The Caterer Interview: Zuleika Fennell, Corbin & King

27 March 2015 by
The Caterer Interview: Zuleika Fennell, Corbin & King

As chief operating officer of arguably the most revered restaurant group in the UK, Zuleika Fennell has the enviable task of executing the strategy of her visionary bosses, Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin. In her first major interview, she tells Amanda Afiya why empowering women is part of the plan

You have an unusual name, where does it originate from?

My mother was a dancer, trained in ballet, and my father David Fennell] was an actor in Crossroads, for his sins, and they met in the West End.

My name came from a play my father was doing at the time, based on the book Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm.

Where did you grow up?

You studied politics at university. Were you thinking of a different career?

All I had ever wanted to do was go into the theatre. I trained as a singer in school and university, and was actually at school with one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's sons. In fact, he came to a school production and saw me there and wanted to pull me out of school to go into musical theatre.

Both of my parents said that over their dead bodies was I going to drop out of education and go into musical theatre. They kept saying to me, just do your GCSEs, and I did those, and then they said, "Well, just do your A levels. You're a singer, so you can come back to it at any time", so I did my A levels, and then they said "Well, you've done so well now, why don't you do a degree?"

When I finished university, I thought I'd kind of missed the boat on the singing thing, although looking back I don't think that was necessarily the case. But by that stage I had become so turned on academically that I just wanted to get into the working world and make my way. Plus, the competition in the stage and theatre and music worlds is so fierce and I think when you are a young girl, suffering from confidence problems, the entertainment industry probably isn't the right one to go into. With hindsight, my parents were probably steering me in the right direction.

Why do you think you had confidence problems?

As a younger woman, I think I was a really anxious person. As a child, I was never good with change and it made me very unsettled.

My parents moved around a lot - they bought new businesses, turned them around and sold them, so we were uprooted regularly. I also grew up with three incredibly confident siblings who were always fighting for attention.

After your degree you went to Australia.

I considered Westminster and the world of politics and, oddly enough, when I look at the future, maybe 10 years from now, it might be a nice second career, but at the time it seemed like such a back-stabbing environment; a really harsh, male one. So I decided to take a year off and go to Australia to do a bit of travelling and see what I wanted to do when I came back. But of course, with my hospitality background, I ended up moving around hotels in Australia for five years.

So why did you leave Australia and, more specifically, hotel operations?

The only reason I got out of the industry on the ops side was because I was unlucky enough to be a passenger in a very bad car crash. I was an inch-and-a-half taller than I am now - I crushed three vertebrae in my back through a terrible whiplash injury. I was in rehab for four or five months and I'm still having treatment now, 15 years later. I could no longer physically do those hours on the floor, but I really wanted to stay in the industry.

So I examined my life and realised that all the bits I had adored about my general management focus had been the people, the training, the learning and development, the pastoral care, and helping other people to grow and develop their careers. So I came back to the UK and decided to do another degree: a masters in human resource management.

Does it disappoint you that governments past and present haven't done more to recognise tourism and the impact it makes on the GDP?

To date, countries like Australia and the USA recognise the value hospitality brings to the economy and gives it the free rein to stretch its feet. We still have this awful British attitude that hospitality is something people go into when they can't go into anything else, and yet, when I look at our organisation alone, we have some of the brightest minds working there.

I think the border and immigration agency's restriction on recruiting from around the world is utterly short-sighted. We are not investing enough in UK colleges in terms of high-quality catering and hospitality qualifications because we don't see it as a valuable industry, and yet we can't recruit the specialism we need from overseas.

There isn't another industry in the world that offers the diversity of career opportunities that hospitality does, and the amount of labour is dwindling constantly as more and more high-quality businesses open up. The talent pool is so much smaller than it ever has been, and if we're not investing at the bottom and we're not opening up the international recruitment avenues at the top, how will the problem ever get fixed?

On your return to the UK, did you immediately join Corbin & King?

I saw an advert for a personnel assistant with Corbin & King while studying for my masters. I went to an interview at the Wolseley and I remember walking into that incredible space. I had been out of London when the Ivy became successful, along with Le Caprice and J Sheekey's, so I had no real idea who Chris Corbin and Jeremy King were or how influential they were in the industry.

I remember in the interview this very tall gentleman glided over to the table and started asking me questions about my CV. I realised he was the owner and was so impressed that he had read my CV and was interviewing me for a personnel assistant role. I had interviewed at other high-profile restaurant companies and hadn't even come close to meeting the people who actually ran them.

Ninoska Leppard, who was then the head of personnel and is again today, thought I was overqualified for the role, but she then decided to change the structure of the department so she could work part-time and be with her young children. She approached me with a view to me running the department. The Wolseley opened in October 2003 and I joined in February 2004.

How did your career progress?

