Shaper: Robin Rowland encore

Show aired on 19th March 2016

Transcript

Elliot Moss
The exciting sound of Avishai Cohen with Lost Tribe. Hello and thank you for joining me, this is Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss on Jazz FM. Jazz Shapers is the place where you can hear the very best of those people who are shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul, alongside their equivalents in the world of business, a Business Shaper. But Jazz Shapers is different today because for the first time I can announce we have our very first Jazz Shapers Encore edition where we feature someone who we have already interviewed in the murky past of this programme; we are five years old now and I am really pleased to say that my very first Encore guest is Robin Rowland; the key man at Yo! Sushi and we interviewed him a few years ago and so much has happened it is untrue. You are going to hear some fantastic stories about what goes on in the life of a burgeoning business. Lots coming up from Robin very shortly. In addition to hearing from Robin, you will be hearing from our programme partners as well some advice for your business from Mishcon De Reya and as well as all of that, some brilliant music of course including Snarky Puppy, Louis Armstrong and this from The Staple Singers.

The Staple Singers with the rather apt I’ll Take You There and it is apt because on this edition of Jazz Shapers its Encore time and it is Robin Rowland who is the CEO again I will add very quickly of Yo! Sushi, the wonderful restaurant business. Robin, thank you for coming back.

Robin Rowland
Hi Elliot, it’s a pleasure to be back.

Elliot Moss
Now this is… where do we start? You are the CEO again, the last time we met you were not the CEO, you were the Chairman. Give me a quick potted history of the last eighteen months of what has been an extraordinary moment of history in your business?

Robin Rowland
Well I basically moved to the chairman role a couple of years ago and we went into sale transaction last year and the net result of that the only way the transaction is going to work is if I came back to lead it again which I’m, you know, delighted to have the opportunity and so can’t be two things, so we have an independent chairman now and we have a new investor and I am back at the coal face again and absolutely delighted to be back.

Elliot Moss
Now just a quick update, there are now ninety two restaurants?

Robin Rowland
Correct.

Elliot Moss
With a plan to hit a hundred in 2016?

Robin Rowland
Yep. Big number.

Elliot Moss
Big number. You’ve got a hundred dishes available right now in the restaurants I believe, the Taste of Tokyo from the streets of Tokyo. I say this as a fan as you know and the hundred thing is obviously the value, I mean, you are moving towards the business has now been valued in the eighties towards the nineties. Is that right?

Robin Rowland
Yeah. A value I guess what a willing buyer and a willing seller will actually agree on but certainly the company is moving in the right trajectory and very exciting plans, both UK and internationally which would indicate you know, a good valuation are going to go forward.

Elliot Moss
Now, America was not on the trajectory last time, was not in the plan. Now how many restaurants do you have in the States?

Robin Rowland
Well we have opened five restaurants in the last twelve months in America and we have got a couple more to open this year. So it has been a big year for us, these are company owned so we have had to learn from scratch how to open and operate in America.

Elliot Moss
Now you talked last time when we met, you were talking all about scaling and talking all about moving overseas and all that. The problems inherent in that you’ve chosen to go the company model and not the franchise model. What have you encountered in the States for example? What have you had to overcome?

Robin Rowland
There are four kind of levers I guess in the restaurant and the retail world that you have got to get your head around. One is about have you got the right product so we had to work very carefully to make sure we got the right value for money and pricing but also the actual size of plates. Property essential, I mean super important for us in terms of position of brands. We have gone into the highest end malls we could find in the country and we are about to open hopefully in well Boston and New York this year in prime destination type locations. So that is very important. On the people bit, no-one tells you about how complex it is in America. I mean we have a common language but we are divided by this enormous thing called the Atlantic and there are different ways of communicating. We’ve now got a solid team but that’s been a big challenge and most people who go to America find that it is harder than they expect. And then I guess back on, you know, how you communicate a brand. We have a fantastic brand in the UK that 70% of the UK know exists and about 15% have used it and but in America you start on ground zero. So it doesn’t matter if you are you know, Pret A Manger or you know, Emporio Armani, you know, it just takes time. You have to explain who you are so we are investing a lot of time on that at the moment and you know, we are getting some really good feedback.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my first, very first and I am very excited as you can tell, Jazz Shaper Encore guest and that is Robin Rowland; CEO again of Yo! Sushi. Time for some more music, this is Herb Alpert with the famous Rise.

