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Having a clear cut vision for your business

Why Tom Byng - founder of Byron - doesn't plan to expand beyond London

Three years after opening the first branch of his Byron hamburger restaurant business, Tom Byng has just opened his tenth. By the standards of many of the more aggressive chains in this business, that is modest progress. But it is enough of a challenge if – like Byng – you are trying to keep a close tab on operations and keep to the original ethos, to simply make “hamburgers the way they should be”.

Having previously run such Notting Hill favourites as Zucca and 192, Byng is under no illusions about what it takes in terms of attention to detail and energy to be successful in the restaurant business. For this reason, he has no plans to expand Byron beyond London. Canary Wharf, in London’s Docklands, is a great place to be on account of the essentially captive well-heeled clientele but it is about as far as he can stretch to and still keep to his aim of being able to visit all his sites in a day.

Many small businesses are able to develop into fairly large organisations in terms of turnover without increasing their staff to a great extent, and so avoid the regulation and administration associated with increased employee numbers. But the restaurant business is necessarily labour-intensive and at the same time highly dependent on the quality of people it hires. Byng says: “If you hire the wrong restaurant manager and they don’t recruit properly – they let a few people in - because they are short-staffed - who are not quite right – you can quickly turn a good restaurant into a bad restaurant.”

To this end, he is quite clear about the sort of people he wants working at Byron – they have to be the sort of people who enjoy doing something well, who are charming and smile a lot and who also value being efficient and working in a team.

One might say that most employers would want that sort of person. But Byng also believes that it is about getting people that fit the business. He points out that it is essential to have “a very clear-cut vision for your business” – in his case it is to make the best hamburgers in the world. This has to be “quite stretching, quite ambitious and really simply articulated”. Where big businesses sometimes struggle is in articulating what they are about – and so cannot always attract the people they want.

Essentially, Byron is a reflection of Byng himself and of those he has hired. They then hire similar types – people who, in his words, are “quite obsessive, like to have fun, don’t like being corporate and distant and are engaging”.

In an effort to make this happen, each general manager is given £100 each quarter in order for them to take their staff out. There is no stipulation as to what they should do with the money, other than that they spend it. In fact, if they cannot produce the receipt to prove they have spent it at their own appraisal, the money is taken out of the managers’ bonuses. In addition, there are events in the summer for all staff and a Christmas party for which the whole chain closes down so that everybody can attend.

Ninety per cent of the workforce turn up and 90 per cent of them are still there after the free bar finishes, he claims, suggesting that this is evidence that the “work hard, play hard” ethic he is seeking to instil is working.

Similar challenges confront Dom Lake, Cass Titcombe and Patrick Clayton-Malone, the founders of another small restaurant chain – Canteen. The business, which celebrates its fifth birthday in September, currently has four sites around London and so is also growing at a modest rate. Lake, who developed the business plan with Clayton-Malone before they brought in Titcombe for cooking experience, says this is a result of them having to raise the money themselves because they were not independently wealthy. They then found backers who empathised with their desire to grow organically rather than expand quickly before selling the business on as is frequently the case. This approach also fit with the idea behind the business – to raise the quality of food in affordable restaurants. There was a lot of talk about food quality in supermarkets and at home, but little attention to it in ordinary restaurants, says Lake, adding: “The cornerstone of Canteen is quality.”

But even with this restrained growth, canteen has had to do a lot of recruiting. There are currently about 180 employees because the restaurants open from 8am until 11pm. “The people part of the business is fundamental,” says Lake. Like Byron’s Byng, he and his colleagues hire as much based on attitude as skills on the basis that they can teach somebody to carry a tray but not how to smile. “It’s ultimately about culture. How do we create a culture?”

He and his colleagues have decided the answer lies in communication and training. When they started they would hire somebody who seemed “capable and nice” and within a short while they would be serving tables. Now, all new recruits go through a two-week training scheme so that they will know where the meat comes from, that the kitchen has vegetables and will accommodate people’s wishes.

“It’s empowering individuals with information – giving them more confidence. But it’s expensive,” says Lake. However, he adds that – difficult as it is – the approach seems to be working. “We’re finding that as we are growing and getting more experienced that the culture starts to stick.”

A rather different approach is taken at the male grooming products company Bulldog. Founded in 2006 by Simon Duffy and Rhodri Ferrier, neither of whom had any experience of the sector, the company has grown to the point that it is the fourth largest skincare brand in the UK with its products using natural ingredients sold in more than 2,500 supermarket outlets and Boots and Superdrug stores around the UK. In addition, it has expanded into Scandinavia and is about to move into the United States and Japan. And yet it still has a full-time staff of only four.

As Duffy says, the company thinks creatively about human resources. There is a skill about finding the right people and then deciding whether they need to be brought on to the payroll or whether those costs can be avoided by having them as a partner. Accordingly, rather than hiring expensive specialists in fragrances and the like it uses them on a part-time basis. In addition, everything is done in the UK, with partnerships for manufacturing and packaging, so that the company can meet its ethical aims and avoid excessive shipping.

Overseas expansion has been done through careful selection of partners. The first move came in Sweden when the founders met some people who totally understood what Bulldog was trying to do and shared the philosophy. Sweden was chosen as an initial export market because logistics from the UK were relatively straightforward. But Japan and the United States are more complex and for this reason the company is starting slowly, although both markets are, of course, potentially huge. In the United States, for example, the company is starting around the Boston area and serving stores from a warehouse in New Jersey. Interest is being activated through social network marketing campaigns. “We’ve found local people with product expertise and people who buy into our values,” says Duffy, adding that it is “about working as closely as we can together.”