Shaper: Robin Rowland

Show aired on 29th November 2014

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Big and hearty, what a great way to start the programme; that was of course California Soul from Marlena Shaw. Good morning this is Jazz Shapers on Jazz FM; I am Elliott Moss, thank you very much for joining me. Jazz Shapers is the place where you can hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, soul and blues alongside their equivalents in the world of business; a huge business shaper and my business shaper today is none other than Mr Robin Rowland, now the executive chairman of the amazing brand called YO! Sushi with almost a hundred restaurants worldwide. My son for one is a fan – I am sure you are too. In addition to hearing from Robin, you will also be hearing from our programme partners at Mischon De Reya some words of advice for your business and on top of all of that a tasty mix of music from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul, including Eliane Elias, Etta James and this from Manchester Three Piece, Go Go Penguin, here on Jazz FM.

The haunting sound of Cama Loca from Go Go Penguin, that’s a Mercury Music Prize nominated album and it is called V2.0 if you are interested. Robin Rowland is my business shaper here on Jazz Shapers; and Robin is now the executive chairman as of earlier this year of YO! Sushi, the beautiful sushi business where you can go and eat amazing food and I am going to stop there and say hello.

Robin Rowland
Hello Elliot.

Elliott Moss
Thank you very much for joining me. You joined the business almost right at the beginning.

Robin Rowland
Mmm.

Elliot Moss
And you met the founder, Simon Woodroffe back in I think it was the late 90’s.

Robin Rowland
That’s right yeah, 1999.

Elliot Moss
1999. You came into that business then with a big career in very big companies, enormous companies. I think Diageo was one of them, and I believe Scottish and Newcastle acquired one of the businesses you were in at the time as well. What was it like moving from these enormous businesses to something that was very very nascent and very very small at that point? Because you are kind of an interesting entrepreneurial type person, you chose a different path?

Robin Rowland
That’s right I think I have always been a bit of a corporate entrepreneur but now I think after fifteen years I am a bloodied entrepreneur. The revaty was in every business I worked in, I worked in Whitbred and Ground Meat Scotch Newcastle but I was basically responsible for developing brands and I was a bit of a maverick I guess and I was always allowed to basically grow my own teams and develop my own concepts so I had a taste of that but it was always backed by an enormous balance sheet and I had a sort of safety blanket of operators around me and senior management. But I was mid-thirties and I was frankly not as stimulated as I should have been and I was running quite large parts of a company. I was running about one hundred and twenty restaurants in my early thirties and I just felt I could do more and I also felt that there was probably too much politics and process where we could actually be doing more exciting things and that is where it really, a bit of the journey towards meeting Simon and seeing, you know, an extraordinary concept which was ahead of its time and you know, fifteen years on it is still as relevant as it was then but in a different way and it has been a very exciting journey and I wouldn’t stop for a minute and say I should have stayed where I was. It was exactly the right thing to do.

Elliot Moss
And yet it also sounds like without that first ten, fifteen years in business, you wouldn’t have been able to add the value that you did and see the things that you needed to see and work out the processes and the operational side and the brand element as you said without having all that experience banked?

Robin Rowland
You are – I think you are right. I mean I have got an advantage on an entrepreneur who doesn’t understand the industry. I mean I understood it was all about the product and the property and the people and how you promote it and how you make profit. All that was hard wired in me so I can look at a business and probably work out how to make money out of it. But what I still had, I still had the mojo to actually mix enthusiasm to do it properly which means I wasn’t going through the motions. I loved YO! Sushi the first time I saw it and I love it, you know, today and I think that having disciplines and experience of you know successes and failures in large companies but me in a really good place to be able to work with Simon and eventually buy the business off him in 2003.

Elliot Moss
And when you started working with Simon, I mean you obviously you worked with him very closely as you said, you then, it’s a bit like the Remington storey – I was so impressed I bought the company – but the Simon relationship with you as the founder and then you coming in essentially to kind of run it and take this business on and then to own it yourself – strained, tense or interesting, creative? I mean what kind of time was it? Can you now with ten years distance to talk rationally about it?

Robin Rowland
I think we both can. I mean my job is to organise the organisation but Simon just needed somebody to help him. Frankly the process of managing people and processes bored him and it also needed somebody to actually look after the team and also you know, the other sort of people who were partnerships in this in terms of the bank and the landlords. But I mean he and I worked very well. We are, you know, very different but we are also very complementary. Together we are very powerful and remain you know, good friends today but it was important that we had some mutual respect. He is a very very strong man and I was quite confident and capable dealing with him. I think other people who worked with him felt he was just too much but I think it wasn’t a problem because we had a respect for each other’s strengths and recognised each other’s weaknesses and so it was a marriage of strengths at the time.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me to hear how things panned out and how Robin bought the company and took it on from there. Time for some music in the meantime though, this is Etta James and I Just Want To Make Love To You.

