Tom Byng likes to keep things simple. “Just talk in plain English, your teams will understand that,” is the approach taken by the Byron founder, when he’s not too busy taking photos of ‘wet floor’ signs or hand dryers and posting them on Twitter, that is.
“We are not seasoned restaurant chain executives. Our mantra is to keep talking common sense,” he adds, pointing out that the team regularly play rounds of ‘bullshit bingo’. “I caught Fred (Smith, head of food) saying ‘of course in terms of future-proofing the menu’ the other day. I said ‘chef, there needs to be a forfeit for that.’”
Two years on from the sale of the burger chain by the then Cinven-backed Gondola to private equity group Hutton Collins in a deal valued at around £100m, Byng is at pains to show that the company he set up in 2007 is still as down to earth as ever. Seasoned he may not yet be, but successful he certainly is.
Byron recently opened its 52nd site and plans 15 openings a year going forward, with an international play on the cards at some point. It also posted an impressive turnover of £55.3m in its latest financial year. Life under Hutton Collins has proved fruitful.
Byng says he had about 12 hours to reflect on the change of ownership, which brought over-arching feelings of relief and excitement. “The relief was knowing you could get on with your day job again. Anyone who has been involved in a process will tell you that, no matter how hard you try to not make it a distraction, it will be. It takes up a lot of time and energy.
"The excitement was that we had the opportunity to continue the story with a dedicated partner rather than being a small cog in a bigger wheel. We were a shiny toy in a new toy box with people 100 per cent focused on our plans.”
Hutton Collins seems the ideal partner, providing plenty of experience in the sector with, as Byng points out, the right kind of businesses, not least Wagamama and PizzaExpress.
“They understood the business and the opportunity. They are really easy to work with,” he says. “It is incredible how often they are found eating burgers in restaurants. I am almost in awe of their commitment to that! We have no problems in terms of funding and they have been hugely supportive of me as a founder/chief executive.”
He admits there was an element of the Byron team wanting to prove itself beyond the Gondola umbrella. “One of the things we had to prove as part of the sales process was how fully standalone we could be from a structural perspective,” he says. “Culturally, Byron has always stood alone. In the first six months that was what Hutton Collins was most focused on. Six months later they turned around and said it was a lot smoother than they thought it would be.
That was a compliment to us as a team.
“You have to give credit to the good parenting of Harvey (Smyth, chief executive of Gondola) and Gondola for a lot of that. We built the business entrepreneurially but with much firmer foundations than another team might have enjoyed.”
The group operated 34 sites when it was sold; it now has a full deck of 52 restaurants, each denoted by a playing card. The company is now working on a new deck and Byng is rightly proud of the “steady, proper growth” that Byron has undergone.
In terms of changes to how Byng works since the Hutton Collins deal, he says it is more about the team now. Byron has strengthened its board of directors with recent appointments including Mike Williams, former people development director at Village Urban Resorts, as people director, and Amanda Royston, a former marketing and brand consultant and development coach, as marketing director.
“That has allowed me to really focus on the vision, a dead simple, razor-sharp vision,” he says. “It has also allowed me to become a chief storyteller and visit all the restaurants as much as I can. My three real strong points are people, food and customers. I have to go out to inspire and, as the founder, I have the credibility to do that. It is really important for senior management to be visible to the people who actually deliver the experiences that make the business work.”
Playing for the team
Byng says his role over the past two years has also been about developing a world class team that is not just set up to go from 60 to 70 to 80 restaurants but to go beyond 100 sites. “It is also to have a relentless focus on standards and consistency driven by great people. Having great people is about the culture in the business and answering the question ‘what is your business about?’ Then how you recruit them, train them, reward them and develop them. It is not rocket science in terms of principle, but putting it into practice is key. We are relentless about making sure that happens. The energy around that can never drop.”
Byron doesn’t struggle to attract staff, but it’s what it does with them once they are part of the company that has seen staff turnover for managers come in at 25 per cent, against the industry average of 66 per cent.
Managers at Byron are put on a six-to-seven week training programme, with the company choosing one restaurant as a training centre within each area. Recruitment for new restaurant teams at floor and back of house level starts as far out as 10 weeks before an opening.
Staff are sent to London for two weeks to see how the business works and to get trained there.
