New kids on the block

Chopstix marketing director, Rob Burns
17/10/2017 - 12:26
New bosses all want to take their company to new levels but it’s never easy, as Andrew Pring reports.

Taking over as a new boss is an exciting moment for any ambitious manager. But even for serial high-flyers, the challenges of a new appointment can be daunting, especially in the fiercely competitive casual dining industry. All the more so when the good days of unceasing expansion and ever-better like-for-likes seem to be on the wane.

One man who’s perhaps found it tougher than he can ever have imagined is Andy McCue, who took over as CEO from Danny Breithaupt at TRG in late 2016 after the previous darling of the sector had issued several profit warnings.

McCue was parachuted in from Paddy Power Betfair and set about trying to win back lost consumers through a programme of value offers, which he described as “restoring our value credentials via an improved price architecture.”

Said McCue in Spring 2017: “Our initial responses include developing an improved customer proposition, more closely aligned to the requirements and preferences of ‘families’ and those ‘out & about’; launching a new weekday value menu at £9.95, the lowest price for five years, to be competitive during non-peak times, whilst improving the choice and quality of offering; reinstating some previously popular dishes; and re-engineering and testing a new core menu in readiness for launch this month, which will offer our customers substantially better value.”

No one, least of all McCue, thought it was going to be easy. As CGA Peach noted at the time: “Sentiment has noticeably cooled versus a year ago. Expectations of visit frequency have been lowered – the balance of opinion expects a slight decrease.” With Brexit impacting on sterling and food inflation starting to raise its ugly head, the pressure really was on.

Unfortunately for McCue and TRG, the menu redesign failed to impress customers, and in March this year UBS analysts branded it too complicated and still too expensive. Despite TRG cutting its prices by 6%, UBS said branded pub chains were still on average 22 per cent cheaper and labelled the stock a “sell.”

Since then, the share price has continued to fall, and in early October had sunk to 302p – down 96p from when McCue joined and a shocking decline of well over £4 from its glory days back in 2015 when the price reached 736.9p at its height.

Joining a company that’s commanded the heights but is now slipping fast is clearly a massive challenge. Rupert Farquharson, who’s just joined pub and hotel operator Provenance Inns as managing director, has the opposite problem – how to make a successful company even more successful.

Farquharson has joined from Norfolk brewer Woodforde’s, and has also previously worked at Adnams, Bass Brewers, Diageo and the Wine Society. He says: “Provenance Inns has established a strong reputation as a leading hospitality operator, both across our trading area and nationally, and the opportunity to be part of this hugely professional team, both at senior level and in each of the pubs and hotels, is wonderful.

“In a market where consumers have more choice than ever, and the economic outlook is likely to challenge us, I’ve had to hit the ground running. However, I’m confident that we will continue to take Provenance Inns from strength to strength.”

Provenance operates seven businesses across North Yorkshire, with a strong locally-sourced-food emphasis.

Farquharson was attracted by this focus, calling it “an interesting area to develop”, but was still careful to ensure as far as he could that he and the company would be sympathique. “Before joining, I did a lot of background research on Chris Blundell, the founder and chairman, to make sure we would work well together and complement each other.

“I also looked closely at the company. I was impressed by the quality and investment that’s gone into the group. I saw the team here was full of excellent people, working really hard. I could see they were people who wanted to engage with their customers, and ensure they were genuinely happy with their experience. None of that ‘How’s your meal, then?’ type of conversation.”

Farquharson says Provenance is “very entrepreneurial, and has been growing very rapidly” and feels his experience of bigger companies will prove valuable. “I can help with the next stage of its growth, managing processes and costs more effectively.

“It’s also about getting the brand right, and disseminating it, and communicating to customers in the right tone. That means developing a real clarity about the customer. This is a branded business, and my experience at Guinness means I know about brands.”

Yorkshire may be an affluent county, but it’s not immune to the current economic travails. “It is getting a bit tighter in Yorkshire too,” says Farquharson. “We’re working on a new menus at the moment that will focus on better value dishes, Monday to Thursday, with cheaper cuts of meat, and more accessible prices. And we’ll support it with specials throughout the week. We’re also making Sunday lunch, which is one of our main selling points, better and better.”

He adds: “There’s also a lot of food inflation at the moment – fish is particularly difficult. So I’m all over our suppliers, looking for the best deal we can get.”

A challenge, then, but one he’s more than up for. “There really are some good people here. I want to guide and support them to reach their full potential.”

Another senior figure joining a company pursuing an ambitious growth strategy is Rob Burns, who’s just become Marketing Director at Chopstix Noodle Bar, which claims to be the country’s fastest growing accessible Oriental food brand, with 42 company-owned and 32 franchised sites across the UK.

With a career spanning three decades, Rob joins from Harry Ramsden’s where he held a similar position. Prior to that, he held senior marketing posts both in-house and within agencies, working with brands including Burger King, Little Chef and Costa Coffee.

Chopstix is currently engaged in franchise negotiations with several high profile, multi-site operators and already counts leading motorway service operators Welcome Break and Applegreen amongst its growing base of franchise partners. Comments the new Marketing Director:  Research indicates that Asian influenced foods are amongst the fastest growing in the UK so with its contemporary look and feel, excellent product offering and mass market appeal, Chopstix is perfectly positioned to quickly become brand leader in this field.

“Up until this point, the main focus of the business has been growth and as a brand Chopstix has been exceptionally successful in achieving this objective, doubling its outlet count to over 70 stores in less than 18 months. Now as well as continuing to increase store presence, the time is right to increase brand awareness amongst potential multi-site franchisees, as well as the public at large.

“To that end, the marketing strategy we are devising supports the growth ambitions of the brand whilst ensuring that consumer understanding of, and engagement with, the brand is increased.”

For Burns, the key starting point has been to gain an overview of the brand’s existing marketing processes, practices and programmes.

He says: “While the role of Chopstix Marketing Director is a new one, I have to say that many of the strategies in place have been and continue to be extremely successful for the brand so these will remain. My role right now is ‘filling in the gaps’ to broaden the audiences with whom we are engaged and ensure that the overall strategy and marketing tactics we employ are clear, robust and relevant.

“As a business grows and develops you have to strengthen your team and resource, and it’s important that we do so within the marketing department to augment the quality people we already have at our disposal. The important thing is that everyone understands their role and rises to the challenge of taking Chopstix to the next level.”

In the next 12 months, says Burns, the company expects to have signed franchise agreements with at least two new multi-site partners, and be well on its way to achieving its next milestone of 150 stores by 2019. “I’d also like to think that through the various communication platforms and channels that we will deploy, the brand will become a destination of choice for the consumer.”

Burns says his background complements his new role well. “I’ve worked both in-house and within agencies for over 20 years, specialising primarily in food and drink brands, at differing stages in their lifecycle. This has given me a good insight into the wide variety of differing marketing strategies available within the sector and provided me an inherent understanding of the most appropriate one to adopt, depending on the stage at which a brand currently sits. This is extremely important for a brand like Chopstix, which compared to many others is still a relative newcomer. My proven ability to lead a team and implement the most appropriate courses of action, coupled with my wide range of relevant industry contacts creates the ideal platform to take Chopstix to its natural position in the marketplace.”

Naturally, he’s positive about the company’s prospects. “The market has remained fairly buoyant in recent times, but the uncertainty of Brexit may lead to recruitment issues in certain regions. In addition, the increasing popularity of home-delivery services and continually rising rental expectations, may well present challenges for some in the sector. However, I believe that Chopstix with its quality fast and efficient approach to the ever-changing consumer is ideally positioned to flourish and grow in what will always be a challenging market place.”

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