Shaper: Laurence Isaacson

Show aired on 30th January 2016

Transcript

Elliot Moss
The lilting sound of Abbey Lincoln with Afro Blue. Good morning, this is Jazz Shapers here on Jazz FM. Thank you very much for joining me, Elliot Moss. Every Saturday morning, hopefully, you join me and make your appointment with the world of business and the world of music because Jazz Shapers is the place where you can hear the very best of both those things. Someone who is shaping the world of business alongside lots of music from people who are shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul. My Business Shaper today, I am very pleased to say, is Laurence Isaacson CBE FRSA and he’s got a BSc in Economics as well to boot. Laurence, for those of you who don’t know, is a restaurateur extraordinaire; one of the key people in the restaurant business for the last three/four decades in the UK; Group Chez Gerard is one of his, Bertorelli’s, Livebait, Chez Gerard, Café Fish, he was involved with the Ambassador Theatre Group and, more recently, he has gone and bought back, he’s only gone and done it, he’s gone and bought back the L’Escargot Restaurant in London. You’re going to be hearing lots from Laurence very shortly, and entertaining it will be too. In addition to hearing from him you will be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya, some words of advice for your business and some great music on top of all of that, I promise you, including Louis Armstrong, new music from GoGo Penguin and this from José James.

That was Trouble from José James. Laurence Isaacson is my Business Shaper today and, as I said, he is one of the most important restaurateurs in the UK, probably over the last few decades, responsible for the Group Chez Gerard, responsible for those in business inside it, Bertorelli’s, Livebait, Café Fish, as I mentioned, and so many other things which we are going to come onto. Thank you so much for joining me, Laurence.

Laurence Isaacson
A pleasure.

Elliot Moss
You’ve made the time, I appreciate it. Now, you’re just the boy from Liverpool who made good aren’t you? I mean, tell me a little bit about how you managed to leave Liverpool and come to the big smoke all those years ago, what made you do it?

Laurence Isaacson
Really I wanted to get out of Liverpool. I left Liverpool when I was seventeen, my father wanted me to work in his furniture shop and my mother said to me, ‘Unless you actually do some work and get into university you will be sentenced to life imprisonment in a furniture shop in Liverpool’.

Elliot Moss
So you thought, ‘Well I’d rather go and do something else then’.

Laurence Isaacson
So I thought I’d better do some work and I worked quite hard when I was sixteen and when I was seventeen I got into London School of Economics to study Economics and my grandfather said, ‘It’s a pity he didn’t get into university’.

Elliot Moss
So, you went there. How did you afford to pay for it, Laurence? Because I imagine you didn’t have much in your pocket?

Laurence Isaacson
No, my father said ‘You’ve been accepted by Liverpool University so you should go there because you can stay at home’ and I said ‘But I’ve been accepted by London School of Economics and I want to go there’. He said ‘If you want to go there you can pay for yourself’.

Elliot Moss
So what did you do to earn enough money to be able to do that?

Laurence Isaacson
Well I got a small grant and in the holidays I worked as a waiter, I worked in a research company and whatever jobs I could do. One vacation I spent three months working for Banca Commerciale Italiana in Milan.

Elliot Moss
So basically anything and everything that would enable you to do what you wanted to do because I am getting the feeling, very quickly, from you that you, when you want to do something you do it and you know, a lot of people in your position, at that point as a young person, would have gone into imprisonment in their father’s business. Many people of your generation, and my father’s generation, did exactly that because that’s what they kind of felt they had to do. W was that from that independence which we’ll come onto? Where’s that been? What’s the DNA of that? Where does it come from?

Laurence Isaacson
Well I think it’s coming from a family of immigrants that they have to succeed in what they do if they want to get anywhere. My mother’s family were Spanish-Portuguese and my father’s family were Russian and Polish and both of them arrived from different parts of the world in Liverpool with nothing, so there was only one way to go.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me to find out what the one way that Laurence, indeed, did go. My Business Shaper, an extraordinary man, you will be hearing lots from him very shortly. Time for some music and this is a classic, it’s from Louis Armstrong and it is What a Wonderful World.

That’s What a Wonderful World from Louis Armstrong, a song by the way, that my three year old daughter can sing without even looking at the lyrics; more than I can do. Laurence Isaacson is my Business Shaper today and was talking about where you go when you are families of immigrants arrive with absolutely nothing, there is hopefully only one way to go and it’s a story, not just of our time now but a story really of immigrants all over the world at any particular time. Yours came from, as you said, different parts of the world, Laurence, and you fought your way, you went to LSE, you didn’t want to do the family business thing. You ended up, if I’m right, setting up an advertising agency which you then sold. What, I mean, how did you get into that and get out of it before you even went into the food business?

