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The Caterer

Des Gunewardena

12 May 2005
Des Gunewardena

Overall ranking: 30

Restaurateurs ranking: 6

Snapshot

Des Gunewardena is the chief executive officer of both Conran Holdings (the holding company for Sir Terence Conran's retail and restaurant businesses) and the Conran Group which also incorporates the Conran & Partners design and architectural practice.

Career guide

Gunewardena, who was born in Sri Lanka, qualified as a chartered accountant with Ernst & Young in 1981.

In the mid-1980s, he was responsible for financial planning at Heron International, a £1b group of companies active in property, trading and financial services in Europe and the USA. He then held a number of directorships at Heron operating companies.

Gunewardena started working with Conran in June 1991 and became chief executive officer in 1995.

What we think

Gunewardena has been Conran's right-hand man since 1991 and he has played a key role in building up the Conran restaurant, shop and design empire. He has helped Conran Holdings evolve from a business with just 100 staff and a single London restaurant and store into one with more than 2,000 staff, 35 restaurants (including four in Paris, Stockholm and New York) and seven Conran Shops in London, New York, Paris and Japan.

Conran views himself primarily as a designer and involves himself in the design and detail of new restaurants, right down to the style of ashtrays and the correct positioning of the spoons.

Since the role of managing director at Conran Restaurants disappeared when David Loewi quit the role in July 2003, all divisional directors now report directly to Gunewardena.

Conran's current restaurant empire began with Bibendum, which opened in London in 1987. It has since grown into a diverse collection of individual restaurants (excepting the six-strong Zinc Bar and Grill chain) that offer a spread of cuisines from British, European, French, Italian, and Spanish to Cuban and Japanese.

The early openings offered cheaper, more accessible dining-out opportunities without compromising on quality and they helped establish London's reputation as a gastronomic centre. The vast size of the gastrodomes at Butlers Wharf and Mezzo (which were coupled with add-ons such as flower markets, oil and spice shops and bakeries) paved the way for the rise of the gastropubs.

Conran Holdings also has a 50% stake in the Great Eastern hotel in London, where it operates seven restaurants and bars.

In the year to March 2004, Conran Holdings reported consolidated profits of £2.6m (or £1.9m after reorganisation and pre-opening costs) on turnover of £109m.

The UK and European restaurants performed particularly well, raising pre-tax profits by 11% to £4.1m and turnover by 4% to £54m. But the shops and the Guastavino's restaurant and club in New York struggled, and the group has joined forces with a top Manhattan restaurateur to run the site.

This year, Conran Restaurants will add new dining facilities at its existing venue at the Royal Exchange in London and it has also been checking out potential sites in Dublin. In spring 2007, it will open the first of a planned chain of up to 10 European-style restaurants in Japan in partnership with restaurant group Hiramatsu.

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