How I Got Here: Roland Horne

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

How I Got Here: Roland Horne

Related tags: WatchHouse, Coffee, Casual dining, Multi-site, Roland Horne

The CEO and founder of coffee chain WatchHouse on his career, motivations, and why there needs to be an open and honest conversation about the economics of hospitality.

Why hospitality?
In some ways it was a case of luck and fortune - I was fortunate that I was presented with a great opportunity and I decided to take it. I didn’t enter hospitality as an expert or F&B specialist, I was a frustrated customer who wanted to do something different and create a service better than I was experiencing elsewhere across multiple locations. At the time I was working as a luxury aquarium designer and struggling with the lack of ability that afforded me to make an impact within my community, at both a local level in Bermondsey near where I was living in London, and more widely across the UK. Hospitality satisfied this for me and enabled me to explore the creative and community elements which I felt were missing or limited in my previous business.

Tell us something you wish you had been told at the start of your career?
There are a couple of things that immediately spring to mind which I wish I had known at the very, very start of my career. Firstly, the need to have an excellent mentor to call on who has walked the same path before you, who you can learn from and who will push you outside of your comfort zone. Secondly, the need for structure to be implemented across the business as early on as possible rather than retrospectively which is much harder. And finally, the importance of culture and knowing what you stand for as a business. A lot of people start businesses for monetary reasons but I think at a deeper level it’s important to have a clear vision and purpose which translates internally and externally and sets the foundations for business growth. When this happens financial success is often a by-product of a wider goal rather than the goal itself.

What’s your favourite restaurant or group of restaurants (besides your own)?
The Ivy really jumps out at me here. I really like brands which manage to create something tangible which can be scaled consistently across multiple locations and the Ivy for me does that exceptionally well; I love that if I go to The Ivy in Oxford I can have the same great experience that I can in Bristol. Closer to home I would also say Gail’s do a very good job at this. 

What motivates you?
If I’m honest, the fear of failure. I am someone who really tries to make every single day count as much as possible; time is the most precious, finite resource and I am conscious that I don’t want to be scrambling around later in life chasing success and security having not made an impact in whatever area I have chosen to focus on.

What keeps you up at night?
Apart from my three children who are all under four?! Over the years I have learnt to deal with the stress and strains of running a business in a better and healthier way than I used to - probably since having kids. I don’t feel significantly under pressure about my business and if I’m honest what keeps me up at night is the trivial things like whether I have done enough exercise or if I’ve done too much.

Which colleague, mentor or employer has been the biggest influence on your approach to the hospitality business?
There are three people who have had and continue to have a significant influence on my approach to the hospitality business. I regularly keep in contact with Don Henshall who was the former CEO of Farrow & Ball and Diesel Jeans. He has a lot of solid experience and insight and is very intuitive so I always find it helpful to discuss and bounce ideas off him. Mike Clasper the Chairman of SSP is another really interesting guy to speak to as is Krishnan Doyle from Core Recruitment who is very knowledgeable and always willing to share that knowledge.

What time do you wake up?
I wake up at typically 6.45am. My children get up at 7am so it gives me time to get the bottles ready for my two youngest.

Coffee or tea?
I don't need to answer that! I tend to have an espresso in the morning when I wake up - I only really drink black coffee.

How often do you check your email?
Often, but it’s something I’m trying to be more mindful of. Generally when I leave the office I try to keep off my email as much as possible and delegate to my team but like most people I’m addicted to my devices. It’s a work in progress which I’m trying to improve upon.

How'd you let off steam.
I’ve recently got back into exercise after an extended break. I am doing an Executive MBA at the University of Oxford and have taken up rowing there in addition to cycling and HIIT training. I find it a really good way to de-stress. I also find spending time with my children is a great way to switch off; it’s very wholesome and really puts things into perspective.

Do you prefer a night on the tiles or a night on the sofa?
I’m very much a night on the sofa person - perhaps symbolic of the UK weather!

Typical Sunday
Spending time with my children, taking them swimming followed by an afternoon nap for all. Then general life admin and preparation for the week ahead followed by a film in the evening or a run.

What is the most spontaneous thing you've ever done?
Probably a last minute trip to North Korea in 2015 when I was on sabbatical travelling around Asia with my partner. We flew to Beijing and from there flew to Pyongyang where we had the opportunity to join the first tourist group to view the city from the air via a little 1970s Russian helicopter. It was pretty cool.

My favorite holiday destination?
I'm torn here because I've got two, actually three, besides Dublin which is just a great place to visit. The first is Pembrokeshire in West Wales where my partner is from. We go as a family often and it’s just a very honest, wholesome experience. Second is New York which I have a massive fascination with. It’s the centre of the world and pushes the boundaries in a way no where else does. Finally, I love Greece for its hospitality and warmth, not just in terms of climate but also the people. It has everything: delicious food, beautiful beaches and it's not too far away.

What are you currently reading?
The Algebra of Happiness​ by Scott Galloway. It’s a really interesting and insightful book which covers many of the topics we’re talking about here. I’d encourage everyone to read it if they can as well as his other book, The Four​.

What box set are you currently watching?
I’m not ashamed to say it but Grey's Anatomy​! My partner and I watch it every week and we love it, we always end up crying! The writing is fantastic.

What was your dream job growing up?
I’m not sure that I had a dream job growing up - maybe that’s why I am where I am now. If anything it was probably whatever my parents wanted for me which often tended to be aspirational. They wanted me to be a Barrister or a Doctor, especially given there were a number of medical practitioners in my family. After failing to get into law school at the age of 18 I ended up going on to study economics and politics in London instead and very quickly realised that law was definitely not for me; it’s fundamentally important for your understanding of the world but not creative enough for me. It didn’t speak to my entrepreneurial streak and nor did medicine.

Best business decision.
Just go for it. The best decision I ever made was to sign the deal to get the first WatchHouse on Bermondsey Street which I did with little foresight. I didn’t even think twice. In fact, I often don't, which can be to my detriment but in some instances, most instances, it tends to work out and I view it as a good thing on an aggregated risk adjusted basis. Other than that, I would say the decision to leave private banking and dig into my own individual businesses following the completion of my masters. It was a significant decision and one that has had a major impact on my life to date.

Worst business decision I ever made?
Probably the decision to strike deals with city landlords to the detriment of residential landlords at the beginning of the pandemic. With the benefit of hindsight, I would be much more bearish on neighbourhood areas. We initially looked to strike a number of business friendly deals which were all base rent rather than turnover or tenant friendly and de-risked in multiple neighbourhoods but in the end focused on the more de-risked city deals which were much more numerous. We had to prioritise and in the end sadly missed the boat on the residential areas which was a mistake.

What piece of advice would you give to those looking to climb the rungs in the business?
I think to be super, super hungry and to put the work in. I am someone who is both aspirational and entrepreneurial and I resonate with those who are self-aware but also openly hungry to work hard, succeed and do well. As a business owner, there is nothing better than surrounding yourself with people who push you as much as you push them. Equally there's nothing more demoralizing than feeling like you're the only person on an island where no one else is concerned about whether you catch the fish or not.

If you could change one thing about the hospitality industry today, what would it be?
I think that there needs to be an open and honest conversation about the economics of our industry and how we can truly make our businesses sustainable on a much deeper level; developing business models that are truly innovative, resilient and have a long lasting value proposition for consumers, employees and stakeholders. To achieve this it has to be paid for accordingly, it is not a race to the bottom which has often been the case historically within the hospitality industry.

Bio

Born in Dublin, Horne's first job in hospitality was in McDonald's when he was a teenager. He studied Economics and Politics at SOAS University of London and then went on to obtain a masters in Economic History at the London School of Economics. Whilst finishing his undergraduate degree, Horne started his first company in luxury aquarium design. He also worked in oil commodity trading based out of Geneva and London, but eventually left the field to focus on growing his aquarium business full time. Following that, Horne set up property development and property management businesses based in central London before establishing WatchHouse in 2014, and the group now operates nine sites across the capital. He’s also currently studying for an EMBA at Oxford.

Related topics: People, Profiles, Casual Dining

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