Robin Rowland describes the moment he stepped back in as chief executive of YO! Sushi as the world starting again. Over the past 16 months, he has made sure that the brand he will have served for 18 years this year, returned to its core values, or RUCC (Respectful, Unconventional, Colourful and Confident) and with it has come the company’s mojo and an uptick in performance. Mark Wingett reports

They say you should walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before judging them, to understand his or her experiences, challenges, thought processes. On again taking over as chief executive of YO! Sushi Robin Rowland walked many a mile, literally and metaphorically, to understand where the brand had ended up and where it needed to go.

At the end of 2015, YO!, after a drawn out process, found itself under the new ownership of Mayfair Equity Partners, the private equity firm launched by Daniel Sasaki. It also found itself with a change in leadership with Rowland swapping his chairman duties to take over again as chief executive from Vanessa Hall, the ex-Mitchells & Butlers executive, who had overseen the business for the previous two years.

“The problem was that we had a business in 2014 and 2015 with a leadership team that didn’t get the deal away,” he explains. “It was still a fantastic business. Whatever the questions were around the company and the valuation, it needed the right kind of buyer to come in and it probably needed a review of the leadership team to make it go forward. I aligned myself with a buyer in the autumn of 2015 and we got the deal done.”

18 years and counting

Rowland joined YO! in 1999 and is now coming up to his 18th year in the business this summer, but for two years he did not run it. He says: “Through 2014 and 2015 I was a seller, and then I became a buyer, because the maths only worked that way and I felt there was still a lot to achieve with YO!. Everyone knows that when a senior management team is meeting multiple buyers, managing expectations is a massive distraction. I have done three of these and this was probably the hardest one. Deals are not easily done these days. The problem was YO! is not a normal restaurant company, and should not be seen in terms of multiples as other restaurant businesses. YO is unique in where it sits in the market and more akin to retail brands than other casual dining outfits.”

The equivalent of more than 5½m people eat in a YO! Sushi every year, Rowland claims. “It is over 20 years old and a very cherished brand,” he adds. “What would-be investors didn’t understand was its potential value. You have to take people on a journey about how we got to where we are – the different formats and locations. It is probably the cleverest and most nimble, agile brand I can think of.”

Back on the front line, Rowland was determined to immediately sound out the most important people, his teams, to get their view of where the business stood.

He says: “I had a 100-day plan. I said to Mayfair that I had to hit the road because I had a sense that we didn’t have a happy team and our mojo was not where it should be. I visited all 70 restaurants in the UK; went down and saw our partner and teams in the Middle East; spent a fair bit of time in the US. I did around 90 restaurants and was absolutely shattered by the end of it, but I wanted one-on-one meetings with every head chef and every manager. By the end of that process, I had a pretty good feel of the mood in the restaurants. All I care about is happy teams and happy guests. I am obsessed about that and I told Mayfair that until I have traction on that I can’t go forward. It was self-evident that the team wanted us to get our spirit back, that go-forward positivity. They wanted to see creativity and innovation back in the business again. They wanted inspiring leadership.

“The food had slightly gone off the agenda, so the head chefs were very vocal that we weren’t taking the food as seriously as we should. Our Net Promotor Scores in terms of guests and employee engagement were not where they should have been in January 2016, but were transformed by June, when we were in the top quartile. It was a huge investment of my time, but I am not arrogant enough to think it was all about me – everyone stepped up to the plate.”

Rowland has further acted on the feedback, with new appointments, a brand and design refresh and a new menu. The first step was putting together a “go-forward leadership team”.

He says: “Of the eight-strong leadership I inherited when I stepped back, I have changed 50%, including myself as chief executive. For the operations director I wanted someone who shared my way of working, hands on and very clear on the selection of managers. So we hired Michael Horan, who has had an interesting and eclectic career. He’s really inspirational and not your typical dyed-in-the-wool ops director. Jo Childs joined us as people director and she has a clear vision of our values and that has allowed us to set the bar higher on recruitment and development. Those two were seminal appointments. The last piece of the jigsaw was a marketing director and I was very clear that I didn’t want a creative brand director, because that’s me. I think that as chief executive you should be the person who embodies the brand and guides the innovation. I wanted someone who would be a brilliant marketing director and a digital genius. We have a great reputation with our guests, but I have to move that 10% of the population who use us up to 15% pretty quickly over the next few years.”

Last month, YO! appointed Luisa Fernandez to this crucial marketing role. Fernandez spent more than 15 years in house at British Airways, most recently heading up the CRM innovation Lab where she was responsible for the CRM strategy across BA’s key digital channels. During her time at BA, she also led the UK marketing department and was global sponsorship and events manager negotiating their London 2012 sponsorship and delivering their award winning ‘Don’t Fly’ Olympic campaign. Most recently Fernandez was managing partner at sports marketing agency, BBH Sport.