Laurence Isaacson
Well, really after I left university I basically wanted to become an actor and I went to RADA and they gave me an interview and an audition and I was offered a place at RADA. The Director of RADA at that time said to me, ‘We’ll give you a place but we can’t give you a scholarship because you’ve already had a scholarship to go to LSE’ and I’d have to pay for three years myself and after having done that at LSE I couldn’t really face doing it again, and I joined Unilever instead because that paid me £900 a year which, in those days, was a lot of money. But, you know, when I left university the first thing I did was buy a ticket for £60 return to America at twenty years old and I got on a Greyhound bus for $99, I travelled 14,000 miles around America, going to every major city and as soon as I got to a city I phoned up the local radio station and said, ‘I’m Laurence Isaacson, I’ve just arrived in your wonderful city in the middle of nowhere and I went to school with the Beatles’ and they said, ‘Oh gee Larry, just stay right where you are, we’ll send a car and we’ll interview you’. I said, ‘It’ll cost you $50?’ and they said ‘No problem’ so I virtually went round every city in America telling them the stories about when I was at school with the Beatles and then at university with Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, so I learnt very quickly, how to use the media.

Elliot Moss
Wow, I think not many twenty year olds would have gone and done that. I think that is chutzpah defined. Much more chutzpah and fantastic stories and insights coming up from my Business Shaper, Laurence Isaacson. Latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that some words of wisdom, although I am not sure we can match those, from our programme partners at Mischon de Reya for your business.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss. It’s Saturday morning and I hope it’s your appointment with the world of business when it meets the world of music. Laurence Isaacson has just brought those two things together. He was telling me earlier about the fact that when he was twenty he managed to make some money based on stories from when he was at school with the Beatles, as he said, and Mick Jagger at university. The fact that you got to that answer, the fact that got, this is what intrigues me, you bought the ticket, you went to America, you had, I imagine you just wanted to see the world, you loved the idea of America and then you monetised, before the word ‘monetised’ was even thought about, you monetised your trip, you must have made hundreds or thousands of dollars across that time?

Laurence Isaacson
Yep, a few thousand dollars.

Elliot Moss
I mean, but what got you to that thought? Was it just, I need some money in my pocket? Was it as simple as that? Because that’s a very creative thought isn’t it?

Laurence Isaacson
Yeah well I didn’t have any money, I had to live off my wits and that was, everybody was talking about the Beatles and I thought ‘well this is the time to tell my story’.

Elliot Moss
But you didn’t, I mean, you say you lived off your wits. You got a degree from the LSE, you are obviously an educated person, and yet the idea you had had nothing to do with your education. I mean, absolutely nothing.

Laurence Isaacson
Right.

Elliot Moss
Is that the way that your life has really progressed because, would you say that, I mean you then decided obviously you went into the restaurant world. How did you decide to do that or did it hit you? I mean, I am just intrigued that…

Laurence Isaacson
Well basically when I left, got back from America I joined Unilever because I thought it was the next best thing to acting, being in marketing and I was sent to work in Holland, to Amsterdam and Rotterdam when I was twenty one and it was like sending a child into a candy store. I had the most wonderful time, I learnt Dutch which was absolutely useless but because I learnt Dutch the people in Amsterdam in the theatre world thought it was very amusing and used to invite me to all the parties so I used to have a great time and I knew more people in Amsterdam than most Dutch people. And I did very well at Unilever and eventually they sent me back to London where they had an advertising agency and I joined their advertising agency in London, which in those days was called Lintas.

Elliot Moss
Lintas – Lever, International…

Laurence Isaacson
Advertising Services.

Elliot Moss
Yes.

Laurence Isaacson
And after a few years I was recruited by Doyle Dane Bernbach to become an Account Supervisor and then when I was twenty eight I was asked to join a guy called David Bernstein who was opening his own advertising agency called The Creative Business and he was creative, I was business and everybody else was limited.

Elliot Moss
And you ended up selling this business.

Laurence Isaacson
I ended up after twelve years working with major, national and international, clients, I sold the business to the French, Roux Séguéla Cayzac & Goudard.

Elliot Moss
It feels unjust to give it just that bit of time because twelve years of your life I have just summarised in thirty seconds. I apologise but it’s an extraordinary achievement. We are going to be hearing lots more from Laurence in a moment but time for some more music. This is Nat King Cole with Let There Be Love.

