It’s all change at Edinburgh based Montpelier’s. Susan Young caught up with David Johnston to find out all about the group’s plans for the way ahead.
Edinburgh’s Montpeliers Group is widely regarded in the industry as being one of the most well-run businesses in the country. It has been at the forefront of training, championed cocktails, opened Scotland’s most stylish bars and two boutique hotels, one of which, Tigerlily, is known the world over. Therefore when owners David and Ruth Wither, and Robert and Wendy Elliott, put it on the market last year, it came as a surprise to many. What came as a bigger surprise was the fact that Revolution Bars emerged as the potential new owners. However despite months of negotiations, due diligence and such like, when the UK voted to pull out of Europe, Revolution pulled out of the deal. But as they say, ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’, and for Development Director, David Johnston (or DJ as he is better known), newly appointed MD Innes Bolt, Food Director Helen Robertson and Operations Director, Jamie McComb, it has resulted in them having the opportunity to take on the management of the company with a view to taking the business forward and growing it. The added carrot is that if they do this successfully there is the opportunity for them to be shareholders in any new business set up. This means that David Wither has become Chairman of the Group and has relinquished his day-to-day control. A new operating team has been put in place which has as a key objective the role of expanding the business.
When I caught up with DJ he was in a very upbeat mood. He admitted that the last year was probably the most brutal since entering the trade 30 years ago, but the opportunity to drive Montpeliers forward was the outcome that they had all hoped for, even before it had gone up for sale.
Says DJ, “David Wither didn’t really want to go down that route. He always believed in rewarding us and wanted to give something back to us. But perhaps the timing wasn’t quite right. Now, although we remain paid employees with bonus structures, we know that if we prove we can take the business forward that we could become shareholders in any new businesses that we do open. David is basically rewarding us by giving the management team the opportunity and infrastructure to do what we think is right with the company, but in a very controlled and measured way.” He continues, “We don’t have to borrow money, and the cash to grow the business will come out of the cash flow. We also have the infrastructure too of the core business and we will still benefit from David Wither’s input as well as Wendy Elliot’s support and expertise when it comes to the food and interior design plus Stuart Ross’ guidance. It is a perfect situation. It allows David, Ruth, Wendy and Rob, to step back a bit with the confidence that we will put our heart and soul into it. We perhaps took our foot off the accelerator when the sale was mooted, but now we are back with a bang.”
It’s 10 years exactly since DJ became a Director of Montpeliers and he has spent the majority of his career working with the group, rising to the role of Development Director in 2007. During that time he played a pivotal role in the development of all of Montpelier’s ventures including Indigo Yard, Rick’s, Opal Lounge, Candy Kitchen & Bar, its 33 room boutique hotel, bar and restaurant, Tigerlily, and adjoining nightclub, Lulu. He did leave briefly, but he returned after David Wither encouraged him back, and now they have also brought back Innes Bolt to the fold.
Explains DJ, “David Wither and I started looking at a new business model for the company last October. It was a model which would allow him to step back from the business. He said to me it would be good to have someone on board who already understood the company intimately, as the model required an MD, and that is not a role suited to me. “ He explains, “I’m creative and I need my feet kept on the ground, but the natural person to take on that position was Innes. He had worked for us before and had come up through the ranks. When he left he was Operations Director. We had worked together for a long time – in fact since 1996 when Indigo Yard opened. He became Ops Manager after Karen Calvert left to set up the Papermill. When Innes left he joined Crerar Hotels, then went to Social Bite, and latterly he had been working with the Bon Vivant Group. But Innes, like me, wanted to be an owner and in fact, we had talked some time ago about finding a pub and setting up on our own, we had even spoken to the banks and brewers. But it fell through. There is no one I would rather be in business with, I would trust him with my life, not just the business!”
DJ is in charge of development, marketing, conception, projects, PR and all things creative. While as MD, Innes is in charge of finance and operations. Says DJ, “Obviously there is a cross over but always worked well together. He will be David Wither’s go-to.
