As CEO of Yo! Sushi for over 15 years, Robin Rowland secured his place as one of the most respected and pioneering figures in the industry. Now Operating Partner at TriSpan Partners, and on the board of Rosa’s Thai, Thunderbird, Marston’s and Eathos, as well as Yo!, his passion and energy for the industry remains undimmed.
At the heart of this energy is Robin’s operator background. A firm believer in ‘happy staff = happy guests’ he is now bringing this hands-on expertise to growth specialists TriSpan, who in addition to Rosa’s Thai and Thunderbird, have also invested in Rosa Mexicano and Yardbird.
Having moved investor side, Robin nevertheless feels it’s crucial to look beyond just profit when developing a value creation plan. “It’s easy to become blinded by one thing only” he says, “and not realise the value of those other levers.”
These include people, product, promotion and property, and to stay on top of these streams when CEO Robin made it his business to understand in detail how every site was individually performing, regardless of the size of estate. “Profit in a way is the easiest to get hold of and can provide short term wins,” he says, “but you need to be on top of all those other areas. No value creation plan is the same. With product you need to fully understand your customer feedback, for people you need good operations, promotion you need to understand what’s driving footfall and be active with your social media and marketing and with property you need to be on top of your pipeline.”
To underpin this Robin stresses that leadership teams need a one-page business plan that everyone is clear on and has signed up to. Leaders then need the right team around them to deliver the plan.
This is where Robin feels investors with industry background can bring added advantage. Addressing how private equity investors are developing greater industry advisory capability, particularly within hospitality, he suggests there is a clear benefit of being ‘purposeful’ about sector specialism. “It is more of a recent trend. Piper were the pioneers way back in the 80s. At Yo! we worked with three investors at different stages and all were very good in that area.”
Robin adds that non-executive directors with sector experience can find ways to bring added value to the management team in terms of the day to day running of the business: “They can provide support around areas such as property, where they can be point of contact with all the top agents and understand all the landlord deals, or around people, where having good relationships with headhunters is important and you can be on the front foot when thinking how best to go about meeting any gaps.”
One of Robin’s main personal drivers when providing investor counsel, in large part continuing from his time at the helm of Yo!, is a constant focus on the customer. Today this translates to being a passionate advocate for social media marketing and using latest technologies to develop as full a picture as possible in relation to customer communication and feedback. These are areas that he feels investors often don’t place enough focus on and are at the heart of ongoing expansion plans at Rosa’s Thai.
Having been portfolio-side, Robin is clear on how the investor-portfolio relationship can work best: “Entrepreneurs need to find the right chemistry with their investors. They need to make sure they’re well-advised.”
Central to this, Robin clearly sees communication as essential to a flourishing relationship between entrepreneurs and investors: “At TriSpan we communicate with the portfolio through one lead investor, so whilst more than one of us may be on the board the management team has one clear point of contact.”
He also suggests entrepreneurs should “celebrate success with their investors. They should invite them to new site openings. Have quarterly visits. The offer should always be there.”
In terms of board structure, Robin would typically opt for at least seven in attendance, to be joined by the CEO, FD and Operations Director from the management team, for example. Both parties should think about where to hold board meetings, at different locations, not necessarily at the offices of the management team or the investors.
Robin also provides insight around investment levels required in the context of site expansion: “Up to five restaurants you fund through friends and crowd funding,” he says, “between five and 25 sites you may benefit from a supportive investor, and by 30 plus sites you’re in the mid-tier league.”
Rounding off the conversation, Robin has some final advice for entrepreneurs who may be seeking investment for their next stage of growth: “Make sure your house is in order first. Map out your pipeline from 18 months out. Do your due diligence on legal areas such as intellectual property. Trust your gut and don’t be swayed by the entry price. Have a plan B and be prepared to walk away.”
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