Overall ranking: 54 (51 in 2012)
Restaurateur ranking: 17 (15 in 2012)
Robin Rowland was chief executive of Yo! Sushi, the business founded by Simon Woodroffe for 14 years before stepping down. But just two years later, when it was sold to Mayfair Equity Partners for £81m in 2015, he was back. Turnover at the business, which operates 76 restaurants, was £88m in 2016. Central Manhattan, New York and four international franchised sites have opened in Paris and Sydney airports, taking the total global estate to 93 sites.
In addition to its restaurants, it also runs a home delivery service called Yo! To Go and recently has been experimenting with other types of Asian cuisine, offering street food, poke and ramen at its venue at Boxpark in Croydon. More recently, Rowland has stepped down once again in favour of former PizzaExpress boss Richard Hodgson, but he remains a non-executive director.
What we think
Known as an operators' operator, Rowland has a focus on the five Ps: product, property, people, promotion and profit.
He joined Whitbread Inns in 1984 at the age of 22 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 worked his way through positions at several of the UK's major hospitality firms, including Grand Met Retail, Scottish & Newcastle (where he was restaurant operations director, running an estate of 80 food operations), and City Centre Restaurants (now the Restaurant Group).
Rowland was awarded an OBE for services to hospitality in 2016. As well as overseeing a 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 mere fact that Mayfair Equity saw the need to bring Rowland back off the bench shows just how integral he is to the success of the brand. At this point, he quickly rebranded the chain, and explained: "I felt it was getting a bit too kiddy. Even Disney-like. I wanted to make it more adult and show it takes food seriously."
Rowland has since negotiated Yo! Sushi through some choppy waters. In the UK there's Brexit, rising costs and the fierce level of competition in the casual dining market with which to contend. In 2016, the company made a £23m pre-tax loss, due in part to write-downs on US sites that didn't work out, which has resulted in a change in strategy when it comes to expansion there. More recently though, in November 2017, it paid £59m to acquire Canadian operator Bento in a deal that makes the combined business one of the biggest sushi firms outside Japan.
Rowland may not be in the driving seat anymore, following Hodgson's appointment, but his status as one of the most respected and wisest heads in the casual dining space at what is proving to be a turbulent time earns him the 21st place in our list this year.
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