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Sun 5th Dec 2021 - Richard Caring takes day-to-day control of restaurant business, as CEO Berisha departs
Richard Caring takes day-to-day control of restaurant business, as CEO Berisha departs: Serial sector investor Richard Caring has taken day-to-day control of his restaurant empire, which includes Bill’s and the Ivy Collection, after the departure of chief executive Baton Berisha. As first reported in the Sunday Times, it is understood Caring has requested his senior executive team report directly to him after the departure of Berisha, who was named chief executive of The Ivy, Bill’s and Caprice Holdings and The Birley Clubs, last October. Previous to that he had been managing director of The Ivy Collection since July 2018, and added overseeing Bill’s and Caprice Holdings to his remit in January 2020 and July 2020, respectively. A spokesman for Caring told Propel: “Baton Berisha is no longer working for the company. We thank him for his service and wish him well in the future.” It is understood Caring believes the sprawling business is too large to be under the control of one chief executive and plans to split the role in future. Berisha took on the running of Bill’s after the departure of the brand’s former executive chairman David Campbell and managing director Sarah Hills at the end of 2019. Caring currently runs more than 130 restaurants in the UK along with five clubs and employs 12,000 staff. He sold a 25% stake in Caprice Holdings to the former prime minister of Qatar, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, for £200m in 2019. While it is understood the Ivy Collection has recovered well since the sector reopened, it is thought Bill’s still needs work. In August, Caring told the Sunday Times he planned to plough £10m into refurbishments of his Bill’s estate. Eight of the 52 restaurants will be fitted out with bars and will feature DJs and live music. “Not to turn them into a nightclub,” he added hastily. But “some of the Bill’s need a lot of help.” In March, the brand’s accounts revealed Caring, who invested in the then two-strong business in 2008, had agreed to inject more money after it breached banking covenants. Berisha was promoted from director of operations to managing director of The Ivy Collection in June 2018, after joining Caprice Holdings in September 2014. He fled to Britain from Kosovo as a teenager to escape the war and found work as a junior waiter at Marco Pierre White’s Quo Vadis in Soho. He has also worked for Gordon Ramsay and at Fat Duck Group’s Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and D&D London’s Quaglino’s.

Comment by Propel group editor Mark Wingett

To say management change has been a regular feature at Bill’s is starting to look like an understatement. As I tweeted at the start of 2020 on the departure of the brand’s executive chairman David Campbell: “Bill’s has now had three changes of management in the past three years — Mark Fox and Duncan Garrood having also had a stint at the helm prior to Campbell. He’s a hard man to please is Mr Caring.” Caring gave former Starbucks UK managing director Fox only 18 months to turn Bill’s around. Ex-Punch chief executive Garrood left after ten months at the helm of the brand to take up the chief executive role at Ten Entertainment, while Campbell and managing director Sarah Hills left after less than 18 months. All were tasked with turning the all-day brand around, a feat that Campbell and Hills could say they achieved and more. For Caring, it was thought the performance had been good, but not good enough. 

The baton (excuse the pun) was then passed to Baton Berisha, who was already managing director of the Ivy Collection, and had enjoyed a significant career rise. As one former colleague told me at the time: “In a few years he has gone from being an operations manager overseeing five sites to managing director of more than 110 sites spread across multiple brands.” As was pointed out at the time, he certainly hadn’t got Campbell’s CV or, it may be argued, the confidence to question his boss’ decisions. However, by the summer of last year, he had added overseeing Caprice Holdings to his remit and then at the end of the year was named chief executive across all of Caring’s restaurant empire and his Birley Clubs portfolio. He has been at the helm for the toughest period those businesses, and the sector has ever faced. I imagine he would have hoped to see them through the recovery and out the other side, but as one analyst previously said about Caring, he “not is somebody who puts things off. If he makes a decision, he gets on with it.”

The Ivy Collection has returned to the expansion trail this year, with an opening in Exeter, while it has applied to open in Winchester. An Ivy Asia was added in Chelsea, while another is planned to open next year in Guildford’s Tunsgate Quarter scheme. In September, the company submitted a licensing application for an Ivy Asia site in Cardiff, close to its existing The Ivy site in the city. It has also submitted plans to open an Ivy Asia in Leeds, on the former French Connection store in the city. The Ivy Collection has also been linked with opening Ivy Asia sites in Brighton, and Glasgow too. In terms of Caprice Holdings, it has opened a Sexy Fish in Miami, with another planned for Manchester. He is also planning to open an all-day, fine-dining, Mediterranean-influenced restaurant in the former Porsche Garage site in Mayfair under the Caprice Holdings umbrella. Earlier this summer, the serial sector investor confirmed he was to take on the former Revolution site in Richmond to open a second site for his Scott’s concept. He is also believed to have secured the La Brasserie site in Brompton Road, which closed in 2017, for, as yet unspecified, new restaurant project. Earlier this year, Caprice Holdings, The Birley Group and Troia UK Restaurants – the parent company of the Ivy Collection – agreed a new £168m revolving credit facility earlier this year. The company said trading results during the times restaurants had been allowed to open were “extremely strong despite the reduced capacity”. 

But it will be Bill’s that the spotlight will again fall on. Caring has previously voiced his disquiet as to how the brand was going. However, he has been adamant the business would not follow many of its peers and undergo a restructuring via a company voluntary arrangement. Propel revealed last September it was thought KPMG was working with the then 78-strong business at a very early stage and was examining discussions with the company’s landlords about the group’s future rental terms. The business had already restructured its head office team and made cuts to its regional teams and marketing, learning and development functions. One industry source suggested a number of site closures could also take place. When asked about the group’s estate, a spokesman would always counter the brand was following a “gradual reopening programme” as talks with landlords continued. However, many sites remained “temporarily closed” even when government restrictions were fully lifted. The Bill’s website now shows the business has 62 sites, all of which are open. Sites in Plymouth, Taunton, Oxford, Peterborough, Maidstone and Kensington High Street are among those no longer listed. 

To boost the brand, Caring has turned to a number of people, previously employed by a business he used to back and knew well, in Cote. Over the past 18 months, a number of former Cote employees have joined the business, including Rebecca Tooth as chief operating officer earlier this year. She followed the appointment of Antonio Cipollaro, formerly of Cote and PizzaExpress, as a new operations director. At the same time, I understand a number of kitchen roles across the business are now being overseen by ex-Cote staff, which should give them a chance to fix things. Whether the DJs, live music and bigger bar areas are gaining traction with the brand’s traditional demographic is yet to be seen. The question after Campbell’s departure was that after hiring arguably the best person in the sector to oversee the reversal of Bill’s fortunes, was there a danger the 78-strong business will start going backwards again? The answer to that has been blurred by the pandemic, which also would have pushed back a timeframe on whether Caring would look to exit the business, something he explored pre-covid 19. 

The suggestion is Caring will revert to having the leadership role of his restaurant empire split up. In July, Caprice Holdings promoted Richard Clark to managing director with immediate effect. Clark was previously operations director for Caprice Holdings and The Ivy Collection, which he joined in January 2019. Before this, he held senior roles at Harbour Hotels and CAU Restaurants. Some will suggest the Ivy Collection takes care of itself under Caring’s watchful eye. Bill is in danger of becoming a problem child, and one Caring is probably realising is not that easy to sort out. As one sector operator said, the leadership of the brand is “fast becoming the hottest job nobody wants!”. That maybe, but it is a brand that still has a well-located, streamlined estate, a relatively new operational team, and a backer, who though demanding, is not afraid to commit further investment into it. 

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