The classic Nat King Cole with the classic Let There Be Love. Laurence, we talked about the twelve years in twelve seconds. Sorry, as I said, but you joined David Bernstein, set this agency up, you were the business, the rest were limited and he was the creative one, very good. You then, so that was in 1983 and in the same year you opened your first restaurant. How did one segway to the other? I mean, not a natural thing, you obviously had some money in your pocket by then? No longer the boy having to go, ‘How am I going to earn $50 here?’ in America, this is now, you’ve got I imagine, real money.

Laurence Isaacson
Yeah, I had some money from the sale of the agency and I really didn’t have anything to do and a friend of mine, she owned quite a lot of Covent Garden, said to me that she had just got a building in Covent Garden that she’d got permission for a restaurant and, like an idiot, I said, ‘I’ve always wanted to run a restaurant’ which was absolutely untrue. And she said well, ‘Why don’t you?’, I said, ‘Well I know nothing about restaurants’ and she said ‘Well that’s never stopped you doing anything before’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ll do the restaurant if you put in the first two years money rent as equity’ and she said, ‘Done’ and I was stuck with opening a restaurant and I really had to find a group of people who would work with me and put money up and basically I got a group of investors and a business partner, a guy called Neville Abraham, and Neville and I opened Café des Amis in Covent Garden next to the Opera House and it was an incredible success.

Elliot Moss
Why was that do you think? Because you just said you didn’t know anything about the business, not that that has ever stopped you.

Laurence Isaacson
That’s most probably why it was a success.

Elliot Moss
What, you just enjoyed yourself and a great chef, nice atmosphere, made people say look relax, be happy, all that stuff.

Laurence Isaacson
And it was a good concept, it was one of the first French cafes in London, we didn’t have tablecloths, we served great steak frites and filet d’oie and onion soup and crème caramel and it was well-priced and because I knew a lot about marketing and advertising I was very good at putting bums on seats. We sold it three years later and then we started a new restaurant company and the first two restaurants that we owned were Café Fish and Bertorelli’s and after that we bought a small restaurant called Chez Gerard and thirty restaurants later I sold it.

Elliot Moss
So, whilst you are doing all this, of course, your love of the arts, your love of acting, your love of the theatre and you mention that you’re in Holland being, you know, in and amongst it. You became involved with the Ambassador Theatre Group. I think you created the Covent Garden Festival Opera and Music Theatre. You have gone on to do things where you are properly ensconced in that world but not just because you enjoy it but because you want to give something back, I imagine. How did that come about and how did you manage that whilst you were running this burgeoning business?

Laurence Isaacson
Well, the first arts organisation I got involved with was London Contemporary Dance Theatre and London Contemporary Dance School and I was asked to join the Board of that, and eventually became Chairman. After that I set up the Covent Garden Festival of Opera and Music Theatre basically because I had a lot of restaurants in Covent Garden so I had a very good mailing list, I loved music theatre and opera and I managed to raise 6 million pounds over eleven years to stage twenty different productions in twenty different venues for three weeks every May for eleven years and we didn’t lose any money and it was a great success. And as a result of that I was asked to join the Board of the Royal Shakespeare Company and eventually the Board of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where I was unfortunately didn’t got to fifty years earlier.

Elliot Moss
It all came good. Either you’ve got a charmed life and/or you are just brilliantly clever or both. I mean…

Laurence Isaacson
Both.

Elliot Moss
Oh good, I thought you’d say that – I set that up for him we planned that earlier. Lots more coming up from my Business Shaper in my final chat, unfortunately, with him but we will also be hearing a track from GoGo Penguin. That’s after the latest traffic and travel.

The powerful sound of GoGo Penguin with All Res. Laurence Isaacson is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes. I said earlier to him ‘I wish I had a few hours’ because you’ve got, you’ve told me a couple of stories, I sense you have got thousands of them. You’ve lived an incredibly, and you continue to live a very rich life, Laurence, from whether it is from, you know, the Unilever days, to the advertising days, to the food days and you are back in the food world now, and the restaurant world, into the arts. It strikes me that you do it with good faith, you do it with a smile on your face but you obviously, and you agreed earlier – you would do wouldn’t you – you are very intelligent. Is it possible to be as happy-go-lucky as you seem to appear and successful without the nous that we talked about earlier? I mean, there is something in the mix of all the things you talked about which enables you to be you. I think other people would want to do the things you’ve done. What advice would you give to people who want to be as successful as you have been? If, indeed, you see yourself like that?

Laurence Isaacson
It really comes down to working very hard, making what you do look easy, and gaining the confidence of a good team behind you and enjoying what you do and doing good as well as making some money.

Elliot Moss
What’s the bit you have enjoyed the most of all the different things you have done?