Rapidly and unexpectedly. Within two months of my joining the company, Nin went down to working two days a week and then, within about a year, I'd been made head of personnel. Two years after that I was asked to join the board as their first ever HR director. Just over three years ago, when the company was expanding, Chris and Jeremy felt the need to bring in a chief operating officer to help them run the business. They approached me early on - I think in their eyes, my ops background, my involvement in many aspects of the business beyond the HR remit and my
deep understanding of their philosophy made me a suitable candidate.

In the first instance, I rejected them. They brought in someone on a short-term basis and when the role became available again they approached me a second time. I still had some concerns: as an HR director I had a great relationship with them and I had complete autonomy.

I was worried that working much more closely with them and within a remit in which they were very much the experts I would be out of my depth and end up being micro-managed and possibly failing. They assured me that was not the case and it has proven to be so.

How does Corbin & King compare as an employer to anything that you had experienced before?

I had been bullied by a male general manager at a previous company and so I had always thought men in powerful positions in hospitality were there to be feared and respected in equal measure. I just couldn't understand why the owners of this company kept coming into my department every morning to ask my advice on what we should do for our staff.

For the first time ever I was involved at a collaborative level with senior male managers for whom I had such respect. When I first started, I used to watch them walk the restaurant floors and walk their kitchens and was so blown away by the interest they took in their staff. I had only ever worked for people for whom the bottom line and the profit was the primary objective, and these two were turning it all on its head and saying "our staff and our customers' satisfaction is the most important thing to us; making money is not our starting point".

That is still the case today and it undoubtedly accounts for the immense loyalty our people feel towards Chris and Jeremy.

What's a typical week?

I work very closely with the group ops director and all the general managers and the head chefs report into us. I try to get into each of the businesses twice a week and I have a weekly meeting with each of our GMs and head chefs to review the performance of their business and to address any issues. We cover anything, from sales, profit, payroll, PR and marketing, health and safety, personnel, maintenance and reservations.
I retain a specific interest in HR across all the businesses, and see my main focus as making sure Chris and Jeremy's vision is being executed throughout the organisation.

I ensure that the people who have the responsibility for delivering that vision on a daily basis have the support they need to get it done, whether that's operations, personnel, marketing and PR, or private dining and events. It can be challenging having entrepreneurial bosses, because everything Chris and Jeremy do is intuitive - it's by touch and taste and feel - and that's amazing, but somebody needs to go around behind entrepreneurs, putting all the structure and the processes in place to make sure their vision is being executed correctly.

Having removed yourself operationally from the hours you were doing in hotels, what sort of hours are you doing now?

I am probably doing more. I confess to working too many hours at times, coupled with a lengthy commute from Surrey, and it can be quite a strain, but I tend to have quite a lot of meetings in the early evenings at the restaurants and operational meetings often start early in the morning. I have a very indulgent husband, but he does take my phone and laptop away from me at lunchtime on Saturdays until about 5pm on Sundays.

I'm working hard on getting some more balance in my life at the moment. It's something I really wanted to share with the men and women in our business. You can climb the ladder all you like, but you mustn't forget that family and relationships should be the most important thing, and I think we do lose sight of that in our industry. I'm 39 years old and we have been trying for a family for many years. I didn't think twice when I was younger about putting my career first and getting to family at a later stage, but I am now finding it's not as easy as I thought.

So I want to advise women to do it while it is still easy and they are still young enough.

I don't think anyone should feel that they have to choose a family over a career or vice versa - you can do both, just make sure you think about the timing.

You held a conference for the women in your business at the end of last year. What inspired you to do that?

The proportion of women to men across the company has fluctuated, but it's going in the wrong direction now, without a doubt. I think part of that is because of our high staff retention; there's probably an older workforce in our company than in others in the restaurant business. Consequently, many of our middle management women are going off and having children and not returning to the workforce and we need to understand why.
I was struck by the many senior male faces at Corbin & King, and I started to probe to find out why women had not been selected for management roles within the business. I was alarmed by some of the replies, which clearly indicated that many of the middle management men were uncomfortable with the different management styles and demands of female colleagues climbing the ranks.

My reaction was that this was just outrageous in this day and age, and if we don't do something about this now, these outdated attitudes will keep perpetuating themselves.

I wake up every day and I pinch myself at how lucky I have been that I had two gentlemen who believed in me 100% and gave me the opportunities they did, and I thought, it's time for me to do this for other people now. And that was literally the trigger for the conference.

I had been on holiday in Mexico and read Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In, and I thought, there is an opportunity for me to do something here. I kept looking at our industry and I saw women on reception or in pastry, housekeeping and HR, and I realised that we needed to create more role models. For the first time in the history of the company, we have our first female GM. I anticipate that, in the next six months, 50% of our GMs will be women - not because they are women, but because they will be the best people for the jobs. I want us to achieve the same thing in the kitchens. My belief is that unless we can create much better role models, then what are the other women going to aspire to be?