“Internally we are talking about moving the business from ‘good to great’. We want to put the focus back on the product we are operating. It is all very well doing cute marketing, but we have to be better. The great thing about Innes being back is that he has had new experiences and is making us look at the business with fresh eyes. Perhaps we have been too insular and inward looking. He has certainly been tearing the veils off our eyes. He asks us “Why” we have done things a particular way and he is making us re-look at the way we are doing things. Obviously, we have a few arguments, but that is healthy.”
He continues, “Paula Greenan is now in charge of keeping the team ‘on point’ when it comes to ‘Good to great’. We are re-examining everything. We are asking ourselves “If that’s good, what does great look like?’ We’ve realised that despite spending four weeks going through the theory of what we want to execute, we still have to ensure that it is being executed correctly. To do this we need the right people. Customers expect an experience now, and part of that experience is the quality of the service they receive. It’s not just about being efficient, it is about having the right attitude. People have to smile, they have to have their heads up, and they need to have energy that is tangible. Body language is so important. People have to be open, friendly and appropriate. When margins are squeezed and squeezed, and staff have to work all the hours, it is difficult to have that demeanour, so we are ensuring that we are properly resourced. We are good, but we get so serious about it. We have to learn to enjoy it. If people enjoy their jobs they stay longer, have more confidence and learn the job inside out. If people get their food on a plate, on time, and with brilliant service, they can afford to relax and have fun. This will translate into a much greater experience for all our customers.”
DJ adds, “We are taking as much in-house as we can. This allows us immediacy. In the past, we spent too much time analysing things. Now, I hope if it is a good idea, it is a good idea and we can get on with it. And if it is wrong we will do something else.”
The changes in the business are not just on the personnel front, Rick’s was closed for eight weeks and re-opened last month as the Rabble Tap House. Tony Sarton has re-joined the company as Development Chef and has devised a completely fresh menu Rabble. He had previously worked for Montpeliers as Head Chef at Tigerlily – he’s not the only member of the team that has returned. Says David, “Lately we’ve seen quite a few of our people come back on board. I’m delighted.”
Says DJ, “We didn’t want to paint ourselves into a corner with our food offering. Our business model in the past has been a menu that has kind of been ‘everything to all men,’ and that worked well, but in last five years people have come out and specialised in everything from Mexican to Thai. People are going out for specific experiences and you have to have a USP. We’ll be doing rotisserie chicken, I’ve always wanted to do that, but it’s not just chicken we’ll have on offer. There is pulled pork, salads and such like – a diverse enough menu for mums or mates. We have also put in tank beer, we’ve just put it into Indigo too, and at Indigo it has been a real success. I’m not using the word ‘craft’ anymore – we are just saying good beer. It doesn’t matter the size of the brewery, if the beer is good, it’s good.”
Once the dust has settled on their latest venture the team will plan their expansion. They are looking at opening five to six new places in the next five years.
DJ is excited to be planning new venues, “The amount of development that is going on in Edinburgh is amazing. We are the number five city globally coming after cities like Dubai and Singapore. It’s unbelievable. I also think even the more downbeat parts of Edinburgh are coming up. A lot of promises are coming to fruition. It is exciting to walk around Edinburgh and the new Waverley is also exciting. Even the High Street is more appealing. I would have always steered away from the tartan-esque street full of tourists, but now, I would definitely consider it as a location. Ideally, we would like to have three or four new venues in Edinburgh. But they will all be different – although the core offer will be the same. we just have to be a bit smarter when it comes to developing the brand.”
The relaunch of Rabble is, says DJ, “‘A real line in the sand.’ He adds, “Recently there has been a lot of London companies moving into Edinburgh. It has been great that our industry has been challenged by national operators. They have pushed up our standards and made us re-examine our businesses. but they shouldn’t underestimate companies with local knowledge. We are hungry – we have something to prove, and we aim to be the very best.”
I look forward to seeing how this dynamic team develop Montpeliers even further. It was always good, now they are aiming for great, and I am sure they will succeed. I also hope the opportunity to step back from the day-day running of the business will allow David Wither an opportunity to improve his golf – it wasn’t great, but it could be good!