'My best investment was going to the races with Vinnie Jones and winning £37,000'

Twenty Questions: Tony Allan, 35, founded Cutty's, delivering fresh fish, in 1985. In 1996 he opened his first restaurant, Bank, then four others. He plans 16 more Fish! diners by 2002. BGR floated in 1998 valued at £46m
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1What's the best piece of advice anyone gave you?

1What's the best piece of advice anyone gave you?

It was probably from my Dad who told me to pay my taxes. I've paid a hell of a lot over the years, yet I'm now under investigation from the Inland Revenue. It all started after the Daily Mirror came to take a photograph the day after we floated BGR. The week before someone had hit my Ferrari 355, so instead of the garage collecting it, they just sent me a new Lamborghini to drive. At the same time the local Porsche garage was talking my wife into swapping her BMW and sent a Boxter and a 911 for her to test. The story appeared the next day under the headline, "Fishmonger makes £20m" with a picture of me surrounded by all these amazing cars.

The Inland Revenue thought I owned them all and decided to investigate me. My accountant told me to give them some money to get them off my back but I've refused. I've only ever taken money in salary and dividends from the company and have nothing to hide.

2Why were you expelled from school at the age of 15?

It was a combination of things, but the final straw was stripping the lead off the school roof and selling it to the local scrap-dealer. If you're not a public school boy and you don't have a rich dad, then you need a leg up in life. There are plenty of successful entrepreneurs who kick-started their careers with a dodgy deal or two. It's much better to be straight about a bent past early, rather than having it dragged out in years to come.

3What was the best investment you have made and the worst?

My best was backing a horse called Quadraco the day after I'd floated QuadraNet. I'd gone down to Aintree with Vinnie Jones and a couple of mates and was down about £200 when I spotted the name. I stuck a whole load of money on it with Corals and with Vinnie, who was running a book, and ended up making £37,000. To add insult to injury, we played cards on the train home and I won £5,000 more.

The worst investment I've made was buying £50,000 worth of shares in an internet company and two weeks later they were worth £3,000.

4What single event or person gave you the impetus to succeed in life?

My father-in-law who lent me £400 to buy a van. I started a fish delivery business which eventually became Cutty's and paid him back within a couple of days. He was a wealthy man. I remember seeing his big house and nice watch and wanting to be like him.

5When did you realise Cutty's was going to be a success?

The turning point was getting an order for sea bass from The Inn on the Park, our first order from a five-star hotel. The bass had rigor mortis because it had been out of the water only a few hours, yet the hotel sent it back because they thought it was frozen. It opened my eyes because the hotel industry had got so used to such poor quality produce they didn't know the difference between fresh and frozen.

With Cutty's, we took fishmongery into a new era. We were not your archetypal guys in plastic apron and hat whose father had worked at Billingsgate before him. We started making things understandable for restaurateurs. Instead of buying 26 kilos of sea bass at £9 a kilo, we'd sell 50 portions for £3 a portion. It was idiot-proof. We knew it couldn't fail.

6Did fish consumption rise dramatically after BSE?

BSE didn't make much of a difference because fish consumption has been rising for 10 years. We've become health-conscious, so fish isn't just eaten on a Friday or Saturday.

Ten years ago, the hotel or restaurant would order 50 per cent meat, 35 per cent vegetables and 15 per cent fish. Now it's 50 per cent fish, 15 per cent meat and 35 per cent veg.

7What was the happiest day of your working life andthe worst?

The most memorable day was opening the doors of Fish! in February 1999 and having to turn away 250 people because we were full.

The worst day was six weeks after we opened Bank, in 1996, when The Times voted us "Restaurant of the Year". We never expected it to have such an adverse affect on our fish supply business. It was the weirdest thing, because the customers I thought were friends were the ones who stopped buying fish from Cutty's. I was their fishmonger turned restaurateur, so I'd become a competitor and they didn't like that. It actually turned full circle because restaurant owners decided to buy fish from us when they saw we'd developed a brilliant concept.