I don't have any hopes to change the world, but if I can change the attitudes of the women in our business, that will be a huge step. I think the conference has done that. It's energised our women to push themselves forward.

Do you think women are their own worst enemies?

Definitely, I think that women are more concerned with being liked and they put up a lot of their own barriers. I know that I used to put up 100 excuses as to why something wouldn't work before I'd even tried it - it's all to do with a lack of confidence. A woman will look at a role and think,

"Oh no, I've only got 30% of those skills, I'm not going to go for it", while a man will think "Woo hoo! I've got 30% of
those skills, I'm going to go for it!"

It's a dichotomy between men and women. To use Sandberg's term, women lean out - they choose family over career and don't think the two can be complementary and equally rewarding. Women wait to be noticed and recognised for doing a good job, rather than pushing themselves forward for the next opportunity or promotion.

I was incredibly lucky, I had two gentlemen who did notice me and forced me to challenge myself and move up the corporate ladder.

So now I, and some of the other people who helped with the Aspiring Women Conference, are mentoring our female employees and approaching women in our business who we know can do these jobs and saying "Why haven't you applied for these roles?" We just give them a gentle nudge.

What positives do they bring to the dynamics of the workforce?

Oddly enough, the thing I have just criticised women for is actually also one of their greatest strengths. Because they are so empathetic, they think about the knock-on effect of decisions.

If you can team up a confident or brash man who is happy to break the mould and challenge things with a women who can think about the potential outcomes, you've got the most successful team ever.

Women are very adaptable and men can be more rigid. Women are very intuitive and intuition in the restaurant world is very important - we need to anticipate what our staff and customers' needs are.

Clearly you are inspired massively by Chris and Jeremy, but who else do you look up to?

Karen Jones, who set up the Café Rouge empire, is so smart and such a tough businesswoman, but she does it with such gentle persuasion and bags of emotional intelligence - she is an enormous advocate of women in business.

I really admire Carrie Wicks at Firmdale, who seems to have boundless energy, an unbelievable eye for detail and her teams are hugely engaged and inspired by her.

I also admire Sebastian Fogg at Hix Restaurants for his empowering leadership style and charisma. His people will go up and over the trenches for him, every service, every day.

Gillian Thomson is someone that I have only got to know well in the past year. When I look at where she has come from and the diversity of the things she has done, with some of the toughest bosses ever known and in some of the most male-dominated arenas, all of which she seems to have sailed through with such good grace and humour, I have so much respect. She is very humble and I see her in our organisation in her current role with ACT Clean and she's just phenomenal.

How do you feel the launch of the Beaumont has gone for the business?

The hotel world was a completely new domain for the company, but it was a long-held dream for Chris and Jeremy to enter that world. We already had a number of people in the organisation with considerable experience in the world of hotels, including myself, and we recruited a strong team to supplement it, led by Paul Brackley.

While we were inevitably a little nervous at times, and obviously wondered how the entry of these two restaurateurs into the hotel world would be perceived, I feel the launch has gone incredibly well and am immensely proud. The vision for what the Beaumont should be was so strong and defined and was well-delivered and executed. The positive feedback we had has been extremely gratifying.

Finally, what's on the horizon for the group?

Corbin & King has a new restaurant project due to launch on Islington Green this summer, and while there are no more specific plans for expansion, it is no secret that they like to establish restaurants in neighbourhoods that have invited them or encouraged them to go there.

The hotel world remains hugely enticing to them and is a division that may well expand over the coming years but, as always, expansion, whether in hotels or restaurants, is always led by finding the elusive right property in the right location.

Corbin & King - the portfolio

The Wolseley

  • Capacity 140 in the restaurants, with a private dining room seating 14
  • Opened November 2003
  • Address 160 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EB

The Delaunay

  • Capacity 150 in the restaurant and two private dining rooms seating eight and 14
  • Opened December 2011
  • Address 55 Aldwych, London WC2B 4BB

Brasserie Zédel

  • Capacity 240
  • Opened June 2012
  • Address 20 Sherwood Street, London W1F 7ED [1.
    1. Colbert"> Capacity** 118 in the restaurant with exterior seating for 22
  • Opened October 2012
  • Address 50-52 Sloane Square, London SW1W 8AX


  • Capacity 100
  • Opened May 2014
  • Address 50 Marylebone High Street, London W1U 5HN

The Beaumont

  • Rooms 73
  • Opened September 2014
  • Address Brown Hart Gardens, London W1K 6TF

The Colony

Zuleika Fennell's CV

1994-1997 BA Hons in politics, Durham University (2:1)

1997-2002 Various roles in guest relations, food and beverage and general management with Hilton and Hyatt Hotels around Australia

2002-2004 Admin temp roles in the City of London.

2004-2005 Personnel administrator, Corbin & King

2005-2007 Head of personnel and development, Corbin & King

2007-2012 Director of human resources, Corbin & King

2012-to date Chief operating officer, Corbin & King

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