Shaper: John Vincent encore

Show aired on 2nd July 2016

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Gill Scot-Heron with Lady Day and John Coltrane. Good morning this is me, Elliot Moss here on Jazz FM with a special, it is one in our series, in fact it is number two in the series this year of Jazz Shapers Encore which means that we have brought back from the dim and distant past a special person, someone who is not just shaping the world of business but genuinely rocking it and I am super pleased to say that my Business Shaper today, yet again, is John Vincent and the reason I am pleased to say that is – there’s a couple of reasons actually – the first one is that John was the very first Shaper here on Jazz FM way back in 2012 and you are going to be hearing lots from him and alongside John and all the things he has been doing, you will be hearing from the shapers of the world of jazz, soul and blues some fantastic music and on top of all of that, if that’s not enough for you and I am sure it is, you will also be hearing some words of advice from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya. As regards the music you are going to be hearing from Joni Mitchell, Snarky Puppy and this from the Oscar Peterson Trio.

That was Oscar Peterson and the Oscar Peterson Trio with C Jam Blues. John Vincent is here as my Jazz Shaper Encore; as I said he was interviewed by me in 2012 and at the time, he is by the way the founder of Leon Restaurants, I should have said that and he was also then involved with a business called Choccywockydoodah and he has done many, many things since. Most notably for those of you in the know, he has been the architect along with his partner, Henry Dimbleby of the School Food Plan which I can say in a very small way I was involved in very proudly as well.

John Vincent
You were.

Elliot Moss
John thank you so much, welcome back.

John Vincent
Thank you.

Elliot Moss
It’s been a long time.

John Vincent
It has been a long time.

Elliot Moss
It has been a long, long time. Now back in 2012 you were at sort of not the beginning of your venture with Leon.

John Vincent
That was before the world ended wasn’t it?

Elliot Moss
It was before the world ended. Tell me if you can get your head round it. In those four years or so, what’s changed beyond the fact that you’ve got loads more restaurants? What’s really been going on for John Vincent and the empire you started to build? Have you been true to the thing you said to me then which was ‘We want to be – if McDonald’s can produce fast food – we want to be the people that produce super healthy fast food. Why can’t it be healthy and fast’?

John Vincent
I think yeah, I think we are doing alright. I think we are doing… we’ve, we’ve stayed true to all the food philosophies and I think what we have done is we have found something now which works and we can, horrible word, scale. That we can actually roll out more of. I think we’ve always had the idea of if God did fast food, I think you know, that was certainly, that’s been the mantra, that’s been the idea from the start and we’ve… I think we have definitely stuck to that. As part of that we have had to prove that we can create something where we can get from say one restaurant to two restaurants, to three restaurants to what we’ve now got, thirty six. I think we sort of feel as if we are in our stride now. We sort of feel that we’ve made a tonne of mistakes, we feel that we’ve learnt from those mistakes and I think most importantly we’ve worked out how we can keep the culture, how we can make sure that the manager or the mum and dad as we call them in every single restaurant can be as strong as they were in the first restaurant and that’s the key for us. Can we make sure that the person running every restaurant is as good and as motivated and as happy and as well as the manager in the first and I think we are sort of understanding that formula now.

Elliot Moss
So I am going to come to culture a bit later but in terms of the things that might be stopping you do that, over these last few years as you have gone from one to two to four and so on and so forth. What have been those obstacles and then how have you continued to sort of fight around them?

