Green & Fortune has grown from a fledgling startup to award-winning hospitality powerhouse over the past 10 years. Janie Manzoori-Stamford meets its founder John Nugent and director of operations Emma Williams
On paper, it looked doomed to fail: a hospitality startup that took on significant debt for an ambitious new venture in a long-rundown part of London. Added to that, it had the misfortune to launch at the cusp of one of the worst economic crashes in living memory.
Green & Fortune was founded by former Searcys boss John Nugent in partnership with developer Peter Millican in October 2008, when it became the first noteworthy hospitality business to launch and invest in King’s Cross. It was the same year that the area’s long-mooted £3b regeneration finally began in earnest.
With a 25-year lease in the new Kings Place building – a music and arts hub that is also home to The Guardian – Green & Fortune needed to create an appetite and audience for its Rotunda bar and restaurant, public café and Kings Place Events business where none previously existed.
Yet while the early years were certainly challenging, the company did not fail –far from it. Instead, Green & Fortune carved itself a reputation for quality, innovation, technical savvy and commercial nous that helped it expand its field of operations in 2016 with a second venue at South Bank’s Sea Containers, where it operates events, cafés, bars and a restaurant, as well as staff dining for more than 2,200 employees of the building’s corporate tenants.
Now, as Green & Fortune gets ready to celebrate its first 10 years of operation, it’s clear that Nugent and his team have firmly established the key ingredients to the company’s multifaceted success. And it is more than prepared to use every tool in its armoury to drive the business onwards and upwards.
“The reality of launching a business is tricky at the best of times but in 2008 the UK was heading for recession,” says chief executive John Nugent. “The first four or five years were about dealing with that and really growing the business as quickly as possible to get it into safe territory.”
By opting for a long-lease model, he points out, the company was able to take that time to bed in. Despite taking on a lot of debt to build its own spaces for launch, Green & Fortune had the luxury of avoiding the short-term goals or targets that typical three- to seven-year contracts impose on traditional catering companies. And by carrying all the risk, Nugent says, the business has had to take a strong commercial view from day one.
The company reached ‘safe territory’ in 2013, its fourth year of trading, when the impact of the financial downturn began to abate and annual turnover hit £5m.
“We quickly got very good at making friends, which is not difficult, but we also didn’t lose friends, even if we didn’t get every event 100% right. So our repeat booking number is very high, [more than half of the company’s events revenue in 2017 came from repeat business],” he says, adding that some clients, such as conference firm Risky Business and graduate research company High Fliers, have been regular partners since 2008.
The technology sector also provided a number of ‘friends’ in the early years because they were more prepared than the traditional events market of banks and law firms to test the waters of a King’s Cross regeneration in its infancy. They were also keen to take advantage of the state-of-the-art audio visual facilities available as part of Green & Fortune’s Kings Place Events offer and continue to do so.
“We work with all the recognisable names in the tech world – Google, Facebook, Sony – and have done a lot of work with them for a number of years. What’s interesting with those guys is they’re all moving into King’s Cross and making it their home, even though they’ve actually been in the area as our clients for 10 years,” says Nugent, neatly highlighting the foresight he and Millican had when they took a risk on a corner of the capital that has since transformed into a vibrant mixed-use city quarter.
But as director of operations Emma Williams points out, Green & Fortune cannot –and does not – rest on the laurels of its much-appreciated regular clients. “Yes, there are the longer-term relationships, but there are always new partnerships to be made,” she says. “Growth obviously has to come from brand new business.”
That’s why the latter half of Green & Fortune’s decade in operation has been focused on further developing the company’s strengths – its close-knit team’s ability to be innovative, adopt smart pricing strategies and operate effective yield management technology – in order to move the business onto a “higher trading level” through capital expenditure, investment in people and efforts to attract new markets.
This has resulted in double-digit percentage increases in annual turnover every year since 2013, with revenues for the current financial year expected to exceed £13m, representing 160% growth in just over five years.
It has just completed a comprehensive £1.5m refurbishment of its operations at Kings Place that aims to emphasise the company’s gate-to-plate food philosophy which, among other things, is demonstrated by Green & Fortune sourcing all its beef and lamb from its own Northumberland farm and butchering it on site at Kings Place.
The revamp is also expected to further attract larger, multi-day events to the venue. And with new client C21 Media, which held its Content London festival at Kings Place for the first time last year, the events team has already proved it can deliver. Daily attendance of 1,000 people was achieved across the three-day event, and such was the festival’s success that it won accolades for both C21 Media and Kings Place Events at the 2018 Conference Awards.
