Four years ago, when industry titans such as Ian Neil, John Derkach, Mike Tye, Andrew Page, David Niven, Graham Turner and Simon Kossoff were still at the helm of some of the UK’s leading casual dining, pub and coffee chains, I wrote an article for MCA entitled ‘The Changing of the Guard’. In it I wondered who would succeed all these long-serving executives and examined a trend of medium-sized, often private equity-backed businesses within the sector hiring CEOs from bigger, often listed, corporate businesses. Since then, not only has this trend continued, it has accelerated. Here, I will examine where today’s industry leaders come from, points to why a change has occurred and looks into the future of chief executive hiring.

Over the past five or more years, we have seen an influx of industry leaders from outside the sector. Not only from the adjacent industries of retail and leisure, but from management consultancy and beyond, which demonstrates the attractive, growing nature of the sector. Nevertheless, there have been a good number of CEO and MD appointments from within the industry, which still has a great stock of talent: Andrew Lynch, from SSP to Nando’s; Glyn House, from Wagamama to Caffe Nero; Jim Slater, from Costa to Chipotle; Neil Wickers, from PizzaExpress to Carluccio’s; and Andrew Walker, from Casual Dining Group to EAT. These leaders all bring with them a playbook they can put to good use in their new companies. Yet while these leaders come immediately from within the industry, the majority have prior experience outside the sector: Lynch worked in contract catering with Compass for many years; House spent 21 years at Sainsbury’s; Slater worked for Diageo and Sunderland Football Club before he joined Costa; and Wickers learnt his trade at Unilever before being recruited by Gondola.

The trend to hire employees trained at Yum! (owner of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell) employees continues unabated. Although Yum! flies slightly beneath the radar in the UK, its scale, terrific culture and world-class talent development programmes have helped produce the likes Mark Fox of Bill’s; Jens Hofma, CEO of the private equity-owned Pizza Hut Restaurants UK; Alasdair Murdoch of GBK; Ivan Schofield, UK MD of Itsu; Murray McGowan, MD of Costa Express; and Simon Wallis, COO of Domino’s, whom many tip to take over from David Wild. Meanwhile, Martin Shuker, the indomitable GM of KFC Europe, one of the biggest and most profitable divisions of Yum! globally, remains at the company after 25 years and is as passionate as ever about growing the brand. McDonald’s has been less prolific at exporting talent to the sector: Steve Easterbrook ran Wagamama briefly before being lured back to the golden arches of Chicago.

Retail has been a good source of talent for leaders within the sector, with the purveyors of pizza in particular finding this the way to go. David Wild, CEO of Domino’s, ran Halfords and had a background at Tesco and Walmart; Richard Hodgson, CEO of Pizza Express, came from Morrisons, Wiatrose and ASDA; and John Nelson, UK MD, MOD Pizza, spent the lion’s share of his career at Dixons before running operations for Nando’s. Since it went public, SSP has recruited Kate Swan and Simon Smith from WH Smith. Rhys Iley, formerly of Marks & Spener and Boots, continues his ascent at Starbucks, and has now runs retail across the UK, Europe, the Middle East & Africa. These ‘retail refugees’ bring blue-chip leadership training, the ability to operate at scale and within complexity, as well as process management, cost control and in many cases good e-commerce experience.

The newest sector from which the UK eating out industry has imported talent is leisure. Jon Hendry-Pickup, CEO of Prezzo, comes from budget hotel operator Travelodge; Steve Richards hails from leisure operator Novus; and Dominic Paul, CEO, Costa, has recently arrived from cruise operator Royal Caribbean. Meanwhile, one of the most exciting CEO appointments of the year is Andy McCue, formerly of Paddy Power, at The Restaurant Group. A former management consultant who is as at home online as off-line, he will bring strong leadership and commercial rigour to the embattled group, as well as Paddy Power’s sense of fun. These four leaders were all trained in large, public businesses of scale and have since worked in businesses focused on driving NPS and prodiving a great digital experience.

While there are very few leaders who come directly from the world of fast moving consumer goods into the sector – Rooney Anand and Neil Wickers are exceptions – hiring leaders with experience further back in their careers of how to grow and nurture big brands is a no-brainer: the current crop of leaders who have worked for the world’s biggest producers of food, drink and household products include Kate Swan, David Campbell, David Wild, Hofma and Murray McGowan.

Management consultancy has also exported some great leaders to the sector: Simon Jones, MD Premier Inn UK, Raphael Miolane, CEO, Pizza Hut Europe, and John Vincent, Founder & CEO of Leon came directly into the sector from management consultancy, and Hofma, Ivan Schofield, Miolane, McCue and McGowan all had stints with the world’s top-flight strategic consultancies earlier in their careers. Hiring leaders with a consulting background guarantees raw smarts, a strategic playbook and a facility around data. These are skills as appealing to private equity funds as to plc boards, and suited to growth as much as turnaround.

Finally, there have been some interesting hires from way outside the sector: Campbell of Wagamama has proved a great lateral hire, and Whitbread chose to appoint its CEO, Alison Brittain, from retail banking. Martin Brok, President of Starbucks EMEA, joined the company from Nike, albeit he had QSR experience at Burger King before that. In the same way that Tesco’s sheer scale almost forced it to hire its current CEO from outside the sector, these hires prove that for the very biggest companies, often the best (if not sometimes the only) way is to hire laterally, as competing businesses often simply do not have the scale or the talent of the calibre required.

At the end of the day, leaders with the scale and discipline of retail, the service-driven culture of leisure and the analytical training of management consultancy, and great skills learned in other industries, too, bring fresh thinking to the sector and add to its gene pool. Equipped to deliver sales over night and a brand over time, they can help the companies they lead become global powerhouses. Wagamama, Pret and Nando’s, are now fully-fledged, global concerns, and smaller brands such as Leon, Carluccio’s and Caffe Nero all have serious international ambitions. One indication of the health of the talent within the industry is that, finally, the sector has begun to export leaders: Jill McDonald, ex-CEO of McDonald’s Europe, is now running Halfords, and Rank has just hired Alan Morgan, formerly of Spirit, to run Mecca Bingo. Whereas four years ago I was wondering which company would be next to hire someone with a different background, I’m now waiting excitedly to see over the coming years which other industries will benefit from it.