Winners profile: La Tasca

01 June 2006
Winners profile: La Tasca

The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards were launched last year to recognise the very best employers in the British hospitality industry.

For those businesses already demonstrating HR best practice, our awards offer a chance to prove they are employers of choice. For companies seeking to improve their employment practices, they showcase some businesses to learn from. And for jobseekers, they offer a means of benchmarking prospective employers against the best in the country.

Our search for the winners of the Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards 2007 is now on, in association with recruitment specialists The People Tree. Here we profile La Tasca, joint overall winner in last year's awards.

All the president's men?
"Motivation", former US president and military commander Dwight Eisenhower once said, "is the art of getting people to do what you want
them to do because they want to do it."

Eisenhower would probably have admired the level of motivation shown by La Tasca's management team. But then, with 64 restaurants, four formats (including a new leisure park brand), expansion into the USA, 14 development sites in the pipeline, and an innovative management profit-sharing scheme, it is no wonder that they are fired up at the moment.

The Spanish-style casual dining chain, which floated on the Stock Exchange last year, now includes a La Tasca in Baltimore and five new upmarket La Vina restaurants. This April it opened a new bar, grill and smokehouse brand, Sam and Maxie's, designed to target the cinema and leisure park market, in Stevenage.

The company is due to report its full-year results (to 30 April) on 4 July, but reported a 92% rise in pre-tax profits (to £2.7m) at its half-year results in December and a 51% hike in full-year profits last year. Not bad for a company that has been going for little more than a decade (the first La Tasca opened in Manchester in 1993).

Good management
What La Tasca has proved, according to Greg Feehely, leisure analyst at Altium Securities, is that, however good your business model or the gap you have identified in the market, it is nothing without good management and execution.

"You just have to look at the track record of chief executive James Horler," Feehely says. "He is emulating what he did at The Restaurant Group, where he took Frankie & Benny's from two units to 65."

In addition, the appointment of Mary McLaughlin as chief operating officer has freed Horler to focus on new concepts and the strategic end of the business, Feehely argues.

Speak to Horler himself, and it is clear that, while the financials and the nuts and bolts of running the business are important, it is managing and enthusing the people around him that he enjoys most.

"You can have staff working for poor managers, and they will not do the job. You can have the same staff working for a good manager and they'll do it," he says.

"That is what keeps me awake at night - getting those people fired up, trained and rewarded," he adds. "If you can run a business in a way that is open and honest, people respond."

Alongside the managing partner profit-sharing scheme (see left), the company operates a range of financial and training and development incentives for its 1,500 employees, HR manager Gavin Wetton explains.

"We do comprehensive inductions for all our staff, there is an internal career development programme, holidays are linked to length of service and there are regular appraisals," Wetton says.

"There is also an e-learning platform that staff can use for things such as literacy and numeracy. As many of our employees are Spanish or, increasingly, from Eastern Europe we are looking at helping them to learn English."

The "people" policies are clearly working: last year 44% of junior manager appointments were internal promotions.

Big and small
"We think of ourselves as a company that thinks big and acts small," Horler adds.

In other words, while growing and expanding rapidly, Horler wants to retain the intimate relationships of a much smaller operation when it comes to people development.

With La Vina, the thinking was "to create a premium casual dining brand that sat alongside La Tasca", Horler says. "We had to make sure that we could also put another La Tasca there if we wanted to. But I also thought there was a big enough Spanish market there for both brands."

He continues: "La Vina has an altogether different feeling, menu and customer base. La Tasca is primarily lots of parties and groups, with a very vibrant atmosphere. La Vina has fewer groups, more tables and is a bit more intimate."

"It is a bit like the relationship between an Ask and a Zizzi," Feehely says. "They are complementary but are not a substitute for one another. In Liverpool, for instance, there is a La Tasca and a La Vina less than half a mile from each other and both have performed strongly."

The thinking behind the launch of Sam and Maxie's was clear enough. "We felt neither La Tasca nor La Vina was best suited to the leisure park business," Horler says.

"The leisure park market is changing slightly," Feehely explains. "It used to be very much about going to the cinema and then having a meal; now it is much more family friendly, with easier parking. You get people visiting it independently of going to the cinema."

New openings?
The La Tasca brand itself, currently opening at a rate of about 14 units a year, probably has the potential for maybe 50 to 100 sites, Feehely predicts.

Its opening rate is fast, but not so fast that it cannot be controlled, he adds. La Vina, which has five sites, has the potential for maybe 50, he says.

As to further expansion,
La Tasca has looked at possible acquisition targets but has yet to find the right candidate and so for the time being will continue with its organic growth, Feehely believes.

This is a view backed by Horler himself. "We have looked at acquisitions but have not found anything that is at the right price. We now have four different businesses, so it is about building those."

Other HR initiatives in the pipeline, Wetton says, include developing a "quality time off" programme for managers, where they can take, perhaps, a Friday or Saturday night off or have a long weekend away from the business to recharge their batteries.

"It is easy to burn people out in this business, by putting them on six days a week or stupid hours," he explains.

Another advantage from a people perspective, Horler says, is that the head office team are only, on average, about five years older than the local, now 32-strong, management team. That means there is a greater understanding of where they are coming from, their needs and the challenges they are facing.

Employees, too, are rewarded and paid as determined by the managing partner, along with a "very generous" gratuity policy.

"Hospitality in Britain, unlike on the Continent," Wetton adds, "is often not perceived as a career but as a stop-gap. It is important that we work very hard to shout about it and make people aware that it is a really good career."

La Tasca's Managing Partner profit-sharing scheme
The La Tasca managing partner profit sharing scheme has been in place since June 2002, and was launched at the instigation of the company's managers, James Horler says.

"We asked a few of them beforehand what they wanted - did they want a yearly bonus, company car, shares? They said no, they wanted a frequent cash return based on their performance," he explains.

The scheme works by giving managers a much lower basic salary, which is then topped up with a percentage of the restaurant's net operating profit, which is uncapped and paid monthly. The fixed percentage, agreed from the outset, varies from site to site.

The programme has also helped hugely with retention of managers. "It is now quite rare to lose a managing partner, and when
they have left it is often because they wanted to start their own business. This scheme has given them the confidence to do that," Horler says.

The scheme is constantly evolving through feedback from the managing partners, adds HR director Gavin Wetton. In February, for instance, a workshop was held in Birmingham for about 20 partners to brainstorm how the scheme might be improved in the future.

"The programme has made our managers aspire to managing their own business. We are attracting more entrepreneurial types and giving people more autonomy in managing their business," Wetton adds.

How to enter Do you run a successful business and treat your staff well? Why not get greater recognition for your achievements? Enter the Caterer and Hotelkeeper Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards 2007. Go to www.caterersearch.com/bestplaces and complete the application form.

2007 AWARD CATEGORIES

  • Hotel chains with 1-10 sites
  • Hotel chains with 11 or more sites
  • Restaurant, bar chains with 1-10 sites
  • Restaurant, bar chains with 11 or more sites
  • Contract catering companies
  • Public sector
  • Individual unit
  • Hospitality supplier company

The closing date for entries is 31 October 2006.

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