Caterer and Hotelkeeper 100: Robin Rowland, Yo! Sushi

06 December 2012
Caterer and Hotelkeeper 100: Robin Rowland, Yo! Sushi

Overall ranking: 51 (ranked 31 in 2011)Restaurateur ranking: 15 (ranked 10 in 2011)

Robin Rowland - Snapshot
Robin Rowland is the chief executive of Yo! Sushi

Robin Rowland - Career guide
A 22-year-old Robin Rowland joined Whitbread Inns - in 1984 as area manager in charge of a mixed estate of 20 venues that included a Michelin-starred restaurant, a pilot Brewers Fayre - and a nightclub. He moved on to Grand Met Retail in 1988 to manage Old Orleans Restaurants, which he grew from five to 20 sites over the next four years.

When Scottish & Newcastle bought the business in 1992 Rowland became restaurant operations director, running an estate of 80 food operations that embraced country hotels, central London dining pubs and themed restaurants.

By his mid-thirties, keen to return to the London restaurant scene, Rowland joined City Centre Restaurants (now The Restaurant Group) in 1995 to turn around its Mexican chain, Nachos. He then spent the next 18 months as group franchising director seeking UK and international development partners.

Rowland joined the fledgling Yo! Sushi as chief executive in July 1999 and, in 2003, led a £10m management buyout of the company - backed by Primary Capital - when the group had 12 sites and sales of £12.5m. Rowland and his team then grew the number of restaurants rapidly to 30 by March 2008, which saw a second management buyout valued at over £50m by its current investors - Quilvest - and the Yo! Sushi senior management team, including Rowland.

Rowland was appointed as a non-executive director of pub operator Marston's - in September 2010 and Mexican fast-food chain Tortilla in September 2012.

In 2012, Yo! Sushi launched its first restaurants in USA and Norway, in Washington Union Station and Oslo Airport, respectively, and is looking for further franchise opportunities across America.

Robin Rowland - What we think
Since joining Yo! Sushi, Rowland has steered the group through some early poor site decisions - and brand extensions - that included the sale of two under-performing restaurants and the three Yo! Below bars.

He has overseen rapid expansion with the backing of private equity funding and secured franchise partners to test the concept overseas. He has also won over a string of challenging landlords - including Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Harrods, Railtrack and BAA - to position the brand in a number of high-profile travel and shopping locations.

The rapid expansion has not been driven in typical chain fashion, however. Rowland's ethos is to never build the same restaurant twice, with lighting, seating, video screens and uniforms all flexible depending on location. The food offering is also fluid, with the menu of about 90 dishes reviewed at least once a year.

Rowland has worked hard to drive customer loyalty, building a database of 250,000 people, each of whom has signed up to its Yo! Love Club and receives a monthly news e-letter. It seems to work, with about 20% of Yo! customers eating there once a week.

Rowland clearly drives Yo! Sushi's innovation, capturing the social media whirl of its customers. It was the first restaurant chain to adopt the Facebook Places system in the UK, launched in January 2011. Rowland said: "Constant innovation and cutting-edge technology, in addition to great food, is at the heart of Yo! Sushi…Our customers are the most technologically savvy in our sector so this deal will really turn them on. Plus, the opportunity to potentially reach over 26 million active Facebook users in the UK is unbelievably exciting."

Rowland is certainly not one to rest on his laurels. His aim to open at least five restaurants a year was comfortably met in the UK in 2012 - with new sites at locations including Gatwick Airport, London's Camden and Plymouth - while the group also launched its first sites in Norway and the USA.

The move into the US market was a long time coming, Rowland has admitted, but the company is no

w actively looking for other franchising opportunities to grow the brand stateside: "We have had many approaches from all sorts of companies in the USA over the years, but have held out for an outstanding partner with the operational and financial capability to grow at a pace. We are also in discussions with several other highly-qualified franchise partners for other US territories."

Robin Rowland's ranking in the 2011 Caterer and Hotelkeeper 100 >>

Mexican restaurant group Tortilla secures £2.25m from Santander for new openings >>

Yo! Sushi set to launch in the USA

Yo Sushi opens new site at Gatwick Airport

Yo! Sushi to open two more sites

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