My Biggest Mistake: Peter Webber

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The Independent Online
Peter Webber, 53, is managing director of My Kinda Town, the international restaurant group. He attended Westminster Hotel School and gained his business experience at various top hotels, including the Carlton in Cannes and the Half Moon in Jamaica's Montego Bay. At 27 he joined Grand Metropolitan, where he became food and beverage director for the group. In 1986 he went into partnership with Bob Payton at My Kinda Town, which now has a turnover of pounds 33m from 26 restaurants around the world, including the Chicago Rib Shack, Henry J Bean's and Chicago Meatpackers.

MY BIGGEST mistake was failing to take on a brilliant business opportunity because I lacked entrepreneurial spirit.

I first met Bob Payton in 1980, by which time he'd already had huge success in London with his Chicago Pizza Pie Factory. Two years later, we were having lunch together and he told me he was going to take over a Bejam freezer centre in a side street near Harrods, and turn it into a barbecue restaurant. He said he would call it the Chicago Rib Shack, and the only things on the menu would be a rack of ribs and a loaf of fried onions. He asked me to go into partnership with him.

Bob has always been a larger-than-life character, and at that moment, although I really admired him, I thought he was off his rocker. The location was so well hidden nobody would find it. Even if they did, I couldn't imagine people eating ribs with their fingers. And how could you offer a menu of just two items?

The project was already funded through venture capitalists. All he wanted me to do was work the restaurant with him and share the profits. At the time, I was a senior vice-president with Grand Metropolitan, responsible for food and beverages at 150 hotels around the world. I just couldn't see how his idea would work, so I said no.

He was convinced it was going to be a great success and told me I'd be sorry. But hardly anyone turned up during its opening weeks. 'Thank God I didn't get involved,' I thought.

Within six months of opening, the Rib Shack was packed every night. Even then I didn't realise I had made a mistake - until I tried to take some Americans there on a Tuesday night and was told it would be a two-hour wait. I had to call Bob at home and ask if he could get me a table at what could have been my restaurant - and my half-million a year. I was fairly pensive for the rest of the evening.

By that time (1983), the Chicago Rib Shack had 8,000 customers a week paying about pounds 12 a head. By 1987 it was making more than pounds 1m profit. Restaurants just don't make money like that.

Meanwhile, I had left Grand Metropolitan after its merger with Intercontinenal and was working for Imperial Group. I had become disillusioned with big businesses. So, when Bob asked me, in 1986, to go into partnership with him and run the My Kinda Town restaurants, I didn't hesitate.

It is a big leap from a big organisation, where you are responsible for a turnover of pounds 200m, to a small one. On the other hand, I was in danger of becoming a snob - and not even a rich one - if I stayed where I was.

The trouble with big organisations is that they rarely take risks. That's why they're not very exciting. I could see that what Bob was offering was an opportunity not only to make money, but also to have fun. And despite my classic background, I realised it is more important to have fun than to have status.

My Kinda Town had seven restaurants when I joined; today we have 26. It worked out OK in the end, but not as OK as it might have been had I been in from the beginning.

That mistake probably cost me pounds 2m to pounds 3m, but it taught me to be more of an entrepreneur.

(Photograph omitted)