John Vincent
We’ve recognised the fact that we have been doing something very new which is how can you take a fast food model and through that model put fresh ingredients and actually create something which is very on the one hand, delicious, does you good, you feel good after you eat it, it’s affordable, it’s kind to the planet. Doing that in a fast food format has never been done and so what we’ve encountered is all sorts of supply chain challenges, all sorts of pricing challenges, how we can actually create a menu which actually provides enough profit to be able to then reinvest. Lots of challenges I think around format so I think a lot of people say innovation is great. I think innovation is the death of many businesses actually at a strategic level. I think we have innovated too much around formats. We tried smaller units, we tried units in locations where they needed time to mature so I think we have now understood very importantly not just the model of every single restaurant but we have also understood exactly where a Leon should be in terms of the property which is very important.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my Jazz Shaper Encore guest today, that’s John Vincent the co-founder of Leon, the tasty restaurants in a place near you hopefully and if it is not they will be soon. Time for some more music, this is Joni Mitchell with the Dry Cleaner from Des Moines.

Joni Mitchell with the Dry Cleaner from Des Moines. John Vincent is my Business Shaper today as I said, we had him before, we are going to have him again. You were talking earlier, I was asking about those obstacles and you said you know, one of the big things you have managed to nail is place. Kind of understanding where a restaurant like yours fits. The other thing you mentioned importantly was culture, people and getting that right and the mum and the dad in the restaurants. I visit regularly, almost every day…

John Vincent
Oh thank you.

Elliot Moss
…around London and different places and you have got a very warm set of people. They are professional, they are fast and yet they also have a sense of fun and they smile at each other. They seem to like each other. How have you maintained that relationship within those things when you are not looking?

John Vincent
Well thank you first of all for noticing it. It’s something we think about all the time. It’s something we talk about all the time. We are, what we’ve noticed is that if you genuinely love the people who you work with and you genuinely care for their wellbeing and that is authentic and it is not made up then people respond very warmly to that and they feel that. And so I think the first thing we do is we, we have to of course recruit people who are naturally smiley. It is very easy to make a smiley person not smile through a bad culture but it’s not possible I think very easily to take a non-smiley person and make them smiley through a good culture. So you need both so we do very much spot very early on in the recruitment session where we play games, we put people into really interesting situations to understand how they would respond and it’s things like giant Jenga or other games that we play with them in the recruitment session so you can really see how they would react under pressure. Then we really do make sure that we explain as much as we possibly can to them about what we are doing and why so of course there is that classic induction phase and then there is the massive focus on love and positivity and I think probably as chief executive of a major business like an oil business would probably not be comfortable talking about love but we sort of do and we are comfortable about it and we are comfortable making sure people also understand that love does not equal acceptance so you can still fire people, you can still move people on, it does not you know, equal acceptance but certainly making sure that we genuinely care for people is very important. Now we also, the positivity is very very critical to us and we’ve got a great guy who I’d encourage anyone to look him up, he is called Steve Head and he makes sure that everybody who works at Leon understands the importance of accountability and positive living and that’s things like, for example, spotting every opportunity – what we call a moment of truth – so any opportunity that a customer might drop something, they might be looking quizzical, they might have had a bad day, they might have not bought their wallet to the restaurant by mistake. Whatever is happening we train ourselves to look out for moments of truth. Now it sounds a bit Disney but it kind of works and then what we do is we say, right let’s in response to that moment of truth, let’s create what we call a glimpse of brilliance. Again very American but it works for us and that glimpse of brilliance is the good thing that the team member does in response to the moment of truth. So for example, at Bankside, someone’s Bugaboo tyre burst and Charlie, the manager went to the local bike shop and got a repair kit and actually mended the tyre. That’s the sort of thing you know, we talk about more than any other organisation, we want to be the fourth emergency service. We want to be there so that, you know, I want it to be so that if someone’s having a problem on the underground or someone’s having a problem in an airport and they see a Leon person, they think ‘ah that Leon person is going to help me’ and that extends way beyond the restaurants as well as that particular moment within the restaurants and then every single restaurant keeps what we call a ‘God Book’ which is stories of all the good things that happen. A really important phrase ‘you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar’ and we have to catch people doing things right, that’s what makes people do more good things.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for much more from my fantastic Jazz Shaper here today, my Business Shaper John Vincent. He is the co-founder of Leon and he is going to reveal more secrets of how to have a happy business which is also a very successful business. Latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that some words of wisdom I hope from our programme partners at Mishcon De Reya.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with a bit of a twist today, it’s Jazz Shapers Encore and we do this very occasionally with special people that we have invited to come back here and talk to us about what has been going on in their business and how they have grown and my Business Shaper today, you can hear him cackling over there, is John Vincent. MBE now in fact. MBE and co-founder of Leon Restaurants which will be going international soon. We can talk about that in a moment but I want to talk about the MBE John just for a moment and it actually goes right back to purpose or you and kind of why you set up the Leon business. It’s all about healthy food, it’s all about scalable food for everybody. You focus, you are asked to focus I believe by then Michael Gove, I think was the Secretary for Education. Help us understand how we can deliver healthy food in schools? Just talk to me a little bit about what you are asked to do and what your response was and what’s happening right now?

