As founder of the Inc Group, Frank Dowling heads up a company that operates eight restaurants and bars in Greenwich
, ranging from the fine-dining Spread Eagle, to The Trafalgar Tavern, which at 35,000sq ft lays claim to being the biggest purpose-built pub in the UK, as well as a further 18 sites, including four venues in the O2 Arena.
The group has a combined turnover of £18m, and has ploughed £12m into the Borough of Greenwich alone.
On building his empire quickly:
Growth has occurred in a relatively short space of time since Dowling, a former cement mixer in New York, bought his first UK site, the eight-table Bar Du Musée, in Greenwich in 2002. Within the first year turnover had risen from a modest £150,000 to £800,000, prompting him to look at more sites in the area. In the intervening four years four more sites were added, all of which have since at least quadrupled their turnover.
Much of this success can be attributed to Dowling’s sole protagonist role in the company. He says: “My dad said that if you need a partner you’re weak and I agree with him. One of you always has the ideas, the other always has the money”
"The company has always grown on the back of profits. And this means it is built for success. Every one of my properties is on the same lease so we don't have the option of failure."
On his decision not to make the Inc Group into a 'brand':
All of its historical sites remain true to their roots, with money spent restoring the Greenwich sites The Spread Eagle, The Admiral Hardy, Bar Du Musée and the Greenwich Park Bar and Grill, and there’s little connection to the parent company.
“This recession has decimated brands,” he says. “Some, such as Nando’s, will fly but I think the unbranded, bespoke places will stand the test of time. We have brought out the best in each site without losing the essential character that makes them unique. We pride ourselves on our bespoke identity.”
On his lack of interest in publicity:
Frank Dowling is not your typical restaurant entrepreneur. The American-born businessman doesn’t like talking to the press and he’s not partial to having his photo taken either. In fact, if Dowling had his way few people would know who he is, opting, as he does, to take a more behind-the-scenes role in his empire building.
“I hate the celebrity of what we do in the industry. I’m not clamouring to be on the front page of magazines. I don’t want a beer with my name on it. I’m a businessman not a celebrity.”
On his company's presence at the O2:
The Inc Group was the first tenant to sign at the 02 in 2007, a gamble given the inauspicious past of Mandelson’s big, white tent. Yet it’s a decision that has borne fruit. His venues account for a third of O2 operator AEG's annual rents.
“I believed in the 02 right from the start,” he says. “It was a calculated gamble. AEG is constantly coming up with ingenious ways of filling the space – it’s had Bodyworks and the Great British Music Experience. The risks are minimal.”
“On a high impact night you can do £25,000 in five hours, not a lot of places can do that,” says Dowling. Indeed, the 02 is a major contributor to The Inc Group’s footfall – two million people are expected to walk through its venues’ doors this year, a figure that would make many larger restaurant groups envious.
On future openings:
A fifth site opening at the 02 in the third quarter of the year will be a 20,000sq ft Elbow Room, the five-strong pool bar brand that Dowling snapped up in 2008, his first investment outside of Greenwich. The opening will coincide with a relaunch of the brand.
"“Elbow Room has a Shoreditch edge to it. We will keep that but we’re going to smarten it up a bit.”
The Inc Group’s latest investments, Battery, on the former Nobu-owned restaurant Ubon and The Attic, a cocktail-bar on the 48th floor of the Pan Peninsular building, both in burgeoning Canary Wharf, are more lavish affairs and mark yet another direction for Dowling.
Tompkins, an allday restaurant will open at the bottom of the Pan Peninsular next month and there are plans to build a balcony on the Thames-facing side of Battery for the summer months.
Movements further into the future include launching a hospitality boat to transport clients between his venues, building a 100-room hotel in Greenwich and tapping into the huge potential that the 2012 Olympics will bring to the area, although the future is by no means planned out.
“I’m not a five year plan kind of guy,” he says. “There’s a saying that you shouldn’t worry about the destination but enjoy the journey. That’s what I do, I take it as it comes.”
What’s unlikely to happen, however, is a move to more central London locations, or other parts of the UK – steps Dowling has so far ruled out. “You have to know your location. I’ve lived, breathed and stalked Greenwich. Lots of restaurants want to be in Mayfair or on Charlotte Street but it's not for us. I'm not putting the company at risk for vanity's sake. I want sanity not vanity."
Frank Dowling's timeline
1969 – Born in Virginia, US
1987 – Moves to New York working on a building site mixing cement and starts a lawn-cutting company
1989 – Sells his lawncutting business for $150,000
1989 – Moves to London as a construction developer at Canary Wharf
2002 – Buys first site, Bar Du Musée in Greenwich
2003-07 – Buys a number of other Greenwich sites
2007 – Becomes the first restaurant tenant in the new O2 Arena
2008 – Buys Elbow Room, its first venture outside Greenwich
2009 – Opens the Attic at the top of the Pan Peninsular
2010 – Opens Battery and Tompkins