Meet the real brains behind Yo! Sushi's success

Robin Rowland joined as CEO 17 years ago and has turned the Japanese chain into an £84m turnover business with 77 restaurants.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 29 Jun 2017

The legitimate owner of the title ‘Mr Yo! Sushi’ isn’t the legendary Dragon and ex-music business roadie Simon Woodroffe. No, ‘Mr Yo! Sushi’ is Robin Rowland (pictured below), who has just clocked up 17 years at the business. Rowland is a bit of a legend in the hospitality industry and is known as ‘the operator's operator.’

Woodroffe founded Yo! way back in 1997 in Soho and brought the concept of Japanese ‘kaiten’ sushi bars with their maki conveyor belts to the UK. Two years in and with four restaurants Rowland joined and has now seen the business through three private equity funded MBOs. There are now 77 restaurants in the UK, 3 in the USA and 16 franchised operations in the Middle East and a number of international airports. In 2015 Yo! Turned over £84 million and had an EBITDA profit of £11 million. Rowland says that, unlike a number of competitors who are finding things pretty tough currently, he’s seen a 6.5% increase in like for like sales during the last year.

Rowland is a highly sought-after industry veteran and also sits as a non-exec on the board of Marstons plus Caffe Nero. After a degree at Kent university which featured a spell in South Carolina - ‘they were still fighting the civil war down there’ - Rowland was recruited by Whitbread and bloodied as a pub area manager in the badlands of South East London and Kent. He was then poached by Diageo (then Grand Met) in 1988 to develop the ‘Old Orleans’ national chain of US theme restaurants and went from two to 24 sites. In 1992 Scottish & Newcastle PLC bought the business and he later did a final corporate spell at The Restaurant Group. He received an OBE last year for his service to the UK hospitality industry.

At fifty-six he’s still skinny and filled with energy. He’s just been up to Yell, one of the most far-flung of the Shetlands to negotiate a deal for his salmon - 300,000 kilos per annum for £4.5 million. The boning is done by hand near Chessington. ‘We were buying from Norway before,’ he says, ‘But the husbandry of this company which is Canadian owned was second to none. Beautiful cool, clean water. We buy three full pens per annum.’

He’s back in the hot seat at Yo! at the request of Mayfair Equity partners who bought the business from Quilvest, a French PE outfit who hung onto it for six years from 2008. Rowland is by now accustomed to the laser-sharp focus from PE and is off to a meeting to predict cash flow three years hence when he leaves me. ‘I think we’re recovering our mojo properly after the downturn now. But PE isn’t always easy. Banks are very cautious these days. When you’re into year three, four and five you can get some sleepless nights as things tighten up and covenants get stretched.’

Yo! does well among women. There’s not much gluten kicking about and it all looks healthily low-fat. His record-holding branch is Terminal 2 at Heathrow which once did £85,000 in one week. A distinct advantage of Yo! is that it can work out of a floor plate as small as 1000 square feet which gives a basic kitchen plus a conveyor belt.

When he went back into the conveyor belt driving seat he put the chain through a re-branding by Paul Belford who had done the same for Aston Martin. ‘I felt it was getting a bit too kiddy. Even Disney Like. I wanted to make it more adult and show it takes food seriously.’ They’ve considerably increased the menu variety and you can now also buy Japanese street food.

Brexit is very unwelcome news. 44% of Yo!’s employees are non-Brits from the EU. The figures at Wagamama are 65% and Pret plus Caffe Nero are nearer 80%. ‘I feel very strongly about this,’ says Rowland, ‘We have a long history of employing people from Europe and many have introduced us to their friends. Our people are currently very confused by it all and some are already starting to go home. The day after the referendum vote I went round a dozen restaurants to talk to our people and try to reassure them. I think they felt very disenfranchised.’

They pay National Living Wage to all their staff who get to keep tips and under-26ers receive the same. He is proud of the fact that the company is top quartile among peers on net promoter and employee engagement scores. A manager earns £40-50k and a head chef £30-35k. But for salaried staff turnover is still about 70% annually although this figure is lower than many competitors. While the Brexit mess continues recruitment looks set to become a worsening problem. This may even by a concern for Simon Woodroffe who, although he may no longer be actively involved in the business, still benefits handsomely from it. He drew up one of the sweetest embedded deals ever and still receives one per cent of turnover. How much longer that might continue is anyone’s guess.

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