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Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview: Jillian Maclean

10 May 2013 by
Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview: Jillian Maclean

Jillian MacLean enjoyed a 20-year career at Mitchells & Butlers before becoming a successful entrepreneur, and has just completed a £30m management buyout of her company, Drake & Morgan. She tells Neil Gerrard why she is always working to stay one step ahead of the competition

You've just completed a £30m management buyout of your company, Drake & Morgan, backed by Bowmark Capital. What does this mean for the future of the business? Bowmark's investment allows us to significantly accelerate our expansion programme. Over the next few years, eight sites have been identified, starting with the opening of The Happenstance at St Paul's in June of this year. We will also explore, for the first time, locations outside the capital.

You made a fairly late start to the world of entrepreneurship after a successful career. What prompted you to make that change?
I spent most of my career at Mitchells & Butlers, where I worked in a number of different roles. I worked there for more than 20 years, and I had such a lovely time I didn't realise I had stayed so long. I then spent some time at Spirit Group, and set up Drake & Morgan in 2008. I have always wanted to set up my own business. I kept saying to myself, when I am 30 I will do it, then when I am 40 I will do it, and eventually my friend said to me: "your epitaph will be, ‘You never did it!'".

What was your inspiration behind starting Drake & Morgan?
I have lived and worked in London for a long time, and I felt there was a gap in the market for a casual, accessible, fresh, independent bar and restaurant. I thought some companies weren't providing what customers wanted. I thought gastropubs were brilliant, but that some were a bit overpriced, and I thought that coffee shops were small spaces that couldn't take the breakfast and brunch trade. I wanted to do big spaces with lovely design and great value food and drink at a great price point.

The timing of when you started, particularly given the central London locations you were in, was interesting given the onset of the recession. How did you feel about that?
The Chinese word for crisis means opportunity and, for me, any recession brings an opportunity. I think we started at a difficult time, but that makes you think differently; whether that is about funding, the offer, or the property acquisition, you have got to think differently and it makes you really creative. I think we started at a great time because, during any recession or downturn, people go out more and visit pubs and bars more frequently.

What marks you out from the competition?
I think we pay a lot of attention to detail. Before we open we find out what customers want by running focus groups and talking to them. The design is quite important to people, as is the food and drink offer and also the service. We are fanatical about understanding what our customer wants.

Each site has its own features. The Haberdashery, for example, will have its own florist. How do you decide on these extra elements? Do they perform well in their own right, or are they just about drawing people in?
People have a thirst for new things. For instance, our butchery classes are full, our flower arranging classes are popular. We also do a lot of tastings. With each new site we develop we try to understand what people want next. It's not just a bar and restaurant, people want other things, whether that is a deli, a flower stall, mixology classes or learning about cooking. We are doing a big piece of work on our brand proposition with Fraser Bradshaw, who runs the consultancy Saintnicks, and we are looking at the next three to five years in terms of customer trends.

Your customers appear to be mostly City workers. Is that the case for all your sites?

You get a lot of your design inspiration from your travels. What places have inspired you and shaped the way you run your business?
We get a lot of inspiration from the east coast of America. We visited Jean Georges' restaurants in New York and we sent some of our staff to Danny Meyer's restaurants - he wrote Setting the Table and I listen to his podcasts regularly. On the west coast of America we are influenced by Michael Mina's restaurants and the wonderful independents based in northern California and Sonoma. A lot of wineries have also inspired us.
More recently we have been in Asia, in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo, and we have seen some fantastic operators there - David Laris is a great operator from Australia who has done about 30 new concepts in Shanghai and across China. Tokyo blew our minds in terms of attention to detail in retail, and also its bars and restaurants.
I have also been inspired by the Unlisted Collection - they are wonderful. And London is a complete melting pot. I love Ed and Tom Martin, and also Russell Norman's Polpetto and Spuntino - there is so much going on. But the east and west coasts of America have been a particular joy for us. We do about 10 trips around the world each year, and they can include anything from a wine school in Bordeaux to a trip to Paris to look at new crockery.

Is it easy to obtain new sites?
When we started, there were quite a lot of sites available because we were at the height of the recession. What we don't ever want to do is overpay for a site. Given that a number of people have been in roll-out we thought that we couldn't afford to pay for some sites, so we have taken our time and that is why our roll-out has gone a bit slower than we would have anticipated. But it is better to take your time to do the right thing.
There is huge competition, but one of the things we like to do is talk to the landlord directly. The base of the building often isn't the most valuable, and landlords want it to have good use. A number of landlords like our offer because we trade throughout the day and seven days a week.

Have you formed relationships with any particular landlords?
We bought our sites for the Folly and the Anthologist from Arab Investments. Our first site was with Land Securities, and Heron Investments at the Heron Tower and AXA are our landlords for the next two sites.

Can this format work outside London?
At the moment we are a London-centric business, but yes, I think it can. It is certainly something we have considered. We had a look at Trinity in Leeds - but that was probably a bit too early for us - and also Glasgow and Spinningfields. So it is in our plans to consider feasibility outside London. We would definitely consider some of the affluent cities around the UK. If you look at Loch Fyne's model, they initally rolled out in university towns, so it is very similar to that.

Have you learned from any mistakes you have made within the past four or five years?
The biggest thing to have is self-belief. I never thought it wasn't going to work, and because we started in the recession, it was quite challenging getting our banking arrangements in place. I wish, looking back, that we had been a bit more bold about acquiring more sites. But I think probably my biggest mistake was when we opened the Folly, our fourth site. When we did our original business plan we prepared and recruited for 10 sites, but we actually got an agreement to do two sites. So we funded our first site, then we had to quickly downsize, and then we rapidly opened four units. The mistake was that I didn't put the head office structure in place.
It was a fine balance and I think it pushed the team and myself a bit too hard when we opened the Folly. We then spent a year putting all the infrastructure in place to get ready to be a high-growth company. I regret that because it put quite a lot of stress on our team. But then we went on in the next 18 months to put the right structure in place, so we are really in a good place now.

What advice would you offer to someone thinking about starting their own operation? I would say be confident in yourself, have self-belief and find the right people to partner with in terms of shareholders and investors - people you feel comfortable and confident with and who feel comfortable with you. I think you also have to analyse your cashflow - that is so critical at the start of a business and through the life of the business plan.
You should also take the time to find the right suppliers and partners, because your initial relationship with them is really important. They need to understand your business plan and see when things are working well or not. You also have to treat yourself properly. It is very hard work starting a business, and you have to be good to yourself and enjoy the journey.

Drake and Morgan's sites

â- The Refinery, Southwark Street

â- The Parlour, Canada Square Park

â- The Anthologist, Gresham Street

â- The Folly, Gracechurch Street

â- The Drift, Heron Tower, Bishopsgate

â- The Happenstance, St Paul's Churchyard
(opening June 2013)

â- The Haberdashery, Holborn 
(opening late 2013/early 2014)

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