“We want them to come and see and feel the brand,” says Byng. “We always aim for 50 per cent of a management team in a new opening to be existing Byron lifers. The progression through the business is not talking about being a waiter, then junior manager, then general manager, then ops manager. Actually it’s not about that at all. It is about building 20-odd steps which allow people to progress properly. We tend to go from floor to supervisor to assistant to deputy to GM in a small restaurant to GM in a bigger restaurant to a restaurant out of town to a new opening, to a new opening out of town. We give people a solid skill set across the whole spectrum, whether that is a turnaround restaurant or one near a tourist location.”
Byng is quick to point out the company has no loss-making site and, in an ever-increasingly competitive market, that is a badge of honour in itself. The company’s attitude has been to embrace the growing competition. “The thing about our market is that for everybody who says it is saturated there is someone who says there is still plenty of space and spend to go after,” says Byng. “You only have to look at other mature markets, pizza for example. What has happened over the past four or five years is that a new category has been created in the burger market. That category is taking more and more people on a journey from what they thought a burger was to something that is infinitely more enjoyable, and for which they are happy to pay a bit more money. I look at the burger competition and I see clear differentiation in terms of offer, format, menu and brand between GBK, Five Guys, MEATliquor, Honest and Ed’s.
“We are not targeting the stalwart customers of the fast-food sector but people who spend £12 to £20 on eating out. We are giving that casual-dining customer a premium-burger experience that previously didn’t exist.”
Building beyond the capital
Byron was able to build a flagship estate inside the M25 (where it has 37 sites at present) before the capital’s property market became “mega hot in terms of prices and availability”, something for which Byng is thankful. While he believes there is still potential for the brand to double its size within the capital, achieving it would mean more of a long-term play this time round.
“I don’t think it is possible to scale a brand in London any more and that is evidenced by lots of emerging concepts stepping outside London far earlier and quicker than they normally would. The 25 major cities in the UK are not as hard to get into as London, but they are certainly much harder than they were three or four years ago. The UK restaurant property landscape is changing at pace. Whereas traditionally people said you had to go to those 25 major cities first, you don’t need to do that any more.
“There is more subtlety at play. There are developments springing up where they have the right people in the right numbers where there used to be a tatty old high street. They are reflecting the changing taste of the nation. The benefit is that when you have some infrastructure, scale and confidence in your offer and where it can go, you have a broader range of sites to choose from.”
The group’s next opening, in Manchester’s redeveloped Corn Exchange scheme, will also be its third in the city, which Byng admits is exciting considering two years ago “people were saying it is not going to work outside of London”. The company has a pipeline of 13 secured sites and is in advanced legals on almost the same number. In terms of confirmed locations, it will open in Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bromley, Harrogate and Bury St Edmunds this year. So far secured for next year are openings in Southampton, Farnham, Watford, Bath, Chelmsford and Worcester.
“Being British, restrained and proper, the one thing we have never done is talk big numbers. Customers aren’t interested in that and all our teams want to know is whether we are ambitious and can fulfil those ambitions. Do we think this is a business with huge potential? Yes we do. Internationally, it is not about if we will do it, but when. We get approached a lot about going overseas. However, we are obsessively focused on the main thing, which at present is Byron in the UK. When the time is right we will do some other stuff, but the time is not right.”
Byng admits ‘other stuff’ could include trying a different concept. “We believe in our ability to create and develop successful restaurant businesses,” he says, with a touch of mystery.
With Côte having recently changed hands, Byng is prepared for speculation to grow about whether Byron will also come back to the market quicker than expected. “We have a plan and constantly re-evaluate it. We will agree the right time with Hutton Collins, but that time is not now. We are slightly different to Côte in terms of timing. The M&A market is hot. There is a range of valuations out there, with Côte representing the higher end of the market. I think you can get top dollar [for brands], but only for those best in class.”
Byng’s challenge is to remain on top of its game and to continue to work hard to cut through the noise new competition generates. “We are not sitting on our hands,” he says. “There is a steely determination to create a proper restaurant business that is sustainable for not just three or five years but over multiple periods of ownership. People don’t buy unsustainable businesses.
“It is about the quality of the operation. The restaurant delivering consistent, memorable experiences for customers is the best marketing tool you can have. The rest – delivery, social media – is important, but the main thing is a brand that delivers consistently.”
The group’s original site in Kensington recently underwent a major refurbishment, and Byng’s philosophy hasn’t changed since the brand’s launch in 2007: let the business do the talking. “I am a hamburger man. My vision remains the same as ever – to serve consistently delicious hamburgers in beautiful, individually-designed restaurants. 2013 was the year of the burger, you couldn’t move in the trade or national press for burger stories and there was a reason to raise the profile at that time. After that it was about getting back to the day job. We have got on with it.”
That’s plain speaking that everyone can understand.