That was the thumping, pumping sound of Etta James and I Just Want To Make Love To You. Robin Rowland is my business shaper; he was talking about his business partner Simon Woodroffe before we had little Etta telling us her thoughts on the matter. Unusually and I meet lots of people who have founded their businesses or some of the people that come in and they set something up and you know, some unusual things happen. You are a very unusual person in that you bought a business from a man who was perceived in the industry as a kind of pretty maverick charismatic fellow and created this new business. You went and took it and you’ve done extraordinary things with it so you are a sort of entrepreneur in residence if you like now as you said, a bloodied entrepreneur rather than a corporate one. What was it like having – knowing that you were going to buy this company and what did you have to do to make it all happen, if you can cast your mind that far?

Robin Rowland
Well going back fifteen years ago I had to put it on a financial stable platform because the business had expanded a little bit ahead of its, you know it’s facilities and we had to try and figure out where it worked. I mean, you know, you can have a great idea but you have to repeat it if you are going to make a big business and we hadn’t proven a great deal. We had a great site in Soho, we had great sites in Selfridges and Harvey Nichols but the truth is you couldn’t repeat those so my challenge was to prove it could work in other locations which were less obvious. So to me the seminal moments were opening in Paddington Station which was an island location. There has been fantastic success ever since, it cost buttons to do but it has made a fortune ever since and has been loved by many Londoners.

Elliot Moss
And so visible. I mean that is the great thing, you see it, you can’t miss the beautiful conveyor belt of gorgeous food in the distance. It is kind of pulling you in which is unusual in a train station.

Robin Rowland
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
Because the last thing you want to do is sit down and have a bite to eat usually.

Robin Rowland
Well I think the world moved on. I think basically Network Rail would argue otherwise. People want to use stations.

Elliot Moss
Now they do.

Robin Rowland
Now they do and that is a big change. So we did that and I also basically took the restaurant; the concept overseas and we did a couple of sites in Greece of all places but the challenge of doing that probably taught me a lot about what to do, how to take a brand overseas. And we were running the business with very little you know, air space. We had to be very careful about cash I mean so cash flow was what we needed to sort out and then basically getting a proper investor on board. That takes a year or so and we were out there looking for you know a VC backer for about a year or so and this was in 2002/2003 and basically I have got the team around me and the people who joined me then are still with me today. They have been through the whole journey, the whole rollercoaster, the long ride and it is very important to me that this team I also credit the success of the business.

Elliot Moss
And what it sounds like is you’ve combined that energy that an entrepreneur has and that someone who is really you know, trying to fix things quite quickly and you mentioned then, you rattled through a whole – every single facet of the organisation including a team to deliver it and yet you have to be super strategic at that point and it sounds like you had with your experience and your background, that ability to be quite dispassionate even if you were in it. Is that fair?

Robin Rowland
Yeah well I could sell the promise, the dream. I could articulate what we were doing to people who were going to basically back it and that’s probably one of the critical things with private equity backed businesses. You had better get it – do your elevated pitch quickly to get bank and private equity to back you. And it made enough sense to people at the time to take a risk and it was still a risk in 2003. Don’t be illusioned you know, a ten site restaurant business, that’s still not proven.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me to find out how Robin went and proved the case rather significantly over the following years. Latest travel in a couple of minutes but before that some words of wisdom for your burgeoning business I hope from our programme partners at Mishcon De Reya.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss every Saturday morning you can catch me talking to a shaper of business. If you missed any of the programmes, go in to iTunes, put in the words Jazz and Shapers and you can find us over there. If you are travelling on British Airways and you so desire I think you will find us in there on BA Highlife or FT.com or even Cityam.com. It’s in lots of places. Robin Rowland is my business shaper today and he is now the executive chairman, what a wonderful title – we are going to talk about what that means and he was the CEO for many many many years and in fact as you were hearing earlier I hope, he bought the business from the founder back, way back when, called Simon Woodroffe. We were talking earlier Robin about how you put the thing together and you described in very articulate terms all the different things that you had to do but for you it was just what you did then – all the different pieces of the jigsaw and then you said – and then we had to prove that a ten site business restaurant concept was going to work. Tell me about those first few years as you went from ten to twenty. What did you do to and I love what you said – it’s all about the scale and repeating – how did you ensure you could repeat the concept so perfectly?

