MCA’s Retailers’ Retailer of the Year discusses her career to date, her passion for the three businesses she chairs and her wish for the sector to see beyond its short-term crises 

When Jane O’Riordan became chair of Turtle Bay, Red Engine and Caravan in early 2019, she believed that with them being such different businesses, “what would be the chances of them all needing help at the same time?”.

Little did she know what was around the corner a year later, but she is happy to report that all three have been performing strongly and are in a position to grow further.

And it’s the successful guiding hand she has had over these three businesses that contributed to her being named MCA’s Retailers’ Retailer of the Year in March this year.

Beginning her career as a spacecraft systems engineer with British Aerospace, before joining the strategic consulting division of Deloitte, O’Riordan made the move into hospitality some 25-plus years ago, after moving to South Africa where she ended up working for Yellowwoods Associates – a private investment group with a portfolio predominately made up of insurance investments.

“They also owned three UK Nando’s restaurants, which was actually more of a passion for them… and it soon became a passion for me,” she explains. To cut a long story short she came back to the UK and worked with the Enthoven family, the family behind the Nando’s Group, to grow the business.

Alongside her role at Nando’s she was also involved in several major sector deals through her role at Yellowwoods, including the acquisitions of PizzaExpress in 2003, ASK and Zizzi in 2005, and Gourmet Burger Kitchen in 2010.

But by around 2011 Nando’s had grown so big that it needed more and more time spent on it so O’Riordan joined full time as a board director, in charge of strategy and operations. A global central team was put together in London and she spent 10 years expanding the business internationally – expertise she is now lending to Red Engine as it looks to develop its Flight Club Darts concept in the US and further afield.

Portfolio career

Perhaps understandably, after 22 years working with Nando’s she decided she’d like a change and was keen to become chair of more than one business, which she did in early 2019.

None of the companies – Turtle Bay, Red Engine or Caravan – were competing with each other, they were involved with three separate private equity firms, “and I loved all three businesses and all three management teams… and that really mattered to me”.

Jane O'Riordan

While she continues to have several other non-exec and advisory roles – she joined Piper Private Equity’s advisory board in 2014 and is an NED at Octopus Titan VCT (the UK’s largest technology investor) – “those three businesses are my passions”.

O’Riordan says her latter role as group strategy director at Nando’s helped to shape her career the most and the businesswoman she is today. She was putting strategy together for markets the business either wasn’t in, like the US, or was in, but had gone in badly.

“I had to exit relationships with franchisees or partners and put in a new relationship or a joint venture, for example,” she explained.

“Putting together those building blocks of strategy, and at country decision level, definitely formed it (her career today), because they were big strategic decisions, big capital allocation decisions, and involved operating a brand internationally.”

However, ask others what she is most well-known for and it’s her stint on BBC’s Million Pound Menu, where she was a judge following her departure from Nando’s. “I didn’t think anyone would see it apart from my mum – I didn’t know they were going to stream it on Netflix,” she says.

“For years afterwards when I was introduced to people they wouldn’t say: ‘This is Jane, board director at Nando’s, or MBA from Harvard, they would say, this is Jane, she was on Million Pound Menu’. It’s probably the least really important thing that I’ve done, but the thing that everyone talked about, which always makes me laugh.”

Her role on the show involved what she was doing as a day job – looking after start-ups and investments. “That’s really why I think the chairman role appeals to me because most of what I was doing was strategy and mentoring, and those are really your two big capabilities as chairman.”

Speaking about her proudest achievements so far O’Riordan points to much more recent career highlights, namely the work she has been involved in with the Hospitality Sector Council – she chairs the innovation working group – as the sector was coming out of the pandemic. “I give my time and I feel I am giving back to the industry that I care about.”

Strength in the numbers

Alongside her work with the Council is the turnaround of Turtle Bay – which she is grateful to have got a head start on pre-pandemic.

The Caribbean restaurant chain was “not performing brilliantly” back in 2018. “People thought it had had its day, and had almost written it off, which I thought was very sad,” she recalls. “But the concept is brilliant and has real depth to it.”

Turtle Bay

Turtle Bay

She put together the current senior team in 2019/20, “ahead of the pandemic, thank god”, so it had gone into it already turning the business around. “Visits had picked up and the team was in place […] which meant that when we could reopen, we reopened incredibly strongly.

“It is a powerhouse of a business today. It is in the zeitgeist of young people today. It is also quite unique in its position in the market, as it’s a hybrid and functions throughout the day.”

She describes the brand and the teams as having an “incredible energy”. “I also love that it’s not a trendy central London brand. It is a really solid UK national chain, and I am very proud of that, and I think the growth potential for taking Turtle Bay further is huge.”

In terms of opportunities for the other two, O’Riordan says Caravan’s positioning as an omnichannel concept comprising all-day dining, a strong coffee wholesale business and a direct-to-consumer offering, is a huge strength, with plans to open restaurants outside London marking a big transition for the group.

For competitive socialising business Red Engine – which operates Flight Club and Electric Shuffle – the exciting aspect currently is its international growth, she says. “There are some really exciting things going on at home, but the big longer-term growth opportunity is actually across in the US and internationally.”

The importance of innovation

The latter of the three businesses also plays to her experience in the world of technology, through her role at Octopus. “The application of tech and innovation from all sectors into hospitality I find fascinating – whether that be retail or D2C. Some of the productivity improvements we have seen, such as the use of AI… all of this I see going on in other sectors will come to us.”

Flight Club Shoreditch-9

“I’m always pushing for the adoption of innovation.” Historically, the hospitality sector has been one of the slowest to innovate and adopt new technology, but the pandemic has changed some of that and there are now some really good leading-edge innovators in the space, she adds.

The kind of person who always looks forwards, O’Riordan joked that half the people in the room at MCA’s Retailers’ Retailer Awards she had worked with already, and the other half she looks forward to working with in the future.

She is also a self-proclaimed optimist and has no regrets about anything that’s happened in her career to date. “If I were to go back, would I do the same things again? – yes I think I would probably do it all again.”

That positivity translates to how she views the current cost headwinds. “People are very much worried about the here and now, which is still very painful. I look and I can see the end to some of these current short-term crises – and I wish that others could see it too.”

The Retailers’ Retailer of the Year Award was sponsored by Uber Eats