That was Herb Alpert with the very funky Rise. Robin Rowland is my Business Shaper today as I said, it’s Jazz Shapers Encore time where we look back and we look forward when we have interviewed someone in the past and now they come back and they tell us what has been going on. Now a hundred days in to being a CEO again. You are busy and we will come on to the busyness and why but what’s the gut been telling you since you’ve come back? What’s the heart telling you, because when we spoke last time you said, ‘look I love this business’, how can you and you loved it and obviously you were chairman but you weren’t on the active day-to-day CEO and it is different. Are you still in love? Is it slightly different second time round?

Robin Rowland
It’s slightly different but it’s a bit more of the same. I spent the first hundred days, I have been at all the restaurants so I have basically been round all eighty and to me the real love of operating is actually working with the restaurant managers and the head chefs and that’s been the joy of getting back in again. Most of which know me, it’s been absolute you know, bliss, it’s like meeting an old friend again. Those who don’t know me, it’s starting a journey again so it’s a wonderful business that has extraordinary personalities in it and that’s the great thing, getting back into the business again.

Elliot Moss
I know you love the entrepreneurial feel of the job that you have, the job that you have created actually. You said something last time, you said, you know the key thing is going to be staying small while you get big, to quote you.

Robin Rowland
Yep.

Elliot Moss
How are you going to do that. I know you have just had a hundred days under your belt but that’s critical isn’t it as you move towards a hundred plus restaurants. How, how do you maintain that?

Robin Rowland
You’ve got to stay very close to the restaurants. I guess that the first thing I did with my immediate team, the exec team, I said, ‘for goodness sake, it’s been a year being sort of inwardly looking at it and in a sale process you have to get out in the restaurants’. So the only way we can stay small or feel small is by actually physically being out in the trade and that is our transformation. I mean three days out of five I don’t want to see any of them in the office. If I want to meet them I will meet them in the office and that is a cultural value which I am trying to reinstate back in the business. And then how do you act small in terms of actually taking quick decisions. You just have to actually communicate much more effectively and I guess you have to take risks and that is what I have been doing in terms of reinvesting on design, a brand new menu launched two days ago, looking at some of the team. We are not hanging around. We are starting to actually move again and get our mojo back and speed which is required to keep up with an amazing competitive set.

Elliot Moss
Now your partners in this are the people who bought in to the business, the Mayfair Equity Partners who bought a significant slug, the majority share of the business. What makes them the right partners for you to be able to do that, to be nimble, to make quick decisions, indeed to make decisions?

Robin Rowland
Well and this is our third sort of management buyout so we’ve met the good, bad and the ugly I guess in the private equity world. Mayfair are extremely sophisticated.

Elliot Moss
Are they the good ones?