Robin Rowland
Well building restaurants is not that complex once you have got a design package but the hard thing about restaurants they are three dimensional colourful businesses which are all about people and so getting a culture and the quality of recruiting the right people, retaining them and motivating them was really the biggest challenge I think over twenty to thirty I suppose – or ten to thirty and the other problem we had was basically well its all very well in London but it won’t work in Aberdeen. Well actually I just love that challenge because I had run National restaurant brands before so to me it was hilarious because I knew I could actually open in Bristol and Cardiff and it would probably work in Norwich one day and it would probably work in Plymouth one day.

Elliot Moss
And why is that? Why did it not bother you and why have they worked?

Robin Rowland
Because nobody is doing what we are doing. Because there was a massive gap in the market and in pizza, pasta we have some fantastic operators but you know, there is only to much you can take of that and I think there was an opportunity and Wagon Mamas had paved a bit of the way but we were ahead of them in terms of going outside London. We moved faster and more fleet of foot and the other thing that was interesting about YO! was you could put YO! Sushi in unusual locations, you didn’t need extraction, we were very bold in our design, we were taking sites that people couldn’t make work apart from coffee shops so to me there was an intellectual challenge here. You know, both going outside London and proving you could put YO! Sushi right in people’s faces and unusual locations. So it was an absolute pleasure you know, those years were wonderful.

Elliot Moss
And blood, sweat and tears I imagine too?

Robin Rowland
Yeah a lot of it and basically biting finger nails because I had put all my own, you know, personal wealth on the line, my own you know, credibility on the line and you know, we got lucky but it wasn’t without an awful lot of hard work.

Elliot Moss
I was going to say you make your own luck somewhat. But you said you put your own wealth on the line. At what point did you go, without being kind of sitting back and being complacent, did you go ‘this is alright, this is going to work’ or ‘this is working’. Was there a moment or were there a series of moments when you thought ‘I think I’ve done the right thing here’?

Robin Rowland
Yeah I think well when we started getting phone calls from America in 2006, I said ‘what’s that all about’ and they recognised this extraordinary concept was unusual and distinctive, obviously commercially successful and thought ‘wow’. But the trouble with the hubris in this business if it is your own business is that you start believing these nonsense calls but I felt we were in a good place because we were halfway through our investment by a company called Primary Capital and they also felt it. We were in a good place around 2005/2006, you know we were on a roll.

Elliot Moss
People when they talk about brands and it doesn’t matter what the market is, what the industry is – they talk about being distinctive. It sounds like you understood that both from a practical rational point of view and from an instinctive point of view. How is that – how have you cherished and nurtured that distinctiveness of YO! Sushi or has it sort of done it itself because the proposition is the proposition?

Robin Rowland
The proposition helps because there are not many restaurants that can do, you know, KY10 conveyor belts to deliver their food. So that was a big point of difference but the reality is we’ve always thought differently. We don’t think of ourselves as a restaurant business, we work with rock and roll designers, rock and roll graphics going companies. Our music is bespoke to us. We try to think more into the retail or brand than we do and the food is very very important to us but we never thought ourselves as just a classic restaurant; I am taking myself frightfully serious business. So a sense of humour and self-deprecation and also being – listening hard to your guests is what we have done and we have always tried to stay small while we got big by being humble and listening to people.

Elliot Moss
Sounds like a recipe for success, excuse the pun – Robin forgive me. Time for some music before we hear more from my fantastic business shaper; this is from Diggs Duke, new music from the Washington-based artist and it is called The Pinnacle and aptly, (Of Class And Taste).

That was Diggs Duke with The Pinnacle (Of Class And Taste). Robin Rowland is my pinnacle of class and taste. Here we are talking about food, YO! Sushi but more than just food actually Robin, we are talking about brand and more than brand you were talking about customers and people. How have you ensured that the business itself has remained respected within the industry, has remained a favourite of my child and many other children and so on and so forth. It feels like a very happy, positive energy type of business and I met you for the first time and I have not met anyone else who works in the business and yet that’s my perception. Why is that my perception?

Robin Rowland
It comes from the team. I mean we just done a team engagement survey and eighty five percent of our workforce which is like eighteen hundred people are very happy to work for YO! which is an extraordinary high number but the truth is it comes from the culture you create and around me I have a team who are positive, they are solution minded, they are very respectful, they live by four mantras – they are respectful, unconventional, colourful and confident and that is…

Elliot Moss
Say those again. They are?

