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Mon 19th Apr 2021 - Exclusive – Woods to step down as Wagamama CEO, to hand role over to internal successor Thomas Heier
Exclusive – Woods to step down as Wagamama CEO, to hand role over to internal successor Thomas Heier: Emma Woods is to step down as chief executive of Wagamama, The Restaurant Group-owned (TRG) brand, to pursue her non-executive career and will hand over to her internally appointed successor, Thomas Heier, Propel has learned. The move will see Heier, Wagamama’s current chief experience officer, become its chief executive from 1 June, by which point, the brand’s 144 restaurants will be fully open in line with government guidelines. Woods joined Wagamama as its customer director at the start of 2017 and was later promoted to chief growth officer under Jane Holbrook and then chief executive at the time of its £559m acquisition by TRG in 2018. She has since led Wagamama’s significant growth in 2019 and helped ensure the brand’s continued success through the pandemic. Woods, the former marketing director of Merlin Entertainments and PizzaExpress, has been a non-executive director of the low-cost gym chain The Gym Group since 2016 and is taking on its senior independent director and chair of Remco responsibilities in May. She said: “It has been an honour to lead the Wagamama business through the last tumultuous years but as the business emerges from the pandemic and starts an exciting new chapter, it feels the right time to hand on the chopsticks to someone who I know loves the brand as much as I do. I am delighted to be able to continue to support Wagamama as I develop a wider advisory portfolio.” Heier joined Wagamama in 2017 as its people director before going on to assume additional responsibility for its US business in 2018. The company said he was pivotal in leading its turnaround and the subsequent partner selection process that resulted in Wagamama entering into its current joint venture partnership back in January 2020. He took on his current role as chief experience officer last year, which saw him gain additional responsibility for the brand’s marketing, insight and customer experience functions. Previously, he was head of HR for Travelodge and Carnival UK (P&O Cruises and Cunard). Heier said: “Wagamama is such a special brand underpinned by a meaningful purpose, a strong identity and unique culture. I’m incredibly excited to be given the opportunity to lead a business that’s so close to my heart.” Andy Hornby, chief executive TRG, said: “The excellent performance of Wagamama under Emma’s leadership speaks for itself. Over the past three years, Wagamama has constantly outperformed the market, improved our customer perception scores and shown continual innovation, especially around food quality. Perhaps, most importantly, morale levels in the restaurant teams are higher than ever despite the impact of covid. Emma therefore leaves with all of our thanks and I am delighted she is staying involved with the business via her membership of the advisory brand board. I am especially pleased that succession has been carefully planned and, therefore, the Wagamama culture will be preserved through internal succession. Thomas has played a pivotal role in the success of Wagamama as part of Emma’s team and is extremely well qualified to take us forward. His passion for the Wagamama brand and for our people is plain to see. He inherits an exceptionally strong senior team and I am really looking forward to working with Thomas, Nigel Sherwood, David Di Cello, Steve Mangleshot and the rest of the Wagamama leadership team over the years ahead.”

Comment by Propel insights editor Mark Wingett

Emma Woods is a massive Red. For all the non-football fans that means she is a huge Liverpool FC fan and, therefore, maybe more than most, understands the importance of continuity and consistency. The football club, during its era of dominance from the mid-1970s to 1990, was a watchword for both. Over the past eight years, Wagamama has also tapped into both themes to make it arguably the UK hospitality sector’s leading brand. In his book about former Liverpool manager Bob Paisley, writer and journalist Ian Herbert wrote: “The quiet man broke a football management mould by adhering to the principles and working practices that his predecessor, Bill Shankly, put in place and resisting the temptation to rip it all up and create a team in his image.” Taking failing teams to greatness is an almighty challenge and often is given more credence – to continue the football analogy, think Brian Clough and Sir Alex Ferguson at Nottingham Forest and Manchester United respectively, than to keep a great team at the same level or to take it even higher. When Woods took on the role of Wagamama chief executive, she was following two predecessors in David Campbell and Jane Holbrook, one who had re-energised the business and pushed it ahead of the pack and another who had made sure that gap stayed and was even widened. It is to her immense credit that at a time when it so easily could have faltered, it didn’t and remains ready to put clear blue water between it and the rest as the sector re-awakes post-covid.

