Ian Neill

12 May 2005
Ian Neill

Overall ranking: 38

Restaurateurs ranking: 8


Ian Neill has been chief executive of the hugely successful and fast-growing Japanese-style noodle bar chain Wagamama since 1997.

Career guide

His thirty-plus years in the hospitality trade started at Berni Inns, followed by stints working for Esso Motor Hotels (now Scandic Hotels), Granada's motorway service areas and retailer J Sainsbury.

In 1978, Neill joined PizzaExpress to set up its franchising operations under the man he considers his mentor, company founder Peter Boizot. He rose to become director and general manager at PizzaExpress before leaving to become managing director of branded restaurants at Rank Organisation between 1989 and 1993.

In 1995 he was hired as a consultant to drive Wagamama's expansion plans and in 1996 led the sale of 33 franchised restaurants (of which he owned three) back to PizzaExpress.

What we think

Short-sightedness may have thwarted Yorkshire-born Neill's earliest ambition to become a navigation officer in the merchant navy, but he has retained a clear view of his journey through the hospitality trade. He has steered Wagamama's heady rise from just two London restaurants in 1998 to a hugely successful chain with 38 branches by the close of 2004.

Wagamama's innovative blend of healthy, Oriental cuisine served in a minimalist and high-tech setting was praised as "an extremely attractive, sexy thing" and "classless and accessible" by the judges of the 2001 Cateys, who voted Neill Group Restaurateur of the Year.

Neill brought in the venture capitalists who bought out Wagamama founder Alan Yau in 1997 to kick-start the group's methodical yet meteoric growth.

"You've got to get your foundations, margins and starting levels right so you can get a great service and not spend so much money, Then you've got to start replicating it and deliver on all those things that you know, again and again," Neill says of his approach.

Neill credits his first employer, Berni Inns, for teaching him the importance of good systems and value for money. And, almost from the start, he has applied the franchising expertise he built up at PizzaExpress to take Wagamama into six overseas countries by early 2005.

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