Robin Rowland
They are respectful, unconventional, colourful and confident. We spent a lot of time getting down those four words and basically you know, if you want to join YO! you had better give your chime with us those kind of values because we use those when we talk to our landlords, to our suppliers, to our franchisees, to our bankers. Everyone knows we are real and there is no artifice in YO! we just try and do our very very best every day in a way that is a little bit of tumble but also confidence. It is a very interesting mixture but it is kind of the way I’ve brought up and the way my team all think.

Elliot Moss
And it sounds like based on those values and I hear that, you know, what you are saying makes perfect sense – successful businesses usually are predicated on really strong values that are meaningful rather than just the stuff you have to say in a corporate manual. What that sounds like has enabled you to do is actually the thing you described earlier which is this bringing in influences from other worlds, the rock and roll nature of your design, as you said, you looked for interesting things. Is that a personal thing of yours, a personal mantra of yours or is it inherent in the brand of YO! Sushi itself?

Robin Rowland
It probably is in our DNA but it is living the promise. When I took all our designers in January ’09, five of them to Tokyo and we didn’t sleep for five days, we just did Tokyo from end to end and these guys are still buzzing from it. They said no other client had ever taken them you know, to Tokyo. It’s what you dream of when you are at design school but we have always tried to do things differently and not try and over formalise or over analyse things so whenever our landlords say to us ‘we need something new, something different’ we are kind of capable of doing that. So you know, we are not a formulate roll out, we are a collection of restaurant businesses, we happen to sell you know, a consistent menu but the menu does change between the restaurants as well so I think it is just being perpetually prepared to change and improve and we never build the same restaurant twice which I don’t think is quite the same as other people.

Elliot Moss
And by the way there are ninety restaurants around the world, eighty million pounds revenue and around seventeen hundred going towards eighteen, nineteen and probably two thousand people by the end of the year working in the YO! Sushi business.

Robin Rowland
Correct.

Elliot Moss
Not bad at all. We will have our final chat with Robin plus play a track from Eliane Elias. That’s coming up after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

That was Eliane Elias with Call Me, nice and calm too. Robin Rowland is my business shaper just for a few more minutes and we have been talking about all sorts of things, about this fantastic brand and it is that. It happens to be a restaurant, it happens to sell wonderful food but it is a brand and this brand is British brand, predicated on a Japanese experience and is now global.

Robin Rowland
Yep.

Elliot Moss
How have you done that? Because that is not easy and many people listening who run their own businesses who say there is a big wide world out there won’t know where to start. How did it begin and where is it going now for you?

Robin Rowland
Well it begun by a lot of unsolicited calls – going back you know, even fifteen years ago and we took a long time to try and find the right partner because the reality is if you trust somebody with your brand you had better get it right. And our first partner basically opened in Dubai and I was in Dubai last week and I couldn’t believe it, he has opened a brand new restaurant in Dubai More which is our third highest grossing restaurant last week and it is just fabulous and I just pinched myself thinking ‘my God, you know, we are actually doing something extraordinary overseas’ and it is making money and I don’t think people see it as a British brand. The British brand, they just see it as a great food offer and it is a very recognisable brand.

Elliot Moss
I am taking ownership on behalf of Britain you see, that’s what I am doing but you are right of course, it’s just a global brand that sells fantastically.

Robin Rowland
No I am supremely proud it is British, I mean don’t get me wrong.

Elliot Moss
But you are right it is not perceived like that?

Robin Rowland
It is not perceived that way and we are not sort of doing a venture or anything but in Oslo Airport we opened a fantastic restaurant there with SSP and they seemed very keen to open more in airports there. That is probably one of our highest grossing restaurants each week so something extraordinary happens with this business. If you get it in the right locations, because we spent fifteen years developing the concept and we know how to deliver it, people seem to see it, you know, as a very very useful kind of adjunct to anything else they are doing so certainly in travel it works well, it works in the Middle East brilliantly.

Elliot Moss
It sounds like the partners you choose though are critical because as you said earlier, the values are so specific, the brand itself has a look and a feel to it. You know as you walk in whether it feels right or not…

Robin Rowland
Correct.

Elliot Moss
…instantaneously. How hard is it to find those partners? Is that the most important part of the international expansion game for you?

