In 1996, Niall and Faith McArthur founded Eat, the sandwich retailer chain now frequented by busy urbanites. The first store opened in London’s Charing Cross, followed by 5, then 50, then beyond.
In June 2013 the McArthurs stepped back from the day-to-day running of the business, choosing to remain on the board in a non-executive capacity. Meanwhile, they brought in big guns Adrian Johnson, former MD of Costa and later Strahan Wilson, previously Finance Director at Burger King.
When Wilson joined as CFO, Eat was a classic entrepreneur’s business. One with decision making that centralised around the owners and ‘spirit’, as well as a “hodge-podge of spreadsheets”. No big deal for the 5-store company that Eat once was but impractical and cumbersome for the burgeoning chain it was becoming.
“It was a nightmare,” Wilson tells Retail Gazette, “We had around 27 barely interlinked spreadsheets across three completely unrelated planning horizons.”
Part of Wilson’s brief was to professionalise the business and gear it for growth, which he has done. But what was the alchemy behind Wilson’s strategy?
“The business had no medium-term visibility of financial consequences,” he explains. “So it struck me that this should be the very first thing I needed to sort: streamlining the accounting and planning processes.”
Wilson had previously worked with Anaplan, a cloud-based platform that came in handy at Burger King. Transposing this knowledge to Eat’s processes, he was able to get clearer means of visibility over relevant time frames.
After all, “in a company, you can only have credibility if you are able to answer questions with a degree of certainty.”
In 2014, Eat entered into a refurb programme to ensure the core business was in good shape before the focus shifted to opening new stores. To put this into context, Eat had 114 stores and was looking to increase its portfolio by around 100. “The nature of the beast is that timescales are never as you expect,” says Wilson, referring to variables such as rent and landlords. “All of those factors put financial pressure on the business.”
Wilson wanted to build on the McArthurs’ legacy but organise processes; maintaining the company’s entrepreneurial legacy and flair. With the year end in June there was a need to have everything sorted by the end of March and Anaplan helped with just that.
“I love its intuitive nature because it’s consistent with Excel,” explained Wilson.
Following his implementation of finance functionality 2.0, the business set out to become a nationally recognised chain. It’s well-known in London, particularly in zone 1, where the store count sits comfortably at 90. What’s happening increasingly, and Eat isn’t alone in this, is those brands successful in the capital are starting to look outside the region. While Eat doesn’t have the brand recognition that other food and beverage players do, it does have a compelling proposition.
“The rest of the UK is playing catch-up to the food trends,” muses Wilson. “We’re excited about the combination of much lower rents and the strong foody desire which is becoming increasingly prevalent elsewhere. The happier circumstance is low rent and strong demand which overcomes any weakness in recognition”
I ask how Eat differentiates itself from similar, more established retailers who are widening menu options, to include alcohol beverages in the evenings for example.
“People’s eating habits have changed significantly over the last 10 years, Wilson says in riposte. “Traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner times have shifted and as London rents increase at an eye-watering rate’, retailers are all looking at the returns needed to be made given the rent that has to be paid.
“So if all you’ve got is a lunch business,” Wilson describes, “It’s not enough. Lunch is only around 2 hours a day.
Where five years ago, there was something of a canteen feel to city workers’ lunch hour pastimes, now the Pret-a-Mangers are putting a greater emphasis on the ambience.
“We’re trying to create a ‘3rd space’([a Starbucks term) which encourages consumers to use our locations for other things outside of peak hours. Thus, creating a pleasant environment is important,” he adds.
And what of Starbucks? I ask, Café Nero?
“We’re not particularly worried about the coffee boys,” Wilson says with a smile. (There must be a reasonable degree of insight given that his boss, Johnson, is ex-coffee chain.)
“If my core product was coffee,” he continues, “I’m diluting my margin for every sandwich. What other players have is what we consider ‘a distressed lunch purchase’. No-one really says “I fancy a Starbucks panini for lunch”. The coffee shop chains amount to a relatively soft underbelly, offering somewhat low premium food-to-go.”
So how does Eat set itself apart from Pret? By virtue of hot and cold.
“Predominantly sandwiches and baguettes,” Wilson adds “but I think they do that best to be honest. We match Pret on quality of cold but we surpass on hot. We have a much more credible hot food menu because we make it ourselves. We have a central distribution model so we make more and are given greater control over quality and process.”
The company has grown in airports, from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Birmingham, to Liverpool, Manchester and recently Cardiff. Now it’s targeting urban metropolises that share the characteristics of London
“There needs to be a high density of workers who are looking for a variety of choice and more than just a supermarket sandwich for lunch,” concludes Wilson.
To find out more, read this executive summary of a recently concluded webinar in which Strahan Wilson, CFO of EAT, and James Mulligan of OpenSymmetry explore how effective planning and performance can boost the bottom line.