As it enters its eighth year of owning Carluccio’s, the Dubai-based Landmark Group has decided to make a key substitution, bringing in Mark Jones, the outgoing chief executive of Goals Soccer Centres and former head of Mecca Bingo, in a move it hopes will steady the ship and move it towards an eventual exit. At a time, when the UK’s established casual dining brands are coming under increasing pressure, Landmark will hope it’s a gamble that pays off, writes Mark Wingett.

With a number of his sector peers moving on over the last 12 months, as the negative factors impacting the market increased and investors looked for quick fixes, it comes as no surprise that the spotlight would eventually fall on Neil Wickers, the former international managing director of PizzaExpress.

It has been three years since he joined Carluccio’s, which Landmark took private in 2010 in a £90m buyout, his taking over the reins from Simon Kossoff, who had led the business for over 15 years, and on the face of it had been more successful than others in the same position, YO! Sushi for example. However, 18 months into his tenure Wickers had to deal with inevitable changes that come with inheriting a long-established management team, whilst unpicking two avenues of expected growth – the company’s foray into the US and the launch of a grab and go concept called Via.

On the people front, long-time finance director Frank Bandura stepped down, followed late last year by the exit of Sarah Wilkinson (Murray), who had been with the company since its inception and was a key player in the growth of the business under former chief executive and chairman Kossoff. Bandura, who spent 17 years at Carluccio’s, was initially replaced by Jonathan Blanchard, the former chief financial officer of Evans, the cycle retailer. However, Blanchard spent just over a year in the role before returning to the retail sector with Reiss, with the suspicion that an expected exit had been delayed due to the changing market conditions.

Both the brand’s launch in the US and it development of Via were meant to help drive the company into its next stage of growth. As Dominic Walsh wrote in MCA last year: “In some ways, you could say that Wickers has been brave and decisive in opting to kill off the babies that were to have been nurtured into core elements of the Carluccio’s growth story – particularly in the case of the US expansion, once touted as having the potential to grow to as many as 100 units. But whichever way you look at it, both setbacks are embarrassing and do nothing for Wicker’s credentials in the event that the chain’s Middle Eastern backers seek to cash in their investment.” On top of this was a sparse full-year trading update, where the company reported that UK turnover by grew 2.7% to £140.9m in the year to 26 September 2016 but EBITDA fell from £15m the year before to £13.2m.

Whilst the company acknowledged that Wickers had improved operational efficiency and begun to refresh the brand through the roll-out of the successful ‘Carluccio’s of the Future” concept, his departure suggests Landmark, which as a family-owned investment group is not known for knee-jerk reactions – wanted to see more of an uplift in performance. The appointment of Jones and new chief financial officer Andrew Campbell, ex-YO! and Novus, suggests that after the dalliance with the US and new formats it was looking for a change of leadership to take the business, which has 102 sites in the UK, with in the Gulf, Turkey and Dublin, back to basics and get it into shape for an eventual exit.

The former head of Pizza Hut UK, Yates and Premium Bars & Restaurants, has spent the last eight years in the leisure and gaming sector, including stints at Rank Group as head of Mecca Bingo then Grosvenor Casinos, and most recently Goals Soccer Centres, where he oversaw the turnaround of the business. I imagine his work in the gaming sector is well known to current Carluccio’s chairman and former Gala Coral chief executive Carl Leaver.

He returns to a part of the sector – the branded Italian restaurant market – where MCA’s own analysis shows there is signs of growth slowing. MCA expects the branded Italian, pizza & pasta market, valued at c£2bn, to grow by c.3.8% per year between 2017-2020. This is a notable slowdown from the rate of 5.8% per year seen between 2014-2017. The issues faced by Jamie’s Italian, Wildwood and Strada also highlight the challenge Jones faces, although it hasn’t stopped Richard Caring launching a new Italian concept in Harry’s Dolce Vita.

As one sector commentator put it: “Mark’s very solid, has a good ‘corporate’ track record especially in more sizeable, mature businesses and he knows his way around the boardroom”. He is also an operator, which may be what Carluccio’s needs given the failed initiatives over the last 18 months, someone who is going to build on what remains a well-established and quality brand. Some would argue he is not a very progressive appointment, and some have described it as a safe one, but then again there aren’t many “hot” up and coming chief executives in the sector at present. As Campbell states in the press release announcing his and Jones’ appointment, Carluccio’s is “an iconic brand with a strong heritage”. Landmark has rolled the dice and gambled on a new management team that it hopes will build on that, and can put the right tactics in place to build on those foundations.