John Vincent
Yeah I think Michael Gove, it was a very interesting time because Michael Gove was making a lot of previously sort of Council Authority schools, he was making all of them Academy’s. I know that a lot of your listeners will have opinions on that about whether that’s the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do. Very certainly a lot of controversy around that but what was fascinating at the time was Jamie Oliver had done, as we all know, had done a huge amount to raise the awareness of the problem but not enough was being done to actually make the problem go away and what Michael Gove wanted us to do was initially a report on what he was going to do to actually solve the problem and actually make sure that children were eating well in school and that he could define the role of food in schools more broadly and what we were keen to do was to not do a report. What we wanted to do was to make a difference and we wanted instead to have a whole bunch of actions that were signed off prior to publication so our big fear was ‘here you go Mr Minister, please go away and in six months, nine months’ time come back and tell us what you thought about our recommendations’. That’s not really our style so what we said was ‘everything had to be signed off, everything had to be very very positive’ so you know, again we recognised the fact that the industry was going to go into lock down if we only found the stuff that was not working, the whole sector would have gone down into lock down and refused to work with us so we felt that again just as with Leon, we could take the principal of spotting what was going right in different schools all over the country and actually make more of that happen and as a result of being positive, as a result of being action focussed, as a result of being very data driven but also very very consensual working not just with the Tories but with Labour, with Lib Dems, with Local Authorities, with the private sector, with all of the head teachers, the Unions, everybody, Jamie himself by creating consensus for the first time we actually got some results. What have we got? We got free school meals for the first three years of school because it’s a fixed cost business by suddenly making them universally free in infants and hopefully one day in primary, suddenly the economics makes sense for everybody. It was underwater economically because there was only 43% take-up which means with all the fixed costs it was broken. The second thing is we got cooking on the curriculum; practical cooking of savoury dishes on the curriculum for the first time. We also got hundreds of thousands of children in under privileged areas having breakfasts for the first time. We also got Ofsted involved. We got new regulations, very simple regulations about what can and can’t be served in schools and actually a whole lot more. And actually what we found was that by bringing everyone together there was huge positive momentum which still exists in the sector that we can sort it out, we can make a difference and I think the legacy is hundreds of thousands of… millions of children eating better as a result of it. We’ve got gardens, all London schools have committed to having gardens where they actually grow the stuff. If kids grow a strawberry or grow a cucumber or grow a cabbage, they eat it. It stops being alien food and I think that’s what we’ve succeeded in doing.

Elliot Moss
It’s been a pretty extraordinary success and as you said, the legacy is still there. More coming up from John, my Business Shaper today but we’ve got some more music and this is Snarky Puppy and Magda Giannikou with Amour T’es La.

That was Amour T’es La from Snarky Puppy and Magda Giannikou. I hope I have said that properly. John when you were just talking then it struck me that you are obviously super proud of this business that you have created along with all the team and with Henry and Board and so on. The look in your eye as you were just talking there without being kind of soppy was a different kind of look, it kind of elevates itself. Is it… it was obviously, I mean you work really hard and business in politics doesn’t often play very well, it’s a kind of oil and water and things like that. How did you feel once you knew that the actions had been signed off and how do you feel today about it? Visa vi the way you feel about a success, a moment, a glimpse of brilliance in your business?