Robin Rowland
They are the good ones, I have to say that but the truth is they are. They are very professional, they are very experienced and they used to be the lead partners in Lloyds Feynman Capital throughout London so they have plenty of experience of operating with entrepreneurs, with brands, almost all the interaction is add value in terms of what can we bring to the party, who can we introduce you to, who is actually going to help you to get to where you need to be faster and their level of due diligence in the business, before they bought it, was quite extraordinary. I mean they understood the brand before they bought it and the numbers are easy but it is really the inputs rather than the outputs which are much more complex so I think their level of sophistication was self-evident through the whole process.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my Jazz Shaper Encore, Robin Rowland; CEO of Jo! Sushi. Latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that, some words of wisdom that I promised you for your business from our programme partners at Mishcon De Reya.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss every Saturday morning I have the privilege as I often say of meeting people who are shaping the world of business, of lots of different businesses. The twist this week is that we have someone who has been here before, that’s Robin Rowlands, CEO of Yo! Sushi, he is my first Jazz Shaper Encore guest and in the future you will also be hearing from future shapers, people who are smaller and younger entrepreneurs on the whole who are looking to break through and you will be hearing some snippets from them in the coming weeks and months as well. Now Robin, we were talking about the good and the bad and the ugly and funding. In the years since you last raised money and you know, the business kind of changed hands a little bit to now. From a funding perspective what’s changed? I mean you said of your new partners they are incredibly diligent, they looked at the brand before they looked at the numbers. What other observations have you got as you look and you sit on a few boards; you sit on three other boards and Café Nero I believe is one and Mars….

Robin Rowland
Marston’s.

Elliot Moss
Marston’s is another and then…

Robin Rowland
The Middle East Star.

Elliot Moss
Middle East Star. So you see what’s nice about you know, your prospective is it is quite broad, it’s not just your own business. What have you observed about money in general and raising it?

Robin Rowland
The last time we raised money was 2008 so there was three years I guess where everybody buried their heads in the sands and sat with their existing portfolios but what’s happened is that certainly casual dining has become… it’s a very cash generative business if you get it right so there’s been a lot of smart money chasing the last five years. All the bigger ticket items in terms of the accident world and virtually everybody has changed hands so what’s happened is that some steaming multiples have been paid and some clever purchases have been made but you have is a highly well capitalised and professionally run, brilliantly executed set of food offers now across the UK and that’s you know, been an extraordinary change in the last five years. So there is nowhere to hide if you are mediocre and the investors have got an appetite for it and they are getting increasingly sophisticated in what they are looking for.

Elliot Moss
You don’t look like you fear anyone but I imagine you respect some other people in this market and you said you alluded to the fact it is more competitive. Who would you call out, even if they are not direct competitors to Yo! Sushi?

Robin Rowland
Oh I am not ashamed of saying I am a huge admirer of what is happening with Wagamama’s in the last couple of years. They’ve turned their fortunes round. I think Pret A Manger is my gold bar standard.

Elliot Moss
And why is that just on Pret A Manger because I agree with you but is it from inside the business?

Robin Rowland
It’s a purity of execution. I mean it’s the very strong brands, very good quality products, probably a little bit pricey but you are prepared to pay for it because it is so utterly consistent and you know, I think some of the younger guys like Leon are doing a great job in terms of coming up from behind but there is an awful lot to learn from the bigger guys and even you know, the people like Nando’s I think are just a super brand, sort of super you know, the certain price point, certain demographics. We should be very proud of what we are doing in the UK now and I do travel an awful lot now and our UK set of casual dining from you know, QSR right through to fine dining is absolutely world class.

Elliot Moss
Now you talked about the travel, I know you are opening all being well in Sydney and in Paris in the coming… is it the coming year?

Robin Rowland
Yeah, both are going to happen this year.

Elliot Moss
Both. Last time we spoke as well you talked about your values and you said you know, respectable I believe, colourful, unconventional and confident. Those were the four things and as you look to grow into this global empire now are they still your benchmark place to go? Is that where you start?

Robin Rowland
Yeah we still see RUCC, as our sort of four key kind of characteristics of anybody we do business with, both internal and externally to be honest and it has worked very well for us as a benchmark of the right mind set. I mean because people have got skills but they have actually got to work as a team. We work in shorthand. It’s very important you get a team that have the same shared values to move at speed so yeah, respectful, unconventional, colourful, confident still stands the test of time for me.

Elliot Moss
And making sure they are in place – how do you do that in a quick word and we’ll come back to it if we need to?

