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If God owned McDonald's...

Tom Bordell and Mehdi Jaffer meet the founder of London restaurant chain Leon
Commercial awareness
Entrepreneurship

John Vincent has been an entrepreneur for a long time. His earliest venture was providing sound and lighting for a variety of events while a history student at Cambridge. After graduating, he spent four years at Procter & Gamble, followed by seven at Bain & Company and even during this time, "had businesses running on the side". Unsurprisingly, he left Bain to be his own boss: "One of the things that I value most is freedom - the ability not to have an agenda dictated to me by anybody else", says John.

The idea behind Leon, his first restaurant business, was dreamt up with co-founder Henry Dimbleby while both were at Bain. Often travelling to visit clients around the UK, the pair became increasingly fed up with the food available to them on the go: unhealthy fast food or dull sandwiches. This dissatisfaction led to the concept behind their restaurant chain. Relating how Nick Park pitched his film Chicken Run as "like The Great Escape...but with chickens", John explains that "you need to have that one defining idea from which other things come", and for Leon it was: "If God owned McDonald's". "We asked ourselves if you died, went to heaven, had an art class with Michelangelo and then he said "Let's go to McDonald's", what would it be like?" John's answer? "Similar to McDonald's in terms of format, speed and efficiency of processes, but completely different in terms of the ingredients used and the way that you are treated." This vision informs Leon, and also John's new venture, Soho flatbread eatery Flat Planet. The restaurants are not only "about food that tastes good and does you good", but are also attempts to transform the way people engage with the fast food industry. The emphasis on a new way of thinking is characteristic of John's nature: "I've always challenged the status quo - I did it at school and at college. I've always felt as if I was one of the people who had to change things rather than keep them the same".

But as John explains, making a concept a reality is not straightforward: "The idea is easy - it's the execution that's difficult." And the transition to perfect in theory to perfect in practice takes a while. John estimates that since Flat Planet opened, three important things have changed almost every day, which doesn't worry him: "You have to trust the ups and downs. At the start it's always a rollercoaster." At least John now has experience of the restaurant business to help him, which wasn't the case when Leon first opened in 2004: "We came into an industry we didn't know anything about", says John. He stresses that having the right team can make all the difference for start-ups in this position: "The smartest entrepreneurs understand what their weaknesses are and where they need a team around them to compensate for these. If the entrepreneur doesn't have a certain skill, that's not a disaster. The disaster is not realising that they don't have it." John also thinks new businesses need a balance between "athletes" and "specialists": "Athletes are the fresh minds who don't know that certain things in the industry are impossible, alongside the wise and battle-hardened specialists who already know the industry." Financial talent is key: "You either need a financial director, or these abilities yourself, or both - you can't ignore the nitty-gritty of the finances in a business as it can only run for so long on positive thinking alone."

Leon's aim is to have 2,000 branches by 2020. Will growth on this scale change the business? "There is a danger that over-expansion can lead to a loss of authenticity ", says John. "Everyone likes Glee and The X Factor, but just because something is popular is not to say that it's not a bit drab. By contrast, The Simpsons is widely dispersed and has been going for over 20 years but stays fresh." What's needed, he feels, is "an inbuilt ability to be refreshed". It seems then that, as with The Simpsons, there's more to Leon's cosy appearance than first meets the eye. If you pop into one of these warmly lit eateries, don't let the cuddly furnishings, family photos and smiles of the servers fool you: this fast growing chain is built on a robust model and managed by a man constantly thinking about the next challenge facing his fledgling businesses.


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