John Vincent
I think any person who is in business always feels that they, there is a question mark isn’t there about have they contributed more widely to society if it exists – let’s not have a factored debate – and I do feel extremely pleased to have taken some of the principals that I’ve learnt in business and life more broadly and actually put them into practice in the public sector. There are a lot of demoralised people unfortunately in the public sector and what we noticed in schools is that there is so much latent expertise and passion that wasn’t always being tapped. My fear in the public sector is that a lot of people have been brow beaten and beaten down and the culture that exists in the civil service in pockets, the culture that exists sometimes in schools can be quite tired. There is a sort of cynicism or scepticism or tiredness sometimes to people that are having to work in the public sector and I think that what we proved is that there are entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs. There are leaders that if given positivity and if given support and given opportunity can do remarkable things in their schools. I am actually very very positive about what is happening in education in the state sector. I think the state sector is going to bankrupt a lot of private schools across the next ten years but only because people can’t afford private schools but also state schools are becoming unbelievably brilliant and it is because of leadership and what we are suddenly seeing and I think the School Food Plan is just one part of this, we are starting to see amazing leadership in our public sector in schools because of the head teachers, because of the support they are getting from their senior teams. In our case, the support they are getting from the chefs. I think we are about to see a golden age of education in this country and I think the School Food Plan is part of it and I am just so pleased to have been part of it and seen what’s happening.

Elliot Moss
Now when we met four years ago something else that is just striking me as we are talking is we are talking about leadership just then. You were quite a different person I think then in terms of the way you were talking about your business. You seem much more focussed now. You seem much more settled and happier.

John Vincent
Good insight yeah.

Elliot Moss
And also therefore more measured and I don’t mean that you weren’t measured…

John Vincent
No fair enough.

Elliot Moss
…in 2012 but there is something, there’s a calm steeliness whereas before there were lots of things for you, lots of investments, there was this and that. You seem 100% focussed on the message and the mission. Is that right? Do you feel it in yourself?

John Vincent
That’s… I have to congratulate you on that insight because I… I have had some really interesting support, I guess coaching from people and some stuff that’s happened in my life which has made me comfortable in focussing. I mean I guess it is almost therapy I guess or advice that I have had from people around not being a perfectionist in life and also preparing to master something. I read a great book called ‘The Great Work of Your Life’ that I was advised to read by a coach called Amy and it has been a remarkable book for me. It’s based on the Bi Vegeta which is a Hindu script and it is actually a Western book written by a guy called Steven Cope, it’s ‘The Great Work of Your Life’ and what it says is ‘chose one thing, focus on it, practice it hard in a kind of bounce, you know kind of Malcolm Gladwell kind of way and then give up the fruits’ and that’s the key thing, give up the fruits of money, give up the fruits of fame and recognise that happiness comes from mastering something. It comes from choosing one thing and so I have chosen Leon as the thing, I’ve chosen you know, reinventing fast food in a good way to provide you know, goodness for society. I’ve chosen that to be my thing and I think I probably, you know, Elliot you probably went to a very similar school to me but I think you know, very much sort of grew up in sort of North London, you can do it all – in fact you kind of must do it all kind of culture and I think I found much more peace about saying this is the thing I am going to do and I don’t have to be the thousand other things that I could have been and I think, you know, the whole principle of mastery and being very good at one thing has been I found a lot of peace in that and maybe you recognise that very insightfully versus four years ago.

Elliot Moss
We will have our final chat with our calm Business Shaper today, a very focussed Business Shaper, John Vincent plus we will be playing some music from Dizzy Gillespie; that’s after the latest traffic and travel.

