved in things so I was a founding director on the Sustainable Restaurant Association and London Union, a friend of mine had created these amazing street markets but they were very temporary and he wanted me to make it into something bigger and more permanent and I just thought instinctively that is an idea that is going to work, it’s got a market, it’s a growth market, it’s not being done so I think in some ways I don’t think I am kind of…

Elliot Moss
It’s hard though because you are the physicist now, I mean what’s interesting for me is there is a contradiction here, as you talk about formuli, logic and structure and the way that you think I imagine it has to be as a scientist you have to go from A to B to C to D and so on…

Henry Dimbleby
Yes but…

Elliot Moss
…and yet here we are, there’s a massive instinctive sense for you that you just said, oh that doesn’t matter I am just going to go.

Henry Dimbleby
… so the idea comes, you then test it. So there are other ideas. I mean John in Leon has seven ideas every day and most of them are rubbish. So the ideas come for him more often than for me and there are quite a lot of them that you just, it comes and then you go, nah it’s not… so you are obviously think about, okay what’s the market, is it a growth, do I have… is there a way I can differentiate myself, how can I protect myself from the competition. There’s all that stuff that goes on but in the end those ideas for me and I think that one of the big problems with business box and business experience is it is very particular and things that work for one person cannot work for another. For me the idea has just come and then it’s been tested. I’ve never gone out looking for, I’ve never thought right what’s the next thing? I’ve always thought, if I wait, something will fly past and I’ll spot it and think that’s the thing I want to do next. So I’ve never sat down and thought, right what’s my life plan now, what’s the… strategically what’s the next thing I want to do? I’ve always thought if I sit and wait something will come and it will feel right and then I’ll use the logical side of my mind to check it is right and then I’ll throw everything into it.

Elliot Moss
There you go, don’t repeat this at home though because it may not be right for you. That’s Henry Dimbleby’s approach and it is a pretty good one too and it works for him. Now I want to move away from the business creation point to the nature or the attitude that one has to have as a person in business and a creator as you are. I am just going to read you a quote from an earlier interview you did:

“If the business had failed (this was Leon) how would I have turned that around? Would I have been able to do that. That’s an interesting question. Once you’ve been near to the brink a number of times you get less worried about being near to the brink.”

That seems to me a very important attitudinal statement for someone in your position to make. Do you think about it like that, whatever it is in terms of the latest invention?

Henry Dimbleby
Yes obviously there is also it can introduce complacency but…

Elliot Moss
Or the opposite or just fear. I mean in a good way.

Henry Dimbleby
Yeah fear. So what I think, whenever you get a group of entrepreneurs and you drink a few whiskey’s late in to the night, what always comes out is the fact that the grass always seems greener and people share the horror stories at the time they almost run out of money or lost their business or business is incredibly difficult for most people. It is hard to build something new and grow it to a point where you can make money out of it. I don’t think I am an instinctive entrepreneur in that you know, you meet people, some people started at sixteen. I mean I had a minor business when I was fourteen, in adult magazines at school but that’s kind of, that was my…

Elliot Moss
How did that go for you?

Henry Dimbleby
Well I look back and thinks that’s you know, not available for the children of today, that entrepreneurial activity but I wasn’t someone who, I wasn’t someone who was starting businesses all the time and therefore by the time I got to starting it all it was quite late in life, relatively late in life and you know the jeopardy, the idea that if it failed and what would I go and do, what would I be then, you know, I’d been a chef, and a gossip columnist and a consultant and I knew I didn’t want to go back and do that and then I would have been a failed business person and that was frightening, you know that was the kind of waking up sometimes in the middle of the night and you are just thinking, oh god you know, what… but what’s interesting is that is not, that kind of fear is not helpful.

Elliot Moss
No.

Henry Dimbleby
So there is a level. So what you learn after a while and you talk to other people is you just learn to kind of cut that kind of fear out of your life and you become much… slightly sociopathic in that I think you have to, you know, in that those really difficult moments become the things that almost excite you because you know that everyone goes through them and these are the times where your stubbornness and hopefully a little bit of talent will get you through it and that is the difference between success and failure.

Elliot Moss
But that, that’s an absolute conversion of that fear into something else? Something much more…

Henry Dimbleby
Yes.

