Crispin Tweddell: From Pitcher & Piano to Propercorn, lessons from private equity's nice guy

The founder of private equity firm Piper has an enviable track record as an investor in growing consumer businesses. What's the secret of his success?

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 30 Nov 2016

Photography by Julian Dodd

An affable old-school toff with a BoJo-esque barnet and dressed-down manner, Crispin Tweddell is about as far away from the stereotypical bloodless, buttoned-up private equity tycoon as you can get.

But don't let appearances deceive you - despite the non-industry-standard rumpled jacket, faded red chinos and twinkly eyes, he's a remarkable entrepreneur-investor who founded Pitcher & Piano in the 80s and whose backing helped take fashion brand Boden (from whose catalogue he may well still dress) from sales of £18m to £156m in the noughties. His Piper operation's current portfolio includes Turtle Bay Caribbean eateries, posh dog food brand Forthglade and gourmet snack biz Propercorn (founded by MT's 35 Women Under 35er Cassandra Stavrou) to name but three.

Nor is Piper's HQ to be found in the rarefied financial enclaves of Mayfair or the City as you might expect, but rather in a shabby-chic back street just off boho Notting Hill Gate. Not a great deal cheaper these days, but a world away in terms of atmosphere. 'We don't need to be in the City,' he says. 'I live about a mile to the north and I have a choice of three buses to get here in the morning. I love it.'

Over the years he's quietly developed an enviable reputation as the go-to guy for backing restaurants, fashion brands and other consumer businesses with a few years under their belts, looking to grow.

In a world where successful investing - like everything else - is increasingly down to having the right algorithm, Tweddell's approach is reassuringly low-tech. 'People in the business know that when they reach the right stage they will probably come and talk to us.

'All the advisers and intermediaries know what we look for, too. That if the business is really well established and looking for £500m they will not come here!'

So what kind of business does press the Piper buttons? 'We invest between £10m and £20m in businesses with about three years' track record. We invest for about four years and over that period we aim for a 3x multiple. Given the level of risk, I think that's a pretty reasonable return for out investors - they are in effect putting their money into a blind fund, they don't know what's going to happen.'

He runs a pretty tight operation with a hand-picked team of about 15, identifying and assessing businesses - typically those aimed at fairly well-heeled middle-England customers in what you might call the Waitrose set - with a view to taking a stake and getting involved.

'We punch above our weight,' he says proudly. 'I remember asking someone to come and do a salary study and when they came in they said, "Where is everybody?" They expected to find lots of people, but we are lean.'

His mantra - 'A business has got to be different and better, or what's the point?' - is backed up by a painstaking approach to keep failures to a minimum. 'We only make about three investments a year, we like slow and we like thoughtful. We don't like seat of the pants. There's nothing that ends up in that awful term "rollout". There are no cookie cutters here.'

In contrast to those investors who, as the saying goes, kiss a lot of frogs in the hope that one or two will turn into princes, Tweddell goes to some lengths to try and figure out the best prospects in advance. Consequently it's a gruelling experience to have Piper run its slide rule over your business.

'It's a rigorous process, it's not numerical. Some people think it's too rigorous, they say "Wow, this is going some isn't it? But I think it behoves everyone to take it seriously, £10m is not a flip issue.'

It takes 'at least three months' to make a decision, and involves meetings with not only the senior management but also the layer below. 'We're thinking about succession, who's going to move up, will they need people from outside, how will they get them if they do? Who are their competitors? Who do we need to take references from? Do we need to do psychometrics, and what sort?'

In a world where there is generally too much money chasing too few opportunities, looking hard before you leap pays dividends. One person who has been through the Piper boot camp and come out on the other side is Johnnie Boden, who also worked briefly for Tweddell.

'I knew him years before when I worked at Piper Trust. The most important thing I learned was that an investor should be someone you like and who adds value. He was always great on people,' says Boden.

Piper took a stake in Boden in 1999 when it was facing the classic organisational challenges of scaling up its processes and controlling costs, while also dealing with major league competitors like M&S and Gap for the first time.

'He (Tweddell) was a very good board member, not all investors are. He was very good at making us take a step back and always asked great "big picture" questions.'

'He's also very nice - lots of PE investors throw their weight around but he is a very good listener. He does have strong opinions but if he disagrees he always says so politely.'

But when Tweddell decides that something isn't to his liking, he is quite capable of digging his heels in: 'He wasn't always easy - who is? He could be like a stuck needle on some things, but on those things he was almost always right.'

When Piper exited Boden, eight years later, it earned a 30x return on its investment. Tweddell regards it as perhaps his best ever deal, but surely they don't all go that well?

'You do get the odd disaster, it happens. The failures are huge bits of learning but they are very personal. So expensive and painful that you always think, "Bloody hell! Is this the only way to learn? Couldn't the thing be a bit more successful and I'd still learn?" But if things go sour you just have to deal with it and move on.'

Born in Sussex to a comfortably-off family - his father was an architect - like so many of an entrepreneurial bent he seemed to be born with the genetic predisposition to, 'Try things out. I don't know where it came from. When I was at school I sold conkers - I put them in the oven so they were value-added conkers!'