Robin Rowland
Well it is if we are doing franchising. It is like a marriage. If you get it wrong it is very hard to undo it and it can be painful but if you get it right, of course it could be a long-term relationship where you learn an awful lot from each other. It is just like a marriage and I think that it is very hard to find good partners because they are rare beasts indeed. But we have been successful and you know, I give advice to a lot of people about take your time, because it is a long-term relationship.

Elliot Moss
Now talking about change and things looking forward as you look to shape the business. You have become executive chairman since May this year, you’ve got a chief executive now. What is it like having a change from being the guy who is literally over everything to this more, I imagine you are still over everything but now you have officially got to be advisory rather than you know, doing and things. How have you managed to scale back the doing and how do you decide what you do and you don’t do?

Robin Rowland
It’s work in transition I guess. I was lucky enough to join a few other boards the last couple of years to learn how to be a better non-executive or you know, support the executive team so I am on the board of Marsden’s, Café Nero and Tortilla and a little burrito bar business and I think by joining these other boards I have learnt to work on the business as well as in the business. So that was helpful and then I am blessed with a fantastic CO who has been working with me for about eighteen months, she has had a good transition and she came in as COO and Vanessa Hall is more than capable of running the business going forward so she and I have kind of divvied up you know, the work load and it seems to work fine. But ultimately she runs the show and I am there to support her in any way that is required.

Elliot Moss
So the president and the prime minister.

Robin Rowland
Pretty much.

Elliot Moss
The president goes out and creates globally happy relationships and the prime minister carries on making sure the country is working.

Robin Rowland
Well as long as I get told what’s the truth, what’s going on that’s right.

Elliot Moss
As long as you know that.

Robin Rowland
And I guess the other dilemma is this is a privately owned business so when you still own a part of the business that is very tricky because you know your financial wealth is basically tied up with their success so – but it’s the right thing for the business and it has been a very helpful and useful exercise and we are delighted the way it is turning out.

Elliot Moss
Fantastic. It has been a real pleasure talking to you Robin, before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Robin Rowland
I have chosen As by Stevie Wonder because it is really, without my wife and my family who I unconditionally love, this could not have been possible.

Elliot Moss
Fantastic. This is your song choice, Robin Rowland thank you for being my business shaper today. It is As from Stevie Wonder.

That was As from Stevie Wonder, the song choice of my business shaper today, Robin Rowland. Respectful, unconventional, colourful and confident was the way he described the values of YO! Sushi and I think he embodied all of those and of course there was a touch of rock and roll. Superb stuff. Do join me again, same time, same place that’s next Saturday morning at 9.00am. In the meantime though stay with us here on Jazz FM because coming up next it’s Nigel Williams and joining Nigel is Michael Wilson who from Monday will be presenting the all new Alpari Business Breakfast – 6.00am sharp Monday, don’t miss it.

Robin Rowland

Robin Rowland has led YO! Sushi’s growth over the past 15 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 90 restaurants (75 UK restaurants and 15 restaurants overseas will be open by end of 2014). Building on 30 years of multi-site restaurant experience, Robin’s strategy for growth is centred on continual improvement of 5 Ps – Product, Property, People, Promotion and Profit. His vision is based on building successful teams, constant innovation, flat structure, open/direct communication, rewarding and fun environment in each & every restaurant. Robin and YO! Sushi’s team success have been recognised by a number of awards, most notably 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’ and ‘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. Robin has a wide established sector network as founder of the 50/20 restaurants group and NED positions with Marstons PLC, Caffe Nero and Tortilla. A Londoner born and bred, Robin now lives in a 17th century farmhouse in the Surrey Hills & a coastal retreat on the Welsh coast with his wife, 3 young children and collection of terriers, chickens and micro pigs.  Skiing, dingy sailing & surfing & walking are current passions.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

I was running about 120 restaurants in my early thirties and I just felt I could do more.

I loved YO! Sushi the first time I saw it and I love it today.

It was a marriage of strengths at the time.

You could put YO! Sushi in unusual locations … we were very bold in our design, we were taking sites that people couldn’t make work apart from coffee shops.

It was an absolute pleasure you know, those years were wonderful.

We got lucky, but it wasn’t without an awful lot of hard work.

We started getting phone calls from America in 2006 … they recognised this extraordinary concept was unusual and distinctive.

There are not many restaurants that can do conveyor belts to deliver their food.

We have always tried to stay small while we got big by being humble and listening to people.

We’ve just done a team engagement survey and 85% of our workforce which is like 1,800 people are very happy to work for YO!

They live by four mantras. They are respectful, unconventional, colourful and confident.

We are actually doing something extraordinary overseas.