A jaunty and bouncy number there from Dizzy Gillespie with For The Gypsies. Just for a few more precious minutes my Business Shaper today, Encore I should add is John Vincent and we have been talking about focus and mastery and calmness which comes from that which is fantastic. The business is going fantastically John, you can now look back and I know the MBE, it is what it is but it is recognition that you have done something which is of value to that notion of society if we buy into the notion that there is a society and I certainly do for the record. What does the future hold? Is it just becoming even better and better and letting go of more and more of the fruits?

John Vincent
For Leon?

Elliot Moss
For Leon and for you? For both of you?

John Vincent
I would love to, I’d love to see Leon become what I think it can be. I think there will be one, one company which becomes successful in this space of good fast food. I would very much like that to be Leon. I look at what we’ve achieved with things like the School Food Plan given the clout that we’ve got today and I think what if, what if we had restaurants across, one day, across America or across France, across Russia, across China potentially the relationships that would exist then between all of the Leon restaurants across those countries, the I guess, the media power that we would have, the ability to influence things positively. You know today, you know we probably serve 150,000 you know, easily, people a week. The media power that we could have when its 10 or 100 times that will be very positive and I think that the relationships that we have with our customers in ten and twenty years’ time I am hoping will actually allow us to be a positive force for good and I see my role very much as making sure that we’ve got the right food, making sure that everybody at Leon is happy. I see myself, my role primarily is the wellbeing warrior, someone who actually does make sure that primarily the wellbeing of every single person at Leon is at the forefront of what we do and I look forward to really doing that for many years, if I can, if I am God willing, if I am still alive.

Elliot Moss
Now that focus and that energy that you talk about and I know because I know you and I know the way that you operate in your business, and I hear from lots of other people, there are just ideas aplenty. How do you manage the million ideas a minute with the calmness and the focus? How do you as you go forward because people always want to know this, how do you know when it is going to be a winner or not? Because you are going to have, you are going to have fifty ideas. How do you know that’s the one to talk to the team about and deploy.

John Vincent
Yeah I think that the, I think and I don’t know if I have mentioned this to you to off line actually yet Elliot but the story of Nick Park who had to pitch The Chicken Run so he was flown to America and there was a big board of people and they said ‘so Nick what’s your idea?’. My American accent but work with me and he said, ‘well it’s, it’s like the great escape but with chickens’ and they are like ‘go on’ and he is like ‘no, no, that’s it’ and so I think having the central organising idea of if God did fast food, the first thing I do whenever I have a good or not so good idea is I test it against that central organising principal if you like, that idea. Does it make sense given that, does it pass that very high level if God did fast food, fast food in Heaven type test. Then I think it is very important to train you people, your colleagues, the people you work with, train them to remind themselves to challenge you so quite often they will say ‘John but that doesn’t make sense does it given what we are doing’ and I think you need to be prepared as a leader to say ‘goodness you are so right that doesn’t make sense wherever this idea came from it doesn’t fit actually what we should be doing right now’. So I think there are always people in Leon prepared to put their hand up and say ‘John that’s wrong’. The task comes when you have to play your joker and you have to override that and you have to say ‘everybody I know that none of you think this is the right idea but I am playing my joker as co-founder, as leader, we are going to do this’ and it’s making sure that you’ve got the support. I guess you haven’t lost a dressing room, you’ve got the support of the players who say ‘you know what boss, we are going to do that with you’ and I think having, people having enough trust that you’ve got enough of a track record in the decisions you make and that you are prepared to you know, not blame anyone else if they don’t work out. It’s having a team that go ‘whilst we don’t agree with you but we are going to fight, you know, we are going to go with you now, we are going to go over the top with you on this idea’ and I think that’s important as well.

Elliot Moss
Listen John we are going to run out of time really quickly. Good luck, keep playing the jokers, probably not too many. I imagine there is going to be limit to that one especially if they stop working out. It’s been fantastic catching up with you, it sounds like you are going gang busters and the business is going gang busters and I really really do wish you all the best.