Also at school - Radley, no less, 'I made a fruit machine out of Meccano that fitted into a desk lid. People thought it was marvellous and I got to keep all the pennies.'

And although after he left university he had jobs with big-name design agencies Fitch and Wolff Olins, he was always going to go his own way. 'I never thought of myself as having a corporate career. We talk now about entrepreneurialism, but I never thought about that. I just tried things out to see what happened. That's how Piper began.'

Initially the business was an adviser to large retailers. 'The call came from Geoff Mulcahy at what was then Paternoster (later Kingfisher). He wanted me to join the board. I said I didn't want to do that, but I'd love to start Piper, whose business would be creating good ideas.'

Someone who worked with him in those early days was Sir Ian Cheshire (then plain Ian), who would go on to be the CEO of Kingfisher from 2008-2015 and is now chairman of Debenhams. 'Crispin is an extraordinary character, he has an amazing ability to get inside the customer's head. He is a hybrid of a consultant and an entrepreneur. He thinks like a founder so he can start and develop businesses in a way that no consultant could ever do.

'I've seen him in action at Barclays and Asda among others - he brings the customer into the boardroom like no one else,' says Cheshire.

But Tweddell soon ran out of patience for simply advising others. 'We wanted to put our money where our mouth was, rather than writing a report and hoping that someone else will end up agreeing with you.'

So he moved into private equity and in 1985 Piper Trust opened its doors. Was it unusual back then? 'You bet it was. If you said private equity, people said, "You what?" he recalls, underlining the difficulty of persuading private investors to put their own hard-earned cash, not into a business as such but into a business whose job it was to go out and find or start businesses.

'Our first fund was funded by Piper individuals - including me.'

The success of the Pitcher & Piano bar chain, which that very first fund was set up to finance, changed all that. In the mid-80s, Pitcher & Piano provided a totally new relaxed and aspirational vibe, worlds away from sticky-carpeted pubs and hotel bars. Despite - or perhaps because of - developing a bit of a name as a pick-up joint for Sloane Rangers, it was a massive hit and was eventually sold to Marston's for 20x the initial investment.

It was his first business - and first big success - but he's not sentimental. Professional investors know that getting out is just as important as getting in.

'The truth is that our mind is always on exit. One of the first questions you ask is, "Who's going to want this in three or four years' time?" If the answer is, "Oh well, maybe an other PE company," that's not really good enough. A business needs a purpose, it needs to be going somewhere.'

So who might buy one of his more recent investments - Propercorn for example, in which Piper led a £7m investment over the summer alongside the Innocent Drinks founders Richard Reed, Adam Balon and Jon Wright? The answer comes right back. 'A manufacturer I think, a big snack brand. Might be American but could be from anywhere - brand owners think globally these days.'

Why does he think that private equity gets such a bad press? 'It's because a number of private equity companies haven't helped to invest in sustainable businesses. So people go, "Hang on, what's the point of this apart from making a few bob for someone along the way?"

'Those kinds of things are very visible and naturally get talked about, but it's not what the industry as a whole is about.'

Most of Piper's funding these days comes from wealthy individuals - Carphone Warehouse and TalkTalk founder Charles Dunstone is a long-time backer - and from family offices. 'Not a penny of our money comes from large institutions, they are very risk averse. The bulk comes from family offices, they are looking after quite a lot of dosh and they have to put it somewhere. It's a growing sector, it's global and (importantly in Brexit Britain) it has nothing to do with the City.'

Happily married to wife Sue, their grown-up daughter is a junior doctor in Suffolk. When he's not working he has two private passions - his 93ft-sloop, which recently completed a round the world voyage, and sheep's milk.

Yes, sheep's milk - especially sheep's milk yoghurt. 'The yoghurt is high fat but the right kind of fat. It's wonderful stuff.' He has a farm in Dorset and a dairy. 'We're probably the largest supplier of organic sheep's milk. I spend every Monday on the farm.'

Is there anything that interrupts this idyll to keep him awake at night? 'The only absolute terror I have is that in the developed world there is no shortage of almost anything you can think of. Everything is oversupplied.

'In the Pitcher & Piano days there were real shortages - we used to call them market gaps. Those gaps don't exist any more. Today it's all about innovation and market share.'

But in the unlikely event that the supply of 'different and better' business opportunities does dry up, he's always got the sheep's milk yoghurt to fall back on.

THREE CHALLENGES FACING TWEDDELL

- Sticking to his personal 'slow finance' approach in an increasingly high-speed, high-tech world

- Keeping the pipeline of investment opportunities well stocked

- Selling the benefits of his beloved organic sheep's milk yoghurt to a wider public

TWEDDELL IN A MINUTE

1947: Born in Sussex, educated at Radley College and the University of Manchester
1970: Joins Wolff Olins as an associate
1974: Joins Fitch & Co as director, then managing director
1985: Launches Piper Trust
1986: Launches Pitcher & Piano bars
1996: Sells Pitcher & Piano to Marston's
2001: Piper concentrates on investment backing for entrepreneurs
2006: Acquires Woodlands Dairy yoghurts
2010: Joint-founder of Turtle Bay restaurants
2016: Leads £7m investment in Propercorn

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