Inside Track by Mark Stretton
As a Portsmouth fan, it pays to be pessimistic – that way I’m never disappointed. But, putting footballing distress to one side, we at M&C Report detect a mild bout of cautious and qualified optimism doing the rounds. Cautious and qualified because clearly the sector is exposed to the vagaries of the economy and the consumer, and the most pressing questions are 1) will consumer sentiment get worse before it gets better? 2) how long will it be before things start to become genuinely buoyant in the economy? That said, it’s clear that activity is picking up, and that companies are emerging from their bunkers and what could be loosely described as the “survival mode” mindset, returning to expansion mode. Business leaders are contemplating a new era, one where it feels like they are no longer just debt managers for the banks. There was certainly a more buoyant mood in the room at last Wednesday evening’s Retailers’ Retailer of the Year Awards at the Dorchester Hotel on London’s Park Lane. Organised by M&C Report, the awards programme was an important opportunity to recognise and celebrate the achievement’s of the sector’s leading lights, and a timely reminder that there are still plenty of people taking their businesses forward It was good to see McDonald’s getting the recognition it deserves. Steve Easterbrook, managing director of its UK and Northern Europe business, collected the best individual prize, beating an illustrious shortlist that comprised: Rupert Clevely, managing director, Geronimo Inns John Derkach, managing director, Costa Coffee John Hutson, chief executive, JD Wetherspoon Philippe Le Roux, chief executive of Le Pain Quotidien UK Julian Metcalfe, founder, Pret A Manger. The fast-food restaurant chain also collected the evolution gong – a prize designed to reflect big brands that have successfully adjusted their offer to keep pace with consumers, either through subtle evolution or more seismic repositioning work. As I have written here in the past, it is tempting to think of McDonald’s as one of the winners of the recession with consumers trading down to its no-frills food and low price points. But as Easterbrook himself says the recession has just been the icing on the cake, and the performance of the group now in the UK is the result of five years of change. McDonald’s does not get enough recognition so it’s great to see the company getting the nod of approval from peers and competitors from the market itself. There was also a brace of awards for Jamie Oliver. The chef’s Jamie’s Italian chain, led by managing director Simon Blagden, was named best concept while Oliver was also singled out as Best Investor. The Jamie’s Italian business – frankly a shoo-in for the best concept award – is a stunning success and the stand-out growth brand in the eating-out and drinking-out market right now. At a time when other so-called celebrity chefs are not exactly covering themselves in glory, Oliver has recognised the importance of recruiting talent and expertise – people who know about the business of running multiple-site operations. If you haven’t been yet, go see (and order the truffle tagliatelle, sausage pappardelle, the tuna steak salad or the feather steak). Oliver and Blagden have already won lots of plaudits for the 10-strong concept, which is thought to be delivering weekly sales north of £65,000 per site, and they will be conscious that there is still much to do (can they deliver those sort of sales when the business has expanded to 25 or 30 restaurants?). There was also another double – for Drake & Morgan. Its founder Jillian MacLean was singled out as the rising star and the group’s first site, the Refinery at London’s Bankside, was named best venue. The group is about to open its third site, the Anthologist – a 10,000sq ft venue in the City of London. Elsewhere, the contenders for emerging brand speak of a market not too short of innovation and creativity. Chilango, the Mexican quick-service restaurant led by Dan Houghton and Eric Partaker, pipped Bill’s Produce, Cote, Drake & Morgan, Pho and Wahaca to the prize. These shortlisted concepts all point to a thriving UK market, and each has bought something new to it. Many people subscribe to the view that the next 12 months will herald a wealth of opportunities – for those that can. And one that certainly could and did was Giraffe, backed by Risk and 3i, which collected the best deal prize for its opportunistic acquisition of 11 Tootsies sites. Now all converted, it looks like Giraffe has opened each restaurant for less than £500,000 a piece. The best company award went to Pret A Manger, the sandwich and coffee chain founded by Julian Metcalfe. The group has already won the prize twice before – in 1999 and 2003 – and it is clear that the sector’s senior management tier regard it as one of its leadership companies. Certainly, for me, it is a winner not just on product quality and consistency and execution, but for the way it recruits, retains, and develops its people, and also for CSR. All of our winners are a true consensus of market opinion as they are selected by the industry itself – based on the votes of senior people from the market. For full details of the awards, visit, for if ever there was a time to celebrate the industry’s best, to remind ourselves of the good stuff, surely it is now? A huge word of thanks to all our event partners at the Retailers’ Retailer of the Year Awards. They are Altium, Barclays Commercial, BDO Stoy Hayward, Brulines Group, Coca-Cola Enterprises, Shelley Sandzer, Zenith Hygiene Group and Zonal Retail Data Systems. Best companies to work for Speaking of success, it was great to see so many companies from leisure making it into the annual Sunday Times list of best companies to work for (normally the sector is noticeable by its absence). In a list of the UK’s 25 best big companies to work for, Nando’s beat the lot – Goldman Sachs, PWC, KPMG, Amex, Boots – to take the top place as THE place to work. The company came first for wellbeing, second for leadership and more than 73% of staff said their managers were excellent role models. Also in the “big” list was Bourne Leisure, Marriott Hotels International, InterContinental Hotel Group and Orchid Group.