Laurence Isaacson
I think the Covent Garden Festival was a tremendous achievement and I loved doing that.

Elliot Moss
And in terms of the restaurant now, I mentioned earlier you’ve bought the L’Escargot business with some friends as well, specifically Brian Clivaz, you two are running it. What’s that about? I mean you don’t need to do another thing. Can’t you just put your feet up and relax? Isn’t it time?

Laurence Isaacson
There’s never time. There isn’t enough time and it’s very exciting to take over an iconic restaurant like L’Escargot which was started in 1927 and has had its ups and downs but mainly its ups. I was very fortunate in buying it with Brian when it was down and we spent the last two years building it up and it’s become a tremendous success and I would say to anybody if they are in Greek Street in Soho make sure they go to L’Escargot restaurant.

Elliot Moss
He couldn’t resist. The boy of twenty is back with his stories for $50. What’s driving you still to say even you know, ‘Please come to my restaurant. I want you to enjoy it’. What is it about the next venture and the next venture? There’s obviously something insatiable about your appetite for fun and for business, where’s that from?

Laurence Isaacson
I don’t know, I’ve always wanted to make a success. I suppose it’s coming from an immigrant family with very little money and when I was, you know, sixteen, seventeen I looked at people who had £100 as wealthy, and when I had £100 I looked at people with £1,000 and they were wealthy, and when I had £1,000 people with £10,000 and it goes on. So there is always more that you can achieve and it’s part of a game as well but it’s a very enjoyable game.

Elliot Moss
Listen, it’s been fantastic to meet you, a real privilege and just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Laurence Isaacson
All That Jazz.

Laurence Isaacson
By Liza Minnelli.

Elliot Moss
And, any good reason apart from you love it?

Laurence Isaacson
I love Liza.

Elliot Moss
It’s a fantastic reason for me. Thank you so much and here it is.

That was Liza Minnelli with All That Jazz, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Laurence Isaacson. And fitting it is too, the cabaret lifestyle is something that I think he is subscribed to but underpinned by a real drive, , to go from absolutely nothing to having as much as you can possibly get from life. And not just for the sake of the money but actually doing good things, someone who has given so much back to the arts. Just fantastic. Do join me again, same time, same place, that’s 9.00am, next Saturday for another edition of Jazz Shapers. In the meantime though stay with us here on Jazz FM, because coming up next, it’s Nigel Williams.

Laurence Isaacson CBE FRSA BScEcon

Laurence studied economics at LSE and graduated in  1963. His early career was in marketing and advertising with Unilever before he set up his own advertising agency – The Creative Business – in 1972.

His clients included Nestle, Gillette, General Foods, Shell and Unilver. He sold the agency to Publicis in 1983.

Laurence subsequently opened his first restaurant in 1983 before co founding Groupe Chez Gerard, a group of two dozen restaurants, including Bertorellis, Livebait, Chez Gerard, and Café Fish in 1986. He co-founded Home House, a glamorous private members club in 1990, and from 1990 to 2002 he was a director of the London Tourist Board. In 1998 he was awarded a CBE for his services to the restaurant industry and tourism.

A lifelong supporter of the arts and charities, Laurence was appointed a Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company for 10 years and was part of the team that helped raise funds to build the new theatre in Stratford upon Avon. He is currently serving on the board of RSC America. For six years he was Chairman of the Actors Circle which raised funds to train and develop young RSC actors.

For the last ten years he has been on the Board of the World Cancer Research Fund UK and is currently Chairman.

In 2014 he was appointed to the council of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and he is currently co-owner and Chairman of the iconic French restaurant in Soho L’escargot.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

My mother said to me, ‘unless you do some work and get into university you will be sentenced to life imprisonment in a furniture shop in Liverpool’.

I went round every city in America telling them the stories about when I was at school with the Beatles and then at university with Mick Jagger, so I learned very quickly how to use the media.

I thought it was the next best thing to acting, being in marketing.

I was asked to join a guy called David Bernstein who was opening his own advertising agency called The Creative Business. He was creative, I was business and everybody else was limited.

A friend of mine said she’d got permission for a restaurant in a building in Covent Garden and, like an idiot, I said, ‘I’ve always wanted to run a restaurant’ – which was absolutely untrue.

I set up the Covent Garden Festival of Opera and Music Theatre basically because I had a lot of restaurants in Covent Garden so I had a very good mailing list.

It comes down to working hard, making what you do look easy, having a good team behind you, enjoying what you do and doing good, as well as making some money.

It’s never time to put your feet up and relax.

There’s always more that you can achieve – it’s part of the game, but it’s a very enjoyable game.