Elliot Moss
…powerful and almost sort of adrenaline and then as you said, there’s a detachment almost from…

Henry Dimbleby
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
…the emotions of it. But there were bumpy times I mean…

Henry Dimbleby
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
…people again, we are looking here fourteen however many years later that Leon’s created and there is more funding now and the things growing and so on and there has been you know, all the original investors, people have done well and you’ve done well and so on.

Henry Dimbleby
Yep.

Elliot Moss
Did you ever think it would actually collapse?

Henry Dimbleby
No. I never thought it would and I think looking back we were closer to the brink than, than maybe I thought at the time but actually that again is part of it. Basically when you talk about collapse you are in a situation where you are trying to raise money and if you don’t raise money then you will run out of money. That is basically what it is and there is a tension then between what the value of the business is, you can always raise money for something but you might be wiped out and I think that actually that belief that it’s not going to collapse is something that is really important to the future value of the business and people can smell it and they can see it. As soon as you don’t believe, why the hell am I going to give you money to carry on and so actually that belief is what keeps you coming in and focussing on getting the food better, getting training better, opening the right sites, getting the design better. I think if I had thought that I was close to collapse it might actually have been my self-fulfilling prophecy yeah.

Elliot Moss
Yeah. Stay with me for my final chat with Henry Dimbleby plus we will be playing a track from Van Morrison and apparently Henry had dinner with Van Morrison, that’s all coming up in just a moment.

That was Van Morrison with I Live The Life I Live, a bit of a tongue twister. Now talking of lives that you live, Henry, earlier on I sort of said that schizophrenia is the wrong word but you are either multi-talented or unfocussed in a really good way in that you just love doing different things and you are able to do lots of different things. I am very interested in your sense of civic duty in the sense that the public is as important as the private. If I look through the thread of a lot of the things you do and I got gently involved in one of the projects called School Food Plan a few years ago.

Henry Dimbleby
Yes. Thank you.

Elliot Moss
And it was an absolute honour genuinely and I only did a little but you were involved with Defra and you talk about food, you are involved in the London Union thing is sort of street food markets but it’s not all for profit, its actually about reintroducing that culture and food to more people. There is that strand, where has it come from that sense of do you know what, it’s important that you do things beyond me and my family?

Henry Dimbleby
I don’t know really. Part of it is probably just a, I don’t know, is it guilt? It’s a very good question. I think if I look at the world I think that it has got clearly much better, if you’ve seen Max Ross’s data from Oxford so the world is a much better place than it used to be. But it is still a horrible place although many fewer children die an infant, still a lot do and it could be a much better place and I definitely have a sense that capitalism on its own is not going to make the world a much better place. It has been a fantastic driver for the creation of wealth and the removal of people from poverty but you need action alongside that to make the world a better place and I just have really enjoyed, Leon in a sense was actually, it was a slightly left brain, right brain – John would argue that we might have made more money more quickly and probably rightly, if we hadn’t been so worried about all the other stuff. So I kind of think if you think that and if you are privileged enough and that’s where the guilt comes in to be able to do that, that it is both beholden on you to do some stuff that is not just to make money and also it makes your life richer and more pleasurable and I think that you get a lot of people in business who moan about the State and how hopeless things are and that business is the only way to put things better and I just wish, and I’ve said this before, that more of them would offer some help to you know, bring their skills, their considerable skills – mine are less considerable probably – but to other areas than just the control span of their own business. A bit serious…

Elliot Moss
No, no, it’s good, it’s good because it’s true. In terms of the question, your father asked of the table, you know it’s all very well you guys talking about whatever you know, what’s my legacy going to be? You are a young guy, we were both born in an excellent year.

Henry Dimbleby
Very young. Getting younger every…

Elliot Moss
The year of the dog.

Henry Dimbleby
1970, very easy to remember how old you are.

Elliot Moss
Very easy to remember even if you are bad at maths. So a propitious year but in terms of that, what would you like it to be Henry? Would it be a fusion, it sounds like it would be a fusion of the public and the private?

Henry Dimbleby
I actually look at it as, I sometimes imagine kind of looking down from a hill maybe just after I’ve died, a valley below which is my life and it has specific things. So, you know, having created Leon is something. The School Food Plan for me was something I am incredibly proud of you know the additional money that’s going into universal free school meals, change of school food standards. This opportunity that I have got now to focus on national food strategy to bring together the elements of the environment and health and food security that have been dealt with across all departments and never really had a linked up plan. I think after that something else will come and if I am still and have got the energy and life in me to do it, I’ll do it but I think more in terms of individual pieces of the jigsaw, stuff that I’ve done. My family, you know, I’m… none… all my children are still alive and seem vaguely happy and that, you know. That’s…

Elliot Moss
Well that’s a good thing.