8Food writers continually criticise large restaurants for their lack of intimacy and prefer smaller venues. Do you think that some of them actually have a point?

I've had an ongoing argument with the food writers over this. They are influential and they can make or break a restaurant, yet they don't seem to understand the economics of the business. With property prices the way they are in London, it's impossible to make money in a small restaurant, unless you're prepared to charge £80 to £90 a head.

Restaurant critics should wake up and get real. I plan to roll out 100 fish restaurants over the next four years and for once make them affordable. If you're hitting £20 a head you're going to see people there on a Monday and Tuesday in the suburbs. At £40 ahead you might fill the place on a Saturday night in Esher, but you won't do it every night.

9If you didn't run BGR, which company would you most like to run?

Granada, because it's got elements of what I do now and I really love the media.

10Why did you demerge QuadraNet, your IT division, from BGR?

When we built Bank, we created our own computer reservation system, which enabled us to maximise the use of our tables. The system was still being developed when we floated BGR so we kept it a private company. In February 1999, BGR bought QuadraNet for £250,000 and it became part of the group.

When the blue-chip restaurants wanted to buy the system because it could increase revenues by 17 per cent, we decided to demerge it. In April 2000, we floated it for £22m, which made our shareholders happy.

11You're selling Zander, in Victoria and Bank, in Birmingham. Are they losing money?

They're making money, but the market isn't receiving them the way it should do. It doesn't matter how much money you're making, if every journalist out there is predicting doom and gloom and saying all the restaurants are going bust.

We act as a better barometer because we supply fish and meat to more than 400 restaurants. I've heard that Group Chez Gerard and Belgos have given profit warnings, which shows the market is saturated at one price level.

12How do you envisage the restaurant industry in the next 10 years?

The successful ones will be simple and formulised. They need to be idiot-proof, like Pizza Express. You can't beat two men in front of one oven feeding 400. With a strong brand, location becomes less important because restaurants will become destination places.

When I opened my first Fish! in Borough Market, it was underneath a railway line in an old fruit and veg warehouse and it's now one of the busiest restaurants in the UK.

13Do you have a business philosophy?

To look at things from the Tracey and Sharon angle rather than the duchess and the broker. When we make acquisitions, my finance director does the normal due diligence, then I do a street-level due diligence, where I go into the company for a couple of days and use my intuition there.

If they refuse to let me in, they must have something to hide so I won't do the deal.

14Which single task do you hate doing the most?

Administration, because I hate writing things down.

15Are you pro-Europe and the single currency?

The euro-enthusiasts sacrificed the fishing industry when we joined the EEC in the Seventies. They were so desperate to join they virtually gave away the rights to our fishing grounds. The Common Fisheries Policy is basically corrupt and everyone turns a blind eye to the Spanish raiding our waters and flouting the quotas. British fishermen are conscientious when it comes to conservation, but even they find the system difficult. If they're on a quota of say 1,000 kilos of Dover sole and they pull up 1,500 kilos, they're supposed to put the rest back in the sea. But what's the point in putting back 500 kilos if all the fish are dead? The system is ridiculous and the last thing the industry needs is more involvement with Europe.

16What's the worst job you've done?

Washing dishes.

17Are you easy to work for and what makes you lose your temper?

Yes, because I'm very relaxed. If you've got a well-run company there's no need to shout or lose tempers.

18What are your greatest personal indulgences?

Shooting, fishing and falconry.

19Who do you most respect in the industry?

Terence Conran for what he's done for dining out in this country. I remember Paul McCartney saying he never knew whether a new record was a real dog or not because no one criticised his music. Conran is a bit like that. He's done so much for the industry he's beyond criticism.

20Do you ever think about retiring?

I've worked seriously hard for the last 15 years and if you add up all the 17-hour days I've put in, I could qualify for my pension right now.

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