Guest Slot – Recruitment Insider-Nigel Sapsed

There is a trend gathering pace. It might be down to the state of the economy or the fact that people are sick of all things corporate and are therefore thumbing their noses up at the big brands.

Big has had its day…for now.

Whatever it is it’s leading to the emergence of new small, family-owned businesses. In some cases these are being led by senior executives coming out of large corporations who’ve simply had enough of the constraints of working within the world of big business. 

The philosophy behind these new players is not about build, build, build and brand, brand, brand before sell, sell, sell, which has been a feature of the market for some years. Instead, the thinking today is more about growing methodically, holding onto the business, and maybe passing it onto your children some way down the line.  

One example of this is restaurant entrepreneur John Barnes (founder of La Tasca) who has set up a farm shop and cafe business that is being run by his daughter. It has its first unit housed in a former Little Chef and there are plans for no more than six outlets in total rather than a grand plan to create a mega-sized estate and then sell out to private equity.

And out in the country I’ve a garden centre near my house where the owner is always trying to expand the offer and he recently added an enormous farm shop. It is absolutely rammed at weekends despite it not being cheap so maybe we are seeing support for independent businesses where there is a perception of better quality.

Certainly I believe people are buying differently – with localness moving up the agenda and big brands now being shunned. People are instead popping into farm shops and other specialists retailers for the provenance and product knowledge they offer.

In big business there has been a loss of integrity in the eyes of many consumers who are choosing small family-owned operators instead. A senior executive I know recognised this and has recently left the comfort of his big-bucks job to set up a bakery in St. Albans.

He no longer wants to be in an environment where he has to adhere to rules from on high even when he believes them to be the wrong. Instead he is moving into an area that he fully believes in and his decisions are based on talking to customers.

This loss of connection with customers is sadly inevitable with large businesses. We invariably find that when independent operators grow to a certain size (and then often sell out to a corporate) they lose some of their individuality and spontaneity. In the desire to bring in structured processes to operate the business it loses much of its original charm.

Businesses can also lose their fizz and excitement as they become part of the furniture. Pizza Express is a very well loved operator but it is losing out to newer players who are offering something that is less engineered, and less overtly branded.
Pizza Express: Still loved, but is losing out.

The key today is about offering greater flexibility. Yes, Pizza Express is a casual dining experience, but there is now a trend for an even more relaxed environment – where you might wander in wearing muddy boots and bring your dog too, and where there is great flexibility with the food and drink offer. Maybe we are talking more pub than restaurant, but either way the desires and demands of today’s customers continue to evolve.

It is inevitable that many of the current crop of new independent businesses will ultimately find themselves in the hands of acquisitive corporations. But at the moment we are in the early stages of the cycle of growth of these newcomers before the next round of consolidation invariably hits the market.

This might be in another five or 10 years time so my recommendation is to enjoy the vitality and provenance of these new players while they are still in their infancy because we all know children can grow up far too quickly and become lumbered with the many burdens of adulthood.

Nigel Sapsed is director of executive search specialist Sapsed Stevens