Henry Dimbleby
…that’s a, I think that is a major success.

Elliot Moss
That’s a miracle in itself. Listen I’ve loved talking to you, it’s really good to see you again and thank you so much for being so open and really interesting. Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Henry Dimbleby
So this is my sister, Kate Dimbleby and she is singing a Dory Previn song, our daughter actually is called Dory, my sister introduced me to Dory Previn’s work and I just think it’s absolutely beautiful, it’s kind of… she was married to Andre Previn, she had a very difficult life. My sister actually did a whole show about her and met her, her husband. She went and did it in New York and her husband came to see it and told my sister how moved he had been by the show. But this song is about a woman who is lonely but doesn’t want to admit it and it is a beautiful song and actually the reason that my sister sang it was my other sister, Liza found it in a record shop in Glasgow and played it and rang Kate and said, you’ve got to listen to this song so this is kind of, a kind of sibling thing, my sister handed it to my younger sister and then I loved it then named our daughter after the singer. It is a really, really beautiful song. If you haven’t heard Dory Previn before you are in for a treat.

Elliot Moss
That was the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Henry Dimbleby. It was his sister, Kate Dimbleby with The Lady With The Braid. Henry, the guy who likes to make things come to life that weren’t there before, a classic entrepreneurial trait. Inside of him though the pleasure and the love of food central to everything that he has been about I think over the years. Resourcefulness, a critical thing that he learnt from being a gossip columnist and finally that sense of civic duty which also goes right through his life into business as well as personal. All really, really good stuff. That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a fantastic weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers. You will find hundreds more guests available for you to listen to in our archive. To find out more, just search Jazz Shapers and iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Henry Dimbleby MBE is the co-founder and former CEO of Leon. In his career, Henry has been a Commis Chef under Michelin-starred Bruno Loubet, a Non-Exec Board member at DEFRA, a co-founder of London Union and was commissioned by the Government to review school meals in the UK – which in 2013 lead to his creation of The School Food Plan; recommending healthy lunches, free meals and school allotments. Henry is the Founder of The Sustainable Restaurant Association. He has also made a BBC documentary “A Meaty Problem” about British attachment to eating meat, to which you can listen here (0:57-2:41).

Leon is a London-headquartered restaurant group which sells “healthy” fast food. It operates 62 venues, mainly in the UK, some in Europe, and one in the US. Further expansion is planned in these regions, as well as Ireland, where it expects to open 20 restaurants by 2023. Henry stepped down from Board in 2017 but remains a shareholder.

Follow Henry on Twitter @HenryDimbleby.

“I love the taste and smells. I love travelling and eating abroad. Mentally, I’m quite flighty, but there’s just enough when you are cooking that you can’t really think. It requires you to stop thinking about the outside.”

“In my private life I am happiest cooking for friends at home. I like just creating a nice atmosphere and seeing people enjoy themselves.”

“Meal times in our family were very important things, they were always big affairs where things really got discussed…I do think there is something wonderful about sitting round a table as a family.”

“I inherit my pleasure of food from my mum. I am very sensory. She used to run outside on a warm day and she would feel the air with her hands and say, ‘ah, feel that air’.”

“The thing I find most pleasurable is coming into Leon when it is really busy and standing at the back to watch people enjoying themselves.”

“I was working for Nihon Telecom in Japan and I thought, I’m getting paid so much that I’m never going to leave. I rang Leon co-founder John Vincent and said ‘the fast food business we’ve been talking about, I’m going to do it’ and he said ‘me too’. That’s how Leon came to be.”

“The things that I’ve been involved in creating, whether that is Leon or London Union or Chefs in Schools, they are always something I thought needed to happen.”

“You must think about the market: is there a way I can differentiate myself, how can I protect myself from the competition?”

“If you are privileged enough then the ‘guilt’ of social responsibility comes in: it is beholden on you to make business decisions that do not just make money. But this will make your life richer.”

“A new opportunity is to focus on national food strategy to bring together the elements of the environment, health and food security. It has been dealt with across all departments and never really had a linked up plan.”