The driving force behind a business returned to rude health, generating sector-leading growth, with foundations laid down for global success, plus the recent recognition of his work by his peers. It is safe to say that David Campbell’s stay as chief executive of Wagamama would have, and indeed will be, viewed as a resounding success. But, as the dust settles on the brand’s 25th birthday celebrations, it is surprising that it has come to an end so suddenly. Mark Wingett discusses.
Rewind a few days, not even a week, and outgoing Wagamama chief executive David Campbell was highlighting the company’s 25th anniversary with the help of founder Alan Yau. On the back of his sudden departure, that note, which was circulated across the company, as well as to the press, takes the shape of a personal farewell.
To recap Campbell wrote: “Our UK success has been the envy of the industry, with many awards, and like-for-like performance that has now significantly outpaced the UK market for 152 consecutive weeks, which I think is unprecedented. This last week I was asked to speak in September at a big hospitality event with the title: ‘New Life for a Pioneer Brand: Building Success from Success, The European Fast Casual Leader Returns’. I didn’t write the title, but I love it and I think speaks of all that the Wagamama family has achieved.
“As you know ‘kaizen’, which doesn’t have an English equivalent word but is essentially ‘continuous improvement’ or ‘good change’, sits at the heart of everything we do. It pushes us to find better ways in all that we do. We’re restless spirits, and forever looking to make things better. Kaizen has been a part of Wagamama since we started 25 years ago. In the intervening period, I am sure there are times when we have been good at kaizen, and less good, but I have no doubt that the renaissance of the Wagamama is due to embracing the founding principles of the company. And there are very few international brands that can say that. Today, all of you deserve every bit of credit for all that has been achieved – so thank you to everyone in our family of almost 7,000 around the globe.”
Since his appointment back in 2012, Campbell has been the driving force behind that renaissance. He came with an impressive track record.
A veteran of the entertainment industry, he had previously turned the O2 Arena, the former Millennium Dome in Greenwich, into the world’s most popular music venue. Before that, he worked for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group for 11 years rising to become boss of Virgin Radio and masterminding the sale of the station to Scottish broadcaster SMG for £225m.
With Duke Street Capital’s backing, he invested significantly in upgrading and refreshing Wagamama’s estate, both in the UK and abroad; assembling a highly-experienced and capable management team and rebooted the group’s US strategy. Sector-leading performance following, along with growing speculation that Duke Street, which acquired the business from Lion Capital for c£215m back in 2011, would begin to explore an exit.
In March, his peers voted him their Retailer’s Retailer of the Year at MCA’s annual awards ceremony. Campbell had turned a brand in a state of flux when he joined into, as he puts it “into the envy of the industry”.
The indication from the company and backer Duke Street is that any exit options have been pushed back from this year, despite speculation that suitors have started circling the business. This change in timescale would, as chairman Allan Leighton yesterday stated, need a chief executive prepared to put in a five year-plus shift - something Campbell, who has worked tirelessly over the last five years, was not inclined to commit to.
Some would argue that this represents a risky strategy. The market has entered a challenging period - one that is set to get tougher as extra costs continue to filter through to both budgets and the consumer. The groundwork Campbell has laid and the team he has put in place suggests that Wagamama can continue to separate itself from the maelstrom and thrive. But, there is always the fear it could get dragged back into the dog fight or that its still fledgling reboot in the US stalls. Is it best to make hay (exit) while the sun shines? Or can Duke Street can afford to hold on for two, three or four more years?
It still doesn’t answer the question of the suddenness of Campbell’s departure, which was very much with immediate effect. On emailing Campbell yesterday to wish him well there was an immediate automated reply saying he had left and that Jane Holbrook was now the new chief executive. For someone who is said to be staying on as a “special advisor” and shareholder, you would imagine his company email would work for an interim period at least.
Then there is the lack of any word from the man himself it in the leaving statement itself - no thank you to his team and staff, no look back to what he and they had achieved.
It has been suggested that not everyone at Wagamama enjoyed Campbell’s style of leadership and that his relentless approach in driving the group forward had not been “everyone’s cup of tea”. But, as he once put it when describing the management team he has assembled “they are all experienced and have been brought in because we believe they are the best as what they do and can get straight on with enhancing this business. They don’t need to be looked after.”
That executive team, with considerable knowledge gleaned across a number of industry leading multi site leisure businesses, will now be led by Holbrook. The group’s former chief operating officer comes into the top role with a great pedigree garnered from a wide range of industry heavyweights – from PizzaExpress to Novus and Whitbread to Soho House. She is described by one former colleague as “extremely bright, direct and definite CEO material”.
Campbell leaves Wagamama on top of its game. Holbrook, Leighton and Duke Street will hope to keep it there