In the latest of his monthly columns, Dominic Walsh takes a look at the conduct, successes and failures of several high-profile figures in the sector, and shares a story of an unfortunate seating arrangement at the tennis.…
A little while ago I suggested in this column that Luke Johnson might be starting to get out and about again. Sure enough, his period of self-imposed purdah following the collapse of Patisserie Valerie into administration does appear to be coming to an end. A colleague of mine spotted him at the Founders Forum, a tech entrepreneurs’ gathering, then a few days later I myself bumped into the serial investor at Queen’s Club, home of the Fever-Tree Championships.
We were both guests of the tennis tournament’s sponsors and as luck (if that’s the right word) would have it, when Johnson and I had located our seats on centre court, it turned out we were sitting next to each other.
“Are you sitting there?” asked Johnson. “Afraid so,” I laughed. “Well, I’m not sitting next to you,” came the retort. At which point he asked our hosts whether he could swap with somebody else and duly ensconced himself several seats away from your esteemed columnist.
Now, I suppose at one level I can understand his desire to avoid having to make polite chit-chat with a journalist who over the previous nine months had been delving into every possible aspect of his involvement in PatVal’s woes and, let’s face it, writing quite a lot of unflattering, possibly hurtful things. I totally get that.
But at the same time, I felt that what he did was at best, socially gauche, and at worst, unbelievably rude to our hosts. Could he not have bitten the bullet and sat there until the next break in play then moved seats without making a fuss? For my part, I would have been quite happy to bury the hatchet with Johnson. I would even have been perfectly willing for him to get whatever gripes he had over The Times’s coverage off his chest and, if he wanted, have a go at me. In fact, one of the frustrations of the whole PatVal episode was that, once the balloon went up and the financial black hole was revealed, Johnson pulled up the drawbridge and more or less refused to engage with the press (or perhaps it was just me!).
Whether he thought that would stop people writing about him, I’ve no idea, but as a tactic it didn’t work. I accept that he was himself one of the biggest losers from the fraud that destroyed what was once his most successful investment. I also acknowledge how painful it must been to discover that he had been right royally shafted by a person or persons he trusted and had worked with for many years. But the fact remains there are myriad other losers from the demise of PatVal – employees, suppliers, landlords, small investors, City fund managers and doubtless many more. And as a journalist on a national newspaper, I had a duty to report as fully as I could on the events leading up to one of the most extraordinary stories I’ve covered in my 22 years on The Times.
A new era for Pret
When Clive Schlee announced his retirement after 16 years at the helm of Pret a Manger, his contribution was widely praised. The press release was a bit of a love fest, with Schlee himself declaring there is “never an easy time to stop being CEO of a wonderful company” and expressing his delight at the choice of his COO Pano Christou as his successor. For his part, Christou says how he is “honoured to follow Clive as CEO”.
Not to be outdone, Olivier Goudet, Pret chairman, declared: “Since 2003, Clive has become the beating heart of Pret, transforming it into a much-loved, leading international brand. While I am sad to see Clive leave as CEO, I am thrilled he has agreed to become a non-executive board director, where he will continue to play a key role in stewarding Pret’s people, culture and passion, which are all so integral to its success.”
Now, there is little doubt that, in normal circumstances, such paeans of praise would be regarded as right and fitting given his remarkable success at Pret in creating a business with £1bn of sales and 557 stores in nine countries including the US, Hong Kong, France and Singapore. A business that was sold last year for an impressive £1.5bn to one of the world’s leading food sector investors. A business, moreover, leading the way in areas including vegan and veggie food, customer service and employee relations, creating a culture that’s the envy of the industry. What’s more, he’s achieved all this while remaining a charming, courteous and thoroughly nice man.
Yet somehow all this praising of Schlee to the skies has left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable. All I can think about is what the poor parents of 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse would have thought when reading all these tributes to a man who, when all’s said and done, was at the helm of Pret when she died after eating a baguette with inadequate labelling. And don’t forget that the coroner also took issue with the company for taking advantage of relaxed standards on packaging to help small businesses.
Of course, being the kind of man – and leader – he is, Schlee responded to the terrible episode by implementing the biggest change in company policy in Pret’s 30-year-history and overhauling its labelling so that it now leads the industry, although of course the Government is now introducing a new law requiring food businesses to provide a full list of ingredients on pre-packaged food – fittingly dubbed Natasha’s Law.
Hodgson sticks to his promise
Forgive me, but I’m going to return briefly to a subject I was writing about very recently: YO! Sushi – or simply YO! as we are now being asked to call it. Subsequent to my column on the company, Richard Hodgson has continued the remarkable transformation of the business by swallowing another American business, SnowFox, in a deal worth about $100m. Coming on top of the Bento Sushi and Taiko Foods deals, the former PizzaExpress chief executive is doing everything he promised he would do: taking a UK-based sushi restaurant chain with limited growth prospects and creating a rapidly expanding Japanese food company with global aspirations. I, for one, say kanpai (cheers) to that!
■ Dominic Walsh is a business reporter at The Times