18 May 2021|Latest Posts, Meet the Successful Founder
Catherine Johnstone is the founder of Vigour & Vice, an expert hospitality consultancy, which improves the performance and profitability of new and established restaurants, bars, pubs and cafes with a proven, 100 per cent success rate. Here she shares her entrepreneurship journey with us.
Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?
I’m Cat, the founder of Vigour & Vice (www.vigourandvice.com) , a hospitality consultancy which improves the performance and profitability of new and established food and beverage venues.
I’ve been working in hospitality since the age of 16. When I moved to London to pursue my dreams of becoming a lawyer I started working as a waitress for Mitchells & Butlers and quickly became a GM for the company. I went on to hold a number of senior management positions in the hospitality sector in the UK and overseas, including Operations Manager for Jason Atherton’s four critically-acclaimed restaurants as part of the Unlisted Collection.
I set up the company in Singapore in 2017 and later opened an office in South Africa, before returning to the UK in 2020.
How did the idea come to you for the company?
There were a number of defining moments that formed the idea for the consultancy service we provide. At Ben’s Canteen, I was hired to turnaround the performance of the flagship site to stimulate cash flow and facilitate future openings. It took three months to standardise the operating model of the business and to start generating a healthy profit margin, and I then spent three months project managing the opening of the second site. It was a structured and effective approach, and achieved significant results within a relatively short time frame.
When I moved to Singapore, the scope of my role doubled from managing a team of 30 people across two local restaurants, to a team of 60 across four restaurants and bars at national level, reporting to co-CEOs on different continents. On top of the demands of my new scope, I was struggling with culture shock and knew I needed to be meticulous and systematic in my approach to ensure I didn’t become overwhelmed. I managed my time and workload by breaking down the core aspects of each business and prioritising the highest risk areas. I used the tools I had developed to project manage new openings to realign the four businesses I was now responsible for, as quickly and efficiently as possible.
As my role evolved and I became responsible for sales, events and marketing strategy across the group, I continued to refine the set of systems and tools I had been developing to drive efficiencies and improve profitability at an operational level, by this time managing 140 team members and 14 managers within my direct remit. The time I spent at the outlets was mostly spent training and developing the staff to use and maintain those tools, and the up-skilling and organic growth of the team was hugely rewarding.
The final lightbulb moment came when I realised that I had become too “corporate” in my role, and that all my reasons for choosing service over a career in the law had been lost. I was no longer on the front lines with my teams and barely interacted with guests. I had made all of the significant improvements to the way the business worked within a short timeframe and my role was now nudging towards marketing and maintenance, rather than growth and contribution.
I started looking for a role that had a turnaround and growth element, that would be hands-on with the team and the business owners. I took up the position of Operations Manager with Social Summer Kitchen, a start-up company run by a group of friends without previous experience in hospitality, that needed structure and stability within a short period of time. I presented a business plan and financial models that would review the five core aspects of the business in turn, from Sales, to Food and Beverage, then Labour and finally all other Expenditure, each with a corresponding set of operational and financial tools. I projected a 30% improvement to bottom line profitability within three months if all of the recommendations were implemented.
We achieved our projected goals, and I decided to register the company and become a consultant. We continued working together and within six months had achieved a 12% improvement to gross profit and a 38% overall increase in profitability.
How have you been able to gain funding and grow?
After five years overseas, I decided to return to the UK and arrived home in February 2020. I had planned to return to operations for a couple of years to reestablish myself in the hospitality sector in the UK and grow my network, whilst testing the consultancy model in my new role.
The pandemic caused me to rethink my plans, and I spent the next couple of months trying to get to grips with what was happening in the world and what it meant for me, my company and my industry. I was a little lost for a while, and knew I needed advice and support from people within my sector, so I started reaching out and building my network, to start putting together a plan for my future.
From the many hours I spent researching and connecting with people in my industry, I was invited to attend a ‘speed-mentoring’ event by Plan B Mentoring which involved five one-on-one break-out sessions with some of the UK’s biggest names in Hospitality. It was during one of these sessions that I was leaning towards returning to Ops that the mentor (Robert Cook, CEO of TGI Fridays) suggested I seek external investment to support the launch of the consultancy in the UK. We talked about the timing and how there would be some waiting to do, but when the time came, the hospitality sector was going to need our help. The prospect of helping businesses recover after Covid outweighed any concerns I had about gaining traction in a new market, and I started working on my business plan.
After an initial knock-back, I managed to secure funding from a leading leisure and entertainment investment firm, Edition Capital and the business has now successfully launched in the UK.
What are the key successes?