Robin Rowland
Well you need to make sure you employ the right people and you need to treat them the right way and you have to make sure the people who aren’t on song need to find other places to work because you cannot have people diluting that culture.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from Robin my Business Shaper today. Time for some more music right now, this is Ella Fitzgerald and I’ve Got You Under My Skin.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss, the very first Jazz Shapers Encore here with Robin Rowland, CEO of Yo! Sushi. Robin I should say congratulations are in order, probably a couple of months out of date but it is the first time we have seen each other for a while – you were made an OBE in the Honours List back in the beginning of the year. I am sure that you don’t look like you are the kind of guy that is affected by accolades but it couldn’t have been a bad thing right? I mean nice to get a letter? A pat on the head, a pat on the shoulder and a well done. I mean did it, does it affect you? Did it affect you, that kind of thing, do you feel good about it?

Robin Rowland
Yeah I am delighted but genuinely I am riding the shoulders of others so it’s their success, we picked up this OBE but I think it is good for the sector frankly. I mean I always try to be generous with my time in helping other people and I think, you know, hopefully restaurants are regarded as a valuable contributor to the UK economy. I mean, goodness sake we employ 15% of the UK population in leisure and I think that retail and the arts tend to get a lot more hearsay than we do so it’s good but I absolutely know it’s because other people are working with me.

Elliot Moss
Now you talked earlier about speed and needing to make decisions quickly. Of course in the CEO role and running a business of this size you have to move quickly but incredibly thoughtfully. How do you combine the speed that is required with the thought that is required to go into it because the impacts are now getting bigger and bigger. How do you find that space to just slow things down?

Robin Rowland
Well that is the ultimate challenge. I mean, I guess the only way I really do it is when I am travelling. I do try and basically use a train journey to actually detox and think a little bit more about what’s the end goal here and what we are trying to achieve and I try to make space and to meet interesting people who are outside my immediate hemisphere and I find that in entrepreneurial networks it is very very helpful in that respect.

Elliot Moss
Do you talk to other people right across different industries or…?

Robin Rowland
Yeah yeah absolutely, yeah. Other entrepreneurs who are running other businesses.

Elliot Moss
I mean is it a formal network or just people that you like and are mutually respectful.

Robin Rowland
A bit of both really. I belong to one or two networks. But I also know a number of people who, you know I have made good friends over the years. You need counsel, you need to have different perspectives on what you do and I think travelling is a fantastic eye opener because you look back at your business with a different eye. If you are sitting in Dubai or in New York you really do think hard about is that business still valid and relevant and what do I need to do differently and you can do it from a distance sometimes better than you can being in situ.

Elliot Moss
And that perspective, when you are not working, how do you ensure that you have that perspective as well or that you create space for perspective?

Robin Rowland
Well I have got amazing family, I’ve got a 15, 13 and 12 year old and family is really where my sort of passion is outside work and we have a house project which we are building on the coast of Wales which keeps us all quite level.

Elliot Moss
Do you have pigs?

Robin Rowland
Now, well the pigs have all disappeared and we can’t comment where they have gone but…

Elliot Moss
I read somewhere they were micro pigs. I just had this idea they were really small pigs but I am sure micro pigs means something else completely?

Robin Rowland
No they were both supposed to be micro pigs and one turned into a great big whopper and the other one was still a micro pig who got bullied by the pig one. Hence the reason they had to actually find another place to go.

Elliot Moss
The pigs have gone?

Robin Rowlands
The pigs have gone I am afraid.

Elliot Moss
You see you heard it here first. Stay with me for my final chat with Robin, my fantastic Jazz Shaper Encore guest today. We are also going to be playing a track from Louis Armstrong, that’s something to look forward to and that’s all coming up after the latest traffic and travel.

