The Dynamic Duo – Conran Restaurants New Management
The company formerly known as Conran Restaurants has just been renamed D&D London, signalling its new management and fresh approach. The men at the top, Des Gunewardena and David Loewi, tell Gaby Huddart what the future holds for the group.
The Des and Dave show is well and truly up and running. Following their acquisition of a 49 per cent stake in Conran Restaurants last September – in conjunction with Bank of Scotland Corporate and 40 of their managers – Des Gunewardena and David Loewi have firmly put their mark on the company, renaming it D&D London at the beginning of March.
It’s a move that has shocked many in the business world, and the restaurant trade in particular. Conran Restaurants had become a household name in the UK and for many restaurant-goers, it conjured up images of stylish eateries staffed by elegant waiters serving beautifully presented posh nosh.
But, explain Gunewardena and Loewi – chairman and managing director of the company, respectively – they felt it was important to give the company a name signalling its renaissance.
‘This is a really important point in the development of the business. It’s been very successful in the 1990s, but there’s been a significant change in its management and we thought it was the right thing to do to acknowledge that,’ says Gunewardena.
‘We felt Conran Restaurants had become something of a brand name and we want to move away from that feeling. The restaurants are all individual and we want to make more of that.’
Loewi adds: ‘We really feel this change is right for the long-term philosophy of the company and our plans for developing the restaurants. Changing the name is an opportunity to show there’s a new energy in the company and that we’re making a fresh start.’
One wonders what Sir Terence must think of the change – surely he must be a little aggrieved not to have his surname on the company he founded and in which he still has a 51 per cent stake.
Not so, says Gunewardena, who has kept up a close relationship with Sir Terence, with whom he has worked
since 1989. Sir Terence was more than ready to hand over the reins of the company’s management, he stresses.
Indeed, the idea for the buyout was Sir Terence’s (see panel, below). He is happy to leave Gunewardena and Loewi to the task of running it as they see fit, the one proviso being that they use Sir Terence’s design company, Conran & Partners, to handle the design of any new projects or restaurant refurbishments.
‘My relationship with Terence is such that we talk regularly – at least once a week – about what we’re looking at doing,’ says Gunewardena. ‘We don’t need his advice or opinion before taking a decision, but he’s involved in the sense that he’ll ring if he sees a great property that he thinks we should look at.’
‘And he still gives me feedback on the restaurants,’ Loewi adds. ‘His principal role is through Conran & Partners on the design, but we’ll have conversations about what he thinks if he’s been into one of the restaurants.’
It has been well documented that Sir Terence was adamantly opposed to floating his restaurant on the stock market, having had a turbulent time as chairman of Storehouse PLC in the late 1980s. Indeed, he once told me: ‘I don’t think this business lends itself to a stock market listing. It’s such a visible thing – every lunch and dinner is like a public performance. To have a bunch of analysts snooping around all the time saying “the portions are too big” or “you weren’t very busy at lunchtime” would be intolerable.’
When I ask whether this position remains unchanged under the new regime, Gunewardena grins: this is the question a lot of journalists have been asking him recently.
He indicates a slight softening in the company’s stance. ‘There’s a great freedom in being a private company in that you can do what you want to do and move quickly. If you go public, you can’t manage the business in the same way,’ he says.
‘That said, occasionally you can be a successful restaurant company and float. Our aim is to always act in the interests of operating quality restaurants so, potentially, who knows what we might do in future? We are not completely ruling out flotation, but we are not actively looking at it either. Most people seem to think we are, but we are not.’
So, if there’s no schmoozing in the City going on, what’s the key focus for D&D London in the months ahead?
Gunewardena says he and Loewi have set themselves the ambitious target of doubling the company’s turnover within three years and they are stepping up several gears in terms of its rate of expansion.
Since they have taken over the helm, D&D London has opened three restaurants in Copenhagen (see pictures, below) and, as we go to press, two restaurants are on the point of launching in Japan.
‘We’ve looked for a long time in Tokyo to develop a restaurant business, but had to find the right partner over there – someone dedicated to building a big business,’ says Gunewardena.
A partner has emerged in the shape of Japanese restaurant company Hiramatsu, which will own the two new restaurants but pay D&D London a turnover-based royalty.
‘We are developing the concepts, design and menus and they will run the business. David will go over a few times a year to give operational input and Max Renzland, our food development director, will also go out several times a year to keep the food as it should be,’ says Gunewardena.
Back home, a new restaurant, Skylon, is scheduled to open at the newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank in June.
‘This will be similar in structure to Plateau in Docklands,’ says Loewi, ‘with a bar and grill on one side and a more fine-dining restaurant on the other.’ But he stresses: ‘The look and feel of the place will, of course, be completely individual.’
Thereafter, we can look forward to more openings in the UK and overseas. Gunewardena says he would like more eateries in London. ‘And in the next five years, we’ll also do more around the UK than we’ve done in the past five years,’ he adds.
Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh are particularly attractive locations for the company, although openings here will depend on appropriate sites coming onto the market at the right price.
Similarly, overseas expansion will depend on the availability of good sites. However, Gunewardena reveals that he’s keen to open another operation in New York, while he sees Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, Shanghai and Hong Kong as ‘logical places where we’d like to open’.
‘If we do open somewhere abroad, the key thing is that we’ll do it in a big way. Just as Alcazar in Paris is 12,000sq ft and
Custom House in Copenhagen is 13,000sq ft, we want to do similarly interesting, large-scale projects,’ Gunewardena explains.
Loewi adds: ‘Operationally, we can’t be spread all over the world randomly because we’d be spread too thinly. Rather than peppering the world with restaurants, we are more interested in having restaurants in fewer cities, but building significant businesses there. It’s much easier to manage them that way.’
But it’s not only restaurants that D&D want to open. Hotel projects are also being considered. Gunewardena and Loewi were involved in the development of the Great Eastern Hotel in the 1990s and installing several eateries there. The property – which Conran owned in partnership with Blackstone Real Estate – was subsequently sold last spring, netting Conran Restaurants £33.2m.
‘We’re never going to be a Hilton, but we are attracted to interesting buildings we can turn into good hotels and put restaurants into,’ says Gunewardena. ‘We had fantastic success with the Great Eastern, so we’d be very happy to do something on similar lines, though we are looking at small hotels as well as large ones.
‘It’s very difficult to find sensibly priced property – either an existing hotel we can revamp or something we can convert – but I would like to have a property secured by this time next year.’
Whatever they end up buying, there is little doubt that this dynamic duo faces exciting – and very busy – times ahead.
London2012uig.com would like to thank Square Meal Magazine for allowing us to use this article, which was originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine.