Big fish mentality

The black Austin Minor pulled in to the car park of Harry Ramsden’s legendary fish and chip restaurant in Guiseley, Yorkshire, just south of Ilkley Moor. It was 1952. There was hardly any space left. The easy decision would have been to drive on. But then a man in a smart brown overall appeared. He beckoned the driver forward and squeezed the car in to the corner beside the funfair ride. The driver got out, thanked the man and pressed a three penny bit into his palm, saying: “Thanks lad, I bet yon mean bugger in t’restaurant don’t pay thee much!”.

The car park attendant was Harry Ramsden. He knew where he should be that day. Not in the office in a suit; not in the kitchen in whites, but out in the car park in an overall where he could create most extra ‘brass’.

When we bought the one Harry Ramsden’s restaurant in 1988, the brilliant founder and entrepreneur was long dead. However, we were able to unlock a huge treasure chest of his ideas.

As we expanded the business around the UK and then internationally, we fell into a habit of asking ourselves ‘what would Harry have done?’.

Having worked for some of the largest corporates in the world, we were paranoid about keeping his entrepreneurial spirit alive. We built a culture around his memory and reincarnated his best ideas. Take Guinness Book of Records Day.

In 1952, Ramsden jammed the streets and made the BBC’s flickering new television news bulletin by offering fish and chips at 1928 prices. We re-ran the event in Guiseley, Glasgow, and Melbourne, Australia, breaking the record of 10,182 portions served in a day, and generating huge column inches of free publicity.

But the biggest challenge as we grew was to rekindle Ramsden’s spirit in every one involved in our mission.

We had watched so many successful businesses falter as growth and sheer size strangled the original founder’s entrepreneurial flair – the head office becoming more important than the car park and cost-driven cultures insidiously replacing customer care.

One of the key tactics we used at Harry Ramsden’s (which was sold to the Compass Group leisure giant), which we try to encourage in all the new companies where we invest and coach, is to create real, not phantom, local ownership.

When we were building the Harry Ramsden’s business, we chose franchising and joint-venture ownership structures with locally-based partners. Accessing their capital kept all of us on our toes. Ideas flowed just as freely as if Harry himself were there in Glasgow, Hong Kong or Blackpool. Which corporate head office would ever have come up with the idea of opera and chips performed live in Harry Ramsden’s Cardiff outlet on a Monday night – an idea which filled the 200-seat restaurant on the slowest day of the week and attracted a six-month waiting list.

Ramsden would have loved it. After all, he used to have brass bands playing at the weekend and his nephew Harry Corbett playing the piano with his glove puppet Sooty on one hand.

In our latest investment – La Tasca Spanish Tapas Bars and Restaurants – our chief executive, James Horler, is a real entrepreneur. He has pioneered a managing partner structure to preserve entrepreneurial passion in each restaurant as we quickly expand the business around the UK and the US.

Managing partners are paid a low base salary and then a percentage of each month’s profits with no upper limit. The scheme is working well, with one 29-year-old managing partner in the last year earning three times the salary he would get anywhere else in the industry. Staff retention is well above industry norms. So far, we haven’t lost one managing partner to a competitor – although one has left to set up his own business, which is a tribute to the development programme. The partner scheme is a form of internal franchising, fanning the entrepreneurial flame as the business expands.

Crucially, the success of this scheme is as much about the development programme that underpins it where each manager gets a personalised training programme to equip them to act as an owner.

One of the key skill areas where we coach the managing partners personally is in marketing. Most managers in the restaurant business associate marketing with simply spending money on advertising or promotion.

Our coaching system, which we developed at Harry Ramsden’s, is all about creating ideas and programmes with little or no money. We call it ‘Marketing Judo’ – using the principles of the sport of judo to leverage movement and balance and apply them to business. By using this metaphor, we coach our managing partners in ways to grow their local operations at little or no cost to the business.

A workshop format gives managers the time to understand the concept and put it into practice with their colleagues as they develop and share ideas. Some of their ideas have been stunning and their peers are readily adopting them because they have been developed at the frontline, rather than being imposed from the centre.

Last summer, we got a call from Mary McLaughlin, the managing director at La Tasca to tell us that Miguel, the managing partner in the Didsbury restaurant, was running Spanish beach volleyball in the car park outside the restaurant. The roads in Didsbury were at a standstill as the press and TV media clamoured for pictures. Sales had gone through the roof.

Car parks again. Harry would have been proud to see such entrepreneurial flair.

John Barnes and Richard Richardson are entrepreneurs and authors of Marketing Judo – Building your business using brains not budget.

For more information on how to create ideas and programmes with little or no money

Learning Points for HR

– Unlock the secrets in your founder’s entrepreneurial treasure chest and celebrate them

– Managers who think and behave like owners become more entrepreneurial and creative

– Real not phantom profit sharing fans the entrepreneurial flame

– Local ownership incentive programmes require all-round personal development plans

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