One of the greats of the jazz world, Louis Armstrong with That Old Feeling. Just for a few more minutes Robin Rowland, hopefully not with that old feeling, is going to stay with me. Talking about the way you approach things, you know, I mentioned before how does one see it differently the second time or even the third iteration round. You’ve got such a strong focus as a brand, you know exactly what it needs to look like and you are coming back now to run this business and to grow it. Where is the innovation within the structured formula that you have? How do you ensure that (a) it doesn’t get dull and (b) that you don’t get bored? Because they are related aren’t they? I mean I imagine if you are just peddling the same old thing, you are going to go ‘oooh’.

Robin Rowland
Yeah. It doesn’t really interest me no. I agree. The two things we say we don’t want to be. One, is being a bland brand and the second, we believe in ‘can I’ which is constant and never ending innovation and what that really means we have the license to continue to develop the food offer. I mean three of my team have just come back from Tokyo on Sunday and they have got some amazing street food which is for the next menu iteration and we have just launched a new menu like two days ago. So that’s exciting. In terms of restaurant design, we are on site right now in Harrogate, Bournemouth and Newcastle and all those restaurants are significantly different to what we built five years ago.

Elliot Moss
In what sense are they different?

Robin Rowland
Well the external signage it is much more high impact, I mean we are not subtle about the brand, it’s going to be quite powerful signage on front house. Inside it has got more Tokyo feel to it, we are going a bit more urban, a bit more edgy; it will be comfortable. The belt will be part of but won’t over power the whole restaurant design and the important thing for me is we are getting back to our roots in terms of the kitchen is right back in the centre and that was being side lined and I just absolutely believe that people come to Yo! because they want fresh, consistent food. So there is a bit more theatre aspect back to the kitchen. And then you know, the quality of fit out and everything from music to lighting will make it a bit more of a chameleon so we can actually flex it from day time to night time in those locations. So, but you know, these are, these are four units, they are quite expensive and you have to get them right.

Elliot Moss
And in terms of behind the scenes and also in front of the scenes in term of marketing, I imagine technology is playing a much bigger role in you being able to deliver both the experience when you are not in the restaurant i.e. to me as a consumer and also the way that you manager your business behind the scenes. Is that right or am I just off the beaten track?

Robin Rowland
No, no no I mean Yo! has never really thought of itself as a restaurant brand, it’s always thought itself as a bit of a lifestyle/fashion or you know, rock and roll kind of brand so we, we have an awful lot of followers. We have got about six hundred thousand people on our database who are actively using us and we have got a hundred and fifty thousand on Facebook and about the same number on Twitter and we are now with our new brand marketing director, bringing in a digital marketing manager and I think that you will see an awful lot more work on that side. We will get more viral and more edgy and disruptional in the way we actually use technology and that sort of hand held through loyalty apps, through to instant rewards and ways of communicating with our guests in a more meaningful way because we have very loyal guests and we kind of want to give them a little bit more than we have done the last couple of years.

Elliot Moss
And do you as someone who is not a digital native and neither am I but someone who I imagine, you like me, love what technology can deliver in terms of benefits in all sorts of ways. Do you just let people get on with it and just go or do you do the whole can I thing, do you just go bring me stuff that’s going to scare me?

Robin Rowland
Exactly.

Elliot Moss
Is that kind of the mantra?

Robin Rowland
That’s the mantra. I mean people who join us are saying ‘I can’t believe it, I am actually being asked to do the stuff that I always wanted to do’ and I can’t tell them how to do it, I just say ‘look I’ve seen this or somebody else is doing this – can we do this better’? We are doing some work in America which we are bringing back to the UK which I think will be ahead of the game and it’s just very exciting seeing these young people, you know, who create extraordinary kind of technology solutions to old, age old problems about how to communicate effectively to your guests.

Elliot Moss
Your passion is totally there. I can see that and you seem like you are also a man on a mission. Really good luck. I am sure you will get to the hundred, I am not worried about that. It sounds like you are going to be hitting a hundred and fifty before you know when. But one thing you are going to keep an eye on as you look over the next few years, what’s the one thing that you really have to make sure you don’t lose sight of?