The first challenge Woods faced when moving up to the top job, was one of perception. She became chief executive at the time of the brand’s £559m acquisition by The Restaurant Group (TRG), a deal that brought with it a great deal of turbulence. As I wrote at the time, the sector’s cool kid was being consumed by a business that was at the opposite end of the playground, the stuffy, easily ignored prefect. The view by many was it was only a matter of time before TRG “mucked it up”. It is to TRG’s credit and Woods and her team that this hasn’t happened. Pre-covid, in February 2020, TRG reported like-for-like sales growth of 8.5% at Wagamama with cost synergies ahead of plan and its site conversion programme well progressed. There was no predicted, or even hoped-for by some rivals, bump in the road.

I remember talking to Woods at the start of the pandemic and her fear was that the hard-earned leading sector position was set to be diminished but also that the brand would need to come up with ways to remain relevant to its consumer base when it couldn’t serve them as it normally would. As for many, there was definitely a fear of “what if they forget about us?”. The strength of the brand’s delivery proposition, its incorporation of click and collect and the brand equity it already had in the bank meant that hasn’t been the case. The launch, last May, of a new free video series to teach people how to cook some of its staple dishes, such as chicken katsu curry, has also kept the brand in touch with consumers – existing and new. The online series, titled Wok From Home, has featured cooking lessons led by the pan-Asian restaurant chain’s executive chef Steve Mangleshot, who has worked at Wagamama for more than 20 years. By the end of last year, more than ten million people had watched the series, keeping it “alive in people’s minds” as Woods described it to me. The brand would report like-for-like sales up 7.4% in its third quarter to 27 September, boosted by the customer initiatives it had implemented, delivery and Eat Out To Help Out. As Woods said at the time: “This was the last point we were able to trade, in any sense, ‘normally’ and provides real confidence that the business can return to market-leading performance when restrictions are again lifted.”

Pre-covid, Woods also oversaw the start of the brand’s attempt to reboot its US expansion plans, something her immediate predecessors have also looked to jump-start since it made its debut in Boston in 2007. Last February, the business signed a joint venture partnership with US investment fund Conversion Venture Capital (CVC2) as financial partners and experienced US operators Robert Cornog Jr and Richard Flaherty to aid its expansion across the Pond. Under the terms of the agreement, Cornog Jr and Flaherty, who most recently led Punch Bowl Social, one of the “hottest” concepts in US, assumed majority ownership and lead operations of Wagamama’s existing US business as part of a 20:80 joint venture partnership, with TRG as minority partner. While the joint venture board will decide the scale of the expansion plans, Wagamama expects the new partnership to be opening 30 restaurants during a five to six-year time period. TRG retains the option to repurchase the remaining 80% of the business, starting in 2026. Woods told Propel the joint venture “secured the brand’s future in the US”. The joint venture provides TRG with a capital-efficient means for expanding the business in the US while, at the same time, minimising losses in the near term.

It is perhaps strengthening the group’s links with younger people and also its work on mental health issues, which Woods must also take credit for. In October 2020, the company launched a student support society called Noodle Union. It featured free online cooking lessons called “wok from halls”, locked-down food drops and giveaways for those returning to student life. The cooking show, created in partnership with student channel MOB kitchen, taught university students how to cook Wagamama classics on campus. With some students locked down in their halls at the time due to localised restrictions, Wagamama arranged for food drops to be delivered to a selection of university campuses across the UK. Woods said: “Students are a massive part of Wagamama, with hundreds working and eating at Wagamama every day. This year has taken a lot away from this group and, as a business, we are passionate about supporting them.” This was followed up recently by the launch of Japanese-inspired outdoor benches so “friends can reconnect through real conversation as we all gradually ease out of lockdown”. The specially designed benches appeared in key university cities across the UK, starting in Brighton, Bristol and Manchester, and according to the business, “mark a turning point as we start to rebuild far too many broken relationships”. The company said the pandemic has intensified mental health struggles, especially for young people, so it wants to shine a light on the challenges that many young people will face coming out of lockdown. It also continues to work closely with its charity partner Young Minds and mental health campaigner Ben West to “fight for the mental health of this generation to be made a priority”.