Every time we deliver on our forecasted performance I metaphorically punch the air – it is a huge achievement to turn a business around from near closure to better-than-industry-standard results. We currently maintain a 100% success rate so have enjoyed those successes with each of our clients, and it has been great to celebrate with all of them.
I get a lot of joy from recognising and developing the potential in people and so if there is an opportunity to train and develop our client’s teams into supervisors and managers, I get a real sense of growth and contribution – two core values that underpin my work-life ethic and represent the idea of success to me.
What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?
I think the greatest challenge for any entrepreneur is getting the buy-in from stakeholders and prospective clients. Being able to articulate the vision you have for the company and present it as a commercially viable product isn’t always easy, especially if you are providing services or something intangible.
I didn’t realise at the time, but the depth and breadth of experience I gained from working across different sectors of hospitality, internationally as well as locally, formed the foundations of my company and gave me the skills and knowledge I needed to design my business model. In moments of doubt, I fall back on extensive experience and proven-results to remind myself that being an entrepreneur isn’t a flash in the pan – it’s the culmination of extensive skills, experience, vision and constant forward-motion.
What are your plans now/for the future?
We are using the time that the pandemic has given us to build the foundations of the company in the UK. Our short-term goals are to build a recognisable brand in the hospitality sector and start building relationships with key industry figures, to inform the market about how our service can help businesses recover post-lockdown and beyond.
As food and beverage venues begin to reopen we will be ready to support clients on pro-bono and short-term projects to help alleviate the challenges they face. By Autumn we will start onboarding clients for the full scope of our service, which runs for a period of three months following the completion of a free audit, which determines how we can help and the likely results of the project.
By 2022, we hope the hospitality sector will be operating normally again, and we will continue to work with clients on improving their business models. The long-term goal is to become recognised as the benchmark of operational and financial excellence for hospitality businesses, in the UK and internationally.
What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?
Being an entrepreneur isn’t necessarily about having an epiphany about a product or service that will dramatically change the world and people’s lives. You might be the only unique thing needed to make an established concept work, if you have the vision, commitment and follow-through to really make an impact in your sector.
The definition of entrepreneurship is “starting or running a business, especially when this involves taking financial risks, and having the ability to do so”. Ability to me means having the financial resources available to take sensible and proportionate risks, and having the skills, experience and conviction to know that it’s the right thing to do.
When developing a product or an idea, working smart is just as important as working hard. The most creative environment I’ve worked in as an Ops Manager was for a company run by a branding and marketing guru in Singapore and one of her philosophies was DNR – do not resuscitate. When an idea is dead or just isn’t working, DNR. Move on, be flexible, by dynamic in your assessment of what went wrong and what could work instead. Then invest your efforts in bringing those ideas to life.
Can you share your top 5-10 tips for entrepreneurial success?
- Give yourself time to think. What do you know about your sector? What does it need? How could you help it grow and evolve? What skills do you have that would make a difference? What else do you need to do or learn before you’re ready to go it alone? Spend time developing a completely clear and crystalised vision for your company before starting to work through the details.
- Try to test your product or service in a safe, low-risk environment. Investing money into an idea or leaving your full time job should be the last step taken to becoming an entrepreneur, once you are sure your idea will work and have done the market research to back you up.
- Share your idea with the world without worrying about someone copying it! Getting feedback from friends and colleagues will give you a good idea of whether you are communicating your idea effectively and how the market will respond. The idea alone is unlikely to be taken or copied by another person, and knowledge-sharing is fundamental to your personal and professional growth. Remember, you and your idea is what will make the difference.
- If you are worried about your business management skills and don’t know where to start, up-skill yourself. Take an online course to help you start writing your business plan and preparing your financial models. You need to communicate a clear vision for the company and how you will financially execute it over the course of the first two years, including any plans for growth, to be able to seek external investment and to hold yourself accountable.
- Being your own boss has its upsides, but discipline is key. I stick to the same routine as when I was an employee – up early for yoga, dress smart, work 9-5, cook a healthy dinner, read, get a good night’s sleep. If I underperform at work I know it’s because I have a skills gap, rather than a lifestyle issue, which I can then work on plugging to ensure it doesn’t happen again in the future.
- If you think, plan, research, and have the ‘ability to take the risks’ – be bold, be resilient and go for it!
What is your favourite inspirational /motivational quote?
Man in the Arena by Theodore Roosevelt sums up so much about how I try to approach life. I first heard it in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s inaugural speech in Cape Town, and have recently seen it again in Brene Brown’s book, Dare to Lead ( a must-read for anyone who wants to know the importance of being brave and stepping forward).
Man in The Arena (1910) –
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
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