Saying YO! to eccentric

With a rather eccentric image - long sideboards and a taste in shoes and socks not shared by many - you might think YO!

Simon Woodroffe

With a rather eccentric image - long sideboards and a taste in shoes and socks not shared by many - you might think YO! Sushi and Dragon's Den entrepreneur Simon Woodroffe just got lucky to make his millions. Graeme King thinks otherwise.

He has a friendly, engaging manner that is perhaps attributable to his bohemian 60s youth. It's all very laid back, chatty, encouraging, sharing. And yet you know he's been instrumental in building a multi-million pound business, and somehow it just doesn't compute. He must have been a tyrant at certain points, surely?

Simon Woodroffe, now 55, is good company, telling great stories, always willing to offer an opinion.

In some ways, he is the identikit modern millionaire entrepreneur. Failed at school - check; been through tough times, then made it good - check; can't read a balance sheet to save his life - check; an insatiable desire to pose and goof around during photoshoots - check.

Yet Simon Woodroffe clearly knows what sells. He refuses to be boring, in any way. And while one gets the impression some of the clowning is just part of the Simon Woodroffe `show' and the man is not actually like this all the time - there is unquestionably an abundance of oomph.

The Woodroffe story - in terms of his career - starts at Marlborough College, the public school in Wiltshire. He admits to not having done terribly well, leaving at 16 with just three O-levels to his name - and two of those in French after his teacher entered him in two separate boards to give him double the chance of passing.

But then he had to make his way in the real world.

He says: "For me, it was a really simplistic thing. If you've got no qualifications, you've still got to earn a living.

"I went to a good public school, my dad was a senior army officer. I had it all on a plate.

"It was scary sh**. I messed the whole education thing up, and spent the next 10 years working out how to make a living.

"First of all I worked in theatre for a year with all the luvvies. I worked for £8 per week.

"In those days, if you knew your stage left from your stage right, you were an expert in rock and roll so I started doing tours, putting the lights up.

"Rod Stewart wanted to do a big theatre type show, but in stadiums. He wanted everything to be white.

"I was completely untrained, but there I was as a rock and roll stage designer."

That career lasted all the way through the 70s and right into the mid 80s when Woodroffe says he was lucky enough to be in the right spot when a scruffy man called Geldof was putting together the world's biggest ever rock concert.

He says: "Most of the big acts in the world had come to me, so my team were obviously the people to do it, as the people who did all the big staging then.

"I had worked for Bob before with the Boomtown Rats, but I did not see much of him at that time. He was busy running around getting the artists together. It was an amazing day."

But despite the high of working on such an iconic event, Woodroffe felt bad about being untrained. He said: "After that, I was really lost for about a year. I thought I had blown it. I thought I had been scamming it.

"There were suddenly high flying people coming into the industry from New York, etc, coming on to my patch. I thought I should get out of the business before I got found out.

"I went into the TV business, selling TV rights to rock concerts."

He did that for about six or seven years but felt it was not very satisfying, as it was not a creative business - and he had another crisis of confidence.

"That was the third time in my life when I lost my way. I had planned to be a millionaire by the time I was 20, then I put that off until I was 30 as I was having so much fun. Then it was going to be 40. I suddenly realised I was running out of time.

"I thought `Unless I do something now, I will turn into a sad old git'.

"I was going to do indoor rock climbing walls. I looked at lots of things.

"Then one day I was sat in a restaurant in Hanover Square in the West End with a Japanese friend who was the producer of Top of the Pops over there, and we started talking about sushi.

"In those days it was very expensive, and I was questioning why that was, because the raw materials were inexpensive.

"I decided the reason it was so expensive was what I called `the Great Japanese Sushi Ploy'.

"They made you think it had to be expensive by talking about the years of training required to prepare it properly, etc.

"My friend said I should do what they have in Japan - a conveyor belt sushi bar - and I should have girls serving in black PVC miniskirts.

"That kind of restaurant over there is like cafes such as a Happy Eater on the side of the A1, but we wanted something different.

"There was no great internet resources then, so I just picked up the phone and made calls - and the first YO! Sushi opened two years later."