John Vincent
Well you’re very nice, thank you Elliot. Thanks.

Elliot Moss
And just before I let you disappear out the room, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

John Vincent
My wife Katie has, is doing a programme for BBC4 called The Girl from Ipanema and it is basically using that song, very famous song to describe and to explain Bossa Nova and she went to the house where someone called Tom or actually his full name Antônio Carlos Jobim wrote and he actually wrote The Girl from Ipanema and he wrote another song called Água de Março which I think I have pronounced correctly.

Elliot Moss
I think you did a good job.

John Vincent
Someone, we will probably get letters.

Elliot Moss
We’ll get Tweets @jazzfm. You want to abuse John you are welcome.

John Vincent
If I have mispronounced anything let me know. But it’s a nice song. It’s a nice tune so that’s this.

Elliot Moss
Fantastic here it is. Thank you so much.

That was Água de Março from Antônio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Mr Encore himself, John Vincent. Boy have things moved on for him and the Leon business. All predicated on the central organising principal of if God did fast food what would it look like? He has really focussed on one thing following the advice of that book he was talking about, he’s focussed on it, he’s practiced it hard and he has given up the fruits as he said of money and fame and in the meantime has managed to do very good things with food in schools. It is really a very inspirational story. Do join me again same time, same place for another edition of Jazz Shapers and in the future soon also we will have another Encore guest here especially for you. In the meantime though do stay with us because coming up next is Nigel Williams.

John Vincent is CEO of Leon, the naturally fast food chain, which he co-founded with Henry Dimbleby in 2004 to make it easier for everyone to eat well. He previously worked as a strategy consultant for Bain & Company, where his business travels made him realise that the only available food on the go was making everyone fall asleep and wake up fat. With the declared aim to create “a McDonalds in heaven”, and working with chef Allegra McEvedy, John and Henry opened the first LEON on Carnaby Street in 2004. Shortly after it was awarded ‘Best Newcomer’ at the Observer Food Monthly Awards. John took over the day to day running of Leon in 2014, leads the menu innovations and has co-authored three of the Leon cook books. LEON now has 36 restaurants in London, Birmingham and UK transport hubs. The first LEON in Glasgow will open this summer, shortly after the first European store in Schiphol airport, Amsterdam.

John co-authored the School Food Plan for the UK Government in 2013, which persuaded the Government to put cooking back on the curriculum and provide free school meals for all infants. He was awarded an MBE in 2015 for his services to school food.

John is married to TV newscaster and presenter Katie Derham, with whom he has two daughters.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

Follow John on Twitter @JohnV_LEON.

“We’ve always had the idea of ‘if God did fast food’… we have definitely stuck to that.”

“We had to prove that we can create something where we can get from one restaurant to two restaurants, to three restaurants to what we’ve now got: thirty six.”

“How we can make sure that the manager – or the mum and dad as we call them – in every single restaurant can be as strong as they were in the first restaurant. That’s the key for us.”

“A lot of people say innovation is great. I think innovation is the death of many businesses at a strategic level.”

“It is very easy to make a smiley person not smile through a bad culture, but I don’t think it’s possible to take a non-smiley person and make them smiley through a good culture.”

“We are comfortable making sure people understand that love does not equal acceptance – you can still fire people, but making sure we genuinely care for people is very important.”

“We want to be the fourth emergency service.”

“I do feel extremely pleased to have taken some of the principals that I’ve learnt in business and life more broadly and put them into practice in the public sector.”

“We got free school meals for the first three years of school, we got practical cooking of savoury dishes on the curriculum for the first time, we got hundreds of thousands of children in under privileged areas having breakfasts for the first time.”

“If kids grow a strawberry or grow a cucumber or grow a cabbage, they eat it. It stops being alien food.”

“That’s the key thing, give up the fruits of money, give up the fruits of fame and recognise that happiness comes from mastering something.”