Robin Rowland
I need to protect the culture. I need to make sure the people actually live and breathe Yo!, understand you know, where we come from, where we are going and they get terribly excited as I do about delivering stuff that is relevant to both guests and the teams and that’s the only way we will survive in a really competitive market but very exciting times.

Elliot Moss
Robin thank you for your time again, it’s been great. You will soon be available in film form as well on Jazzfm.com and also on Mishcon.com. A nice film featuring the last time we met actually and there will be an update also on the Business Shaper’s blog where we can see all the best bits from this programme as well. Just before I let you go though, you have a stick or a twist in terms of the choice of music. I think I am right in saying it was As from Stevie Wonder.

Robin Rowland
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
Is it a stick or is it a twist?

Robin Rowland
It can be a stick because I am back.

Elliot Moss
He’s back and here it is. Thank you so much and here is Stevie Wonder.

That was As from Stevie Wonder, the song choice of my Encore Business Shaper today, Robin Rowland; the CEO of Yo! Sushi. Fantastic to have him back for this the very first Encore programme. The focus on his purity of execution was extraordinary, it’s all about that execution in his restaurants. The focus on constant and never ending innovation and how he wants to inculcate the whole of his business with that mantra. And the understanding that the most important thing to Robin as he enters the next phase of his journey in the Yo! Sushi world is that of retaining the culture of the business. Without that they are nothing. All brilliant stuff and I am really pleased we got him back in again to hear those important things. Do join me again, same time, same place for another edition of Jazz Shapers, that’s next Saturday, 9.00am here on Jazz FM. Meantime though, don’t go anywhere because coming up next it’s Mr Nigel Williams.

Robin Rowland returns to Jazz Shapers for his encore.

Robin has led YO! Sushi’s growth over the past 17 years. He joined the company when there were four London restaurants. As CEO, Robin put the team and systems in place to grow the business to over 90 restaurant today.

Robin’s strategy for growth is centred on continual improvement of the 5 Ps – Product, Property, People, Promotion and Profit, and his vision based on building successful teams, constant innovation, flat structure, open/direct communication, and a rewarding and fun environment in every restaurant. Having started out at Whitbread Inns PLC as a Graduate Trainee Pubs Area Manager in 1984, Robin was recruited by Diageo PLC in 1988 to develop the ‘Old Orleans’ national chain of US theme restaurants. In 1992 Scottish & Newcastle PLC acquired the business and Robin moved to managing a 120+ site national division of hotels, premium London pubs and restaurants.

Robin and YO! Sushi’s team success have been recognised with a number of awards, including: 2012 ‘Icon Winner’ and ‘Consumer Choice Award’ at the annual Peach Factory Hero & Icon Awards; 2008 ‘Group Restaurateur of the Year’ awarded from Catey Academy; 2011 ‘Retailer of the Year Award’; ‘Best Company’ from M&C, R150 ‘best restaurant design’ and YO! Sushi’s achievement four years in a row (08-12);  making the Times PE backed ‘Buyout 100 fast track’ list.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

“I am back at the coal face again, and absolutely delighted.”

“…it doesn’t matter if you are Pret A Manger, or Emporio Armani, you know, it just takes time.”

“No one tells you about how complex it is in America. We have a common language but are divided by this enormous thing called the Atlantic and there are different ways of communicating.”

“This is our third management buy-out so we’ve met the good, bad and the ugly in the private equity world.”

“You have to make sure the people who aren’t on song find other places to work, because you cannot have people diluting that culture.”

“…they were supposed to be micro pigs, and one turned out to be a great big whopper and the other one was still a micro pig who got bullied by the big one…”

“You need counsel, you need to have different perspectives on what you do and I think travelling is a fantastic eye opener.”

“Yo! has never really thought of itself as a restaurant brand…”

“It’s just really exciting seeing these young people who create extraordinary kind of technology solutions to age old problems.”