Crucial to Green & Fortune’s success has been its ability to deliver complementary brands (see box) across events, retail, restaurants and staff dining at two separate sites, with the individual identities designed to recognise the specific customer base that each attracts.
Kings Place Events is primed for delivering conferences and meetings, while sister operation Sea Containers Events has found its niche in parties, awards and receptions. And each venue has a number of hospitality spaces with which to create a package that is tailored to the needs of individual clients.
“There’s a lot of cross-referral for people who hold conferences at Kings Place and then do a dinner at Sea Containers,” says Williams.
“And an event hire in Kings Place will use Rotunda’s bar, perhaps for post-conference drinks for their crew, or the whole restaurant might be added on to a full venue exclusive as the VIP space. Each of the areas will link up and I think we’ve got a lot stronger in that regard over the years.”
Business and industry (B&I) catering was added to Green & Fortune’s sales mix in 2016, which could be seen as something of a departure for the company, but Nugent isn’t convinced.
“It is and it isn’t,” he says. “Modern B&I with forward-looking partners is very similar to good retail, which it should be. I guess what we’ve done is blur the edges of where B&I starts and retail ends, and vice versa.”
But the separate brands don’t just provide sales opportunities. They enable Green & Fortune to cross-train its operations team with, for example, the Kings Place staff structure being adjusted to create a multifaceted food and beverage management team that doesn’t just look after the restaurant, café or bar, but all retail operations while working hand-in-hand with the events team.
As a result, Green & Fortune boasts a strong track record in staff development and talent retention. James Pike, who won the 2018 ACE Robyns award, joined Kings Place in 2015 as a duty manager. He was quickly promoted to general manager and moved to take up the same role at Sea Containers at the start of this year.
“We’ve got lots of examples of succession planning and career progression and the joy of having two sites has enabled that,” says Williams. “We don’t take from one to give to the other, there’s movement between the two to help develop and keep people.”
The company’s strategy for business growth begins with its top talent and a canny commercial strategy that involves almost half of the sales and business development team tasked with seeking out the fresh opportunities.
“We spend huge amounts of time on sales and research. For example, the two big things happenings in the events sector in January 2019 are education and gaming and by having that intelligence for a year in advance, we’re not just waiting for a phone call but chasing peripheral events around that,” Nugent explains.
“The rest of our sales team are reacting and dealing with enquiries that come our way. You have to have both, but the more proactive you are the better, because you’re securing your diary and then having people fight over dates.”
In the past four years the company’s proactive sales approach has spread its wings. Where once the focus was on London and the UK, Green & Fortune has gone global, exhibiting in Barcelona, Frankfurt, Munich and Las Vegas. Nugent describes this as a core part of the company’s marketing strategy, but like the foundations upon which the business was built, it’s all about playing the long game.
“For the first few years the returns have been OK,” he says. “But you have to have a presence for three to four years to get the traction going for the market to understand who you are.”
Green & Fortune’s versatility means it still has plenty of capacity to meet the needs of its growing events client list. That said, Nugent’s eyes and ears are always open to new expansion opportunities in the vein of Kings Place and Sea Containers. So what precisely is he looking for?
“Our skill base is in complicated, multifunctional businesses that have scale and sales opportunities within them,” he explains. “There are some great boutique or smaller-sized operators that we all know, like and respect. But our skill levels are better channelled into the larger-scale business. We want to be able to effect change and grow.
“There’s a reason that there’s this constant growth in the business. We can put our data knowledge of commercial sales in London,the UK and now international clients, to very good use now. Smaller businesses that don’t have that commercial aspect to them would be a waste of our talent, I would say.”
To mark Green & Fortune’s 10th birthday, the company has self-published a book that showcases its journey from fledgling startup to award-winning hospitality powerhouse and celebrates the diverse individuals and groups it has worked with along the way. But while it’s a reflection of everything the business has done to date, make no mistake – this is a business with an eye fixed firmly on its bright future.
Kings Place brands
• Kings Place Events
• Green & Fortune café
• Rotunda bar and restaurant
• Rotunda private dining room
Sea Containers brands
• Sea Containers Events
• Green & Fortune café
• Cucumber bar & bistro
• Sunset bar & café
• The Wren private dining room
Annual turnover £13m
Total events in 2017 Almost 500, even though Sea Containers Events only launched in March