The company now extends to 36 outlets, following the opening of the Newcastle branch inside Fenwick department store last week, and chief executive Robin Rowland has plans to expand a lot further still.

Woodroffe says: "I have not run YO! Sushi for seven years now. You should do what you are good at, and spend 95% of your time doing that. I'm not good at running things over a long period.

"I went off to run YO! Japan (a clothing company), and now Yotel (a hotel with `pod' like, small rooms modelled on the first class cabin on a plane)." So what is it that makes Woodroffe successful as an entrepreneur? Can he condense it into a formula for others to follow? Apparently not.

"I've met people who are creative, or not creative. Those who are good at maths, or like me, can't read a balance sheet.

"We all have our own ways of doing things. I say that I have two great talents - ignorance and enthusiasm.

"If you knew all the risks to start a restaurant, you would never do it, but you do have to have a childlike enthusiasm to keep working at something."

This leads him on to a subject which has clearly exercised him before - the rather proscriptive school system to be found in modern Britain.

He says: "Schoolboy dreams are often good ideas for businesses. The imagination we have at 11, 12 or 13 gets educated out of us - though fortunately I did not have the imagination educated out of me.

"If we are going to be a knowledge economy, we have to let our kids come through school without the fear of God being put into them.

"With testing, you are taught by teachers to answer questions in the way examiners want you to. There is not much room for new, creative ideas, for people using initiative and creativity."

And he does not have much time for the traditional approach to business either.

"I think business has been so grey for so many years. Men in boardrooms with cufflinks. I think being an entrepreneur is 50% what you learn in school and 50% what you are as a human being.

"When you are in the groove, everything comes tumbling in - everything works.

"After lots of false starts, lots of mistakes, in 1997 (the launch of YO! Sushi) everything was in the groove for me, and I was in the right place to do it. I had a strong desire to succeed and strong fear of failure.

"I still have substantial stock, and a royalty in perpetuity. So I won't ever have to write a book like Branson did, called `Losing my Virginity' or, for me, `How I lost my YO!'"

But Woodroffe does have something in common with Branson in that he as an individual has become part of the brand that makes his companies work. The website for his YO! Group features pictures of the boss's houseboat home on the Thames and extensive biographical details. So why do it that way?

"It makes it human. It's attractive to people. If you can put a person's face on it, it's a better way of communicating something.

"The people who have done that better than anybody else are Richard Branson with Virgin and Stelios with EasyJet.

"With the YO! Sushi business, there's only so much you can say about food and the restaurant, but people are interested in `life, the universe and everything'."

And Woodroffe has taken this fact and run with it - he is a regular on the after dinner speaking circuit and makes a tidy income from it. He says: "I was up to about 100 speeches per year, but now I do less.

"I made a record with the Blockheads, and I started doing that on stage, then I talked about business, in a human way, and people could really relate to it.

"I think it really helps people - and I get paid for it!"

The next development in Woodroffe's career was television - which came out of his speaking engagements.

He says: "I was on the (after dinner) circuit, and people were saying business people were the new celebrity chefs.

"With Dragon's Den, the BBC said we would be investing our own money - they said between £300,000 and £400,000 - and I did not have that amount at the time, and I said `no'.

"I turned it down and felt a complete mug. Then fortunately they asked me again, if I would step in at the last minute, and it has been great for me, great for YO! Sushi - a good thing that happened.

"I don't think any of us really knew what a success it would be, though we kind of thought we were on to something."

Woodroffe says he got different reactions from his co-stars when the series aired.

He says: "I called round the other dragons to see how it had affected them.

"Peter (Jones) was saying he had not changed, that `it has always been like this for me.' Doug was very analytical, and Duncan said `Simon, they recognise me on the street, I f**king love it!'

"When people go on it, they should bear in mind, there are not five dragons sat there thinking, `Is this going to be a good investment?' They are thinking, `How am I going to look on the next part of the show?'

"All the businesses come from BBC researchers - and they are not the most astute business people. I said we should get more business-minded people to bring candidates in, to get more successes.

"I could not do the second series because I had other speeches contracted, and I don't really want to sit on high in judgement on people anyway.