Woods leaves the business in the hands of Thomas Heier, who joined the business in November 2017 from Travelodge, as its people director. More recently, he has been working in the newly created role of chief experience officer, which the business said it created to reflect the need to join up its customer and brand focus with people and the guest experience, especially in a world where Wagamama’s customers now connect with it through multiple channels. All of the brand’s insight, marketing, people and internal communications have been reporting into Heier, which will have been crucial as he moves into the hot seat later this summer. That Woods will remain as an inaugural member of its new brand board should provide him with a useful sounding board as he makes the step up. He will have plenty of his plate, and not just in reopening the business. Last month, TRG said Wagamama (excluding delivery kitchens) has a track record of delivering more than 40% returns on invested capital and approximately £500,000 average outlet Ebitda (based on new openings between 2015 and 2017). It also said the five Wagamama delivery kitchens currently in operation generate £225,000 average outlet Ebitda with over 75% return on invested capital. Given this track record, the company’s long-term ambitions for the brand include significant measured roll-out potential to expand both in the UK to a targeted circa 180 to 200 restaurants (from 144 today), circa 20 to 30 delivery kitchens and in international markets via franchise and the US joint venture. A long-mooted move into the food-to-go sector with the Mamago concept was curtailed due to the pandemic but is ready to be brought back off the shelf when needed.

As an aside, it will be interesting to see if other sector leaders decide to move aside during the next year, after the challenges of the past 18 months and faced with generating new momentum into businesses. It is an understatement to say it has been a unique period, one that has placed, and continues to place, tremendous strain on industry leaders and their teams.

To TRG’s credit, it has also allowed Wagamama to get on with it. Even before covid, chief executive Andy Hornby realised the noodle chain and pub business Brunning & Price were two of the main pillars he could build the wider group’s revival on. The pandemic and its impact on what would have been a third pillar, the group’s concessions business, has reinforced that view. An internal succession play should help continue the brand’s momentum and, as Hornby says himself, preserve the Wagamama culture. Perhaps the change will give rivals another opportunity to see if there is a chink in the brand’s armour, lest they have their own issues to deal with as the sector begins its slow journey to recovery. Woods will step back from Wagamama, still with the business in the best position to lead the sector from the front. Like Paisley at Liverpool, her achievement in doing so might not be fully valued or appreciated by the wider sector until after the event. 

Popeyes appoints Tom Crowley as UK chief executive: Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, the US fried chicken quick service restaurant brand, has appointed Tom Crowley, formerly of Boparan Restaurant Group (BRG) and Mitchells & Butlers (M&B), as its UK chief executive to oversee its expansion here. Crowley stepped down as chief executive of BRG, Giraffe, Ed’s Easy Diner, GBK and Carluccio’s owner, early last year. Crowley, who took over as BRG chief executive from Joe Teixeira at the end of 2016, was previously operations director at Giraffe, which he joined at the start of 2014 from M&B, where he was retail director for Premium Country Dining Group. He was appointed managing director of the then Tesco-owned Giraffe in 2015, which Boparan acquired in June 2016. He has more than 20 years’ experience at leading UK pub, casual dining and QSR brands. The first Popeyes restaurant in the UK is expected to open by the end of 2021 and will represent the brand’s 11th country in the Europe, Middle East and Africa region, which already has more than 350 Popeyes restaurants. The company announced plans last month to enter the UK this year, with the goal of opening 350 new restaurants in Britain over the next ten years. The brand, which was founded in Louisiana in 1972 and currently operates circa 3,400 restaurants across 29 countries, will enter the UK market as part of an agreement between PLK Europe, a subsidiary of Restaurant Brands International (RBI), which also owns Tim Hortons and Burger King; Austrian-based, family-owned international conglomerate Ring International Holdings; and hospitality industry veteran Elias Diaz Sese. Crowley said: “I’m thrilled with the opportunity to launch the globally renowned Popeyes brand into the dynamic UK market. I believe we have a truly disruptive proposition rooted in authentic Louisiana culture that will really resonate with UK guests. This past year has been incredibly hard on the hospitality industry and I’m pleased Popeyes will be able to contribute to the industry’s recovery with our ambitious goals for the UK. Popeyes is a very special brand and I am very excited about what we can achieve over the next ten years and beyond.” The brand said it is committed to bringing a “market-leading digital experience” to the UK with an emphasis on building the “type of connections and community the British public is craving after months of lockdown”.

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