Rowland says: “Since day one YO! has pushed boundaries and offered people new experiences based on our love of what we do. Leveraging digital channels is now essential to enhancing the customer experience. Luisa’s expertise across brand, commercial and data-led marketing will help take our customer experience to the next level, while driving our growth strategy.”

Food and design came next, along with a new, for now one-off format, launched without the brand’s iconic conveyor belt in Boxpark Croydon.

Rowland says: “Boxpark would have not happened without several trips to Tokyo. We wanted Mike (Lewis, executive chef) to go there and find the food he thought we would need to have in five years’ time and bring it back for us now. It is all about doing street food that has never been seen in the UK.”

14 new menu choices

From last month, the group introduced 14 new dishes on to its menu, a 15% change. Rowland says: “These are clever dishes, which should shake people up. We are also going to talk more about where our food comes from, the provenance behind it. There is a big difference between the products we use and some of our competitors. We will use a series of videos to show how serious we are about our food.

“Boxpark is a short-term lease. In is not a test bed, it is a standalone concept which has to stand on its own two feet. Delivery is a fantastic incremental opportunity to make income, but you have to get that right and not to the detriment of the core restaurant offer. It worries me that people think they are going to get the same volumes through delivery. It will plateau. It is currently 2.5% of our turnover. We have had three quarters of 5% like-for-like growth, which is in the majority from our core business. Grab and go is a big opportunity for us, but I want people to come into the sites first.”

The group currently operates 71 sites in the UK, and will open six more this year, while also updating and reconfiguring established units, led by a branding exercise its undertook with Paul Belford Design. “I wanted someone who didn’t work in the restaurant space. They have worked with people like Aston Martin before,” explains Rowland. “They have produced a beautiful brand book that has all our design collateral for the next three of four years. The first manifestation of that is our rebuilt Blue-water site, which looks fabulous. It is positioning us back to a more grown up audience. We weren’t purposely chasing a family market I just think some of the branding collateral had got a bit too kitsch and cool for school. The first new site with the new branding will be Glasgow’s Nile Street, which will open next month. At the same time, we have rebuilt our St Pancras International Station site, which is taking more money in a third of the space it was in before.”

Rowland is rightly proud of what his teams and his brand can achieve when it comes to a property play, with the Boxpark site being an extension of that. He says: “We can out-innovate anyone when we put our minds to it. Now I have the team to do these things, we are having some fun doing it. We were the first fast-casual brand in the UK. We were doing innovative stuff at standalone locations, defining boundaries on what spaces a restaurant can work in, before anyone else.

“I have just visited 17 of our restaurants in 36 hours and all the restaurants are different, we have always been fleet of foot when it comes to where we open, in what spaces and what designs we can use. In terms of the wider property market I think it will cool off for a while. With the rising costs of rates etc, there will be some people thinking very carefully about what they invest in. I suck my teeth with every investment, but you have to follow your conviction at some stage.”

If last year was about going back to basics and putting the foundations in place for further growth. Rowland says the group now has its house in order and now is the time for the digital communication piece. He says: “We will change our menu twice a year when the clocks change. It is not brain surgery, it is what I have done for years, but it got lost over the last two years, so that is what we will go back too. Our packaging will change and improve. We will continue to innovate. We have rediscovered our reason for being, which was to innovate and be a leader, and not look over our shoulder.”

The company recently opened a new flagship site in the US, this time a 65-cover unit in New York close to Eataly in West 23rd Street. Rowland is keen to stress the importance, however, of expanding in a measured way in the US. He says: “We are in the process of getting to understand the US market as we currently have sites in several different markets. We have had an interesting journey in the US flirting with a number of partners, but we are at ground zero there at the moment. We have six sites at present, but it is at a very early stage and we are still tweaking things there. By next year we will be in a better position to make sense of it.”

For all the changes made, Mayfair have been “very supportive”. “They are brand ambassadors, brand challengers and global citizens, which is what I wanted,” says Rowland. “They are open minded and ambitious for the brand. I am enthused about working with them. We are pretty clear on our long-term strategy but it allows me enough scope to be innovative. I believe what we have achieved in the last year, would have taken three years in another company.”

And what of the man himself, who enjoys parallel careers in terms of being on the board of Marston’s and Caffe Nero, and his work with the ALMR. He says: “I do enjoy this industry. When I feel I have done my job with YO! someone should take it on, but I have no plans at the moment to go anywhere. YO! was like being in a car and having to move up through the gears. It was in neutral to first to second etc, and we are only halfway up through the gears at the moment and I want to get a little bit further. I will have to work with the investors on the right decision at the right time, but I have my head down at the moment.

“I have the brand, food and team in place to take this business forward. There is no lack of confidence coming through because of that and that’s reflected in the numbers. There has been a huge change since last January. We were slightly off the boil but now we are back on it. It is about listening to our teams and people, they know more about how YO! works than I do. We are a proud brand and our pride is now deserved.”