"I want to be encouraging to people to do things. Although the show is a great idea and has been very good for business, it has got a bit `cartoon-esque'."

The laid back entrepreneur seems to have enjoyed spectating as his fellow dragons sometimes squabbled.

He says: "I was the only one who got on with everybody. I've seen them get on very well on a personal level, but it has been quite amusing watching egos at work.

"Of all of them, Doug Richards and Duncan are my closest friends from that period."

Curiously for one so well known from appearances on the box, Woodroffe did not own a television for quite a long period.

He says: "I did not have a TV for 12 years, though I have one now. One tip for start-up businesses is to get rid of your TV - it creates vast amounts of time. We are all hooked on TV at some level.

"We (his daughter Charlotte and Woodroffe) have the whole gambit now with a big screen but we never watch it. Though my girlfriend (the actress Cherie Lunghi) brings in films, interesting arty films, that we watch."

Woodroffe is clearly very happy with Lunghi, and happily talks of them getting together, and how comfortable the relationship is for them both.

"She lives across the road from me in Chelsea. We have been together just under a year - we were introduced by a mutual friend.

"We were both quite happy being single, but we got together, and hopefully the rest is history. She always plays the boss on television but she's not bossy in real life.

"We know our own minds - and that's the nice thing about relationships when you are older."

So where does the Woodroffe story go from here? What does he still have to achieve?

"I would like to see YO! Sushi go much further, and then I have Yotel coming up, then the next things will be YO! Home (as it sounds, an apartment building company), and YO! Zone (a spa). I would like to build those into big things and then hand over to somebody else.

"Around 12 years ago I thought my life could have gone very badly wrong, but now it's all dreams. What's happened to YO! Sushi, what the team have done, it's unbelievable really."

Questionnaire

What car do you drive?

A Mini Cooper.

What's your favourite restaurant?

YO! Sushi.

Who or what makes you laugh?

This question.

What's your favourite book?

Seven Years in Tibet.

What's your favourite film?

Spinal Tap.

What was the last album you bought?

Jimmy Buffet - Parrot Heads.

What's your ideal job, other than your current one?

Ideas executive.

If you had a talking parrot, what's the first thing you'd teach it to say?

Go away. (Although he expressed it more pithily)

What's your greatest fear?

Having to be a roadie again.

What's the best piece of business advice you have ever received?

"If you do nothing problems go away."

And the worst?

"If you do nothing problems go away."

What's your poison?

Gin.

What newspaper do you read (apart from The Journal)?

The Independent.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?

£8 per week as a student assistant stage manager at the Richmond Theatre in 1971.

How do you keep fit?

Tennis.

What's your most irritating habit?

Silence.

What's your biggest extravagance?

Boats.

With which historical or fictional character do you most identify?

Nelson.

And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?

Ian Dury, Jesus Christ, Michael Caine and Bruce Forsyth.

How would you like to be remembered?

Stroking of the gravestone.

CV

Born: February 14, 1952.

1967 Leaves Marlborough School at 16 with 3 O-levels.

1970's Roadie and stage manager. Stage manager for Vinegar Joe, The Sweet, and lighting technician for The Faces, Jethro Tull and Led Zepplin.

1980's Stage designer. First big break came with Rod Stewart, then everything from Motorhead to The Moody Blues.

1985 Stage designs Live Aid alongside Bob Geldof and his team.

1990s Tries new careers including selling TV rights to rock shows, and less successfully, producing extreme sports videos.

1997 Opens the first YO! Sushi in Poland Street, Soho, London.

1999 Wins Ernst and Young Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year.

2000 Wins Catey UK Group Restaurateur of the Year. Launches The Book of YO!

2003 Sells majority stake in YO! Sushi to his management team. Launches YO! Japan clothing label with a partner. Starts work on the YOTEL pod hotel concept.

2003 Records `Songs in The Key of YO!' with The Blockheads. Launches YO! How, a training and development consultancy for entrepreneurs.

2005 Appears in BBC2's prime time Dragons' Den. Commences work on business TV concepts. Works on development of YO! Zone spa.

2006 Works with YOTEL opening team towards 2007 launch at Gatwick airport.

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