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Issue 15 - All Star Lanes

Christian Rose

Aiming to score another strike

All Star Lanes Managing Director Christian Rose tells Mel Flaherty why he has always said yes to a challenge

Luck, family links, a love of studying a particular subject… these are the sort of things that are normally attributed to determining early career decisions. Christian Rose’s inspiration was slightly different. It was, he says, ‘The Man from Del Monte’.

For anyone who somehow missed the ubiquitous early 1980s TV adverts for the food production and distribution firm, they featured a white-suited, fedora-hatted distinguished-looking man who was purportedly the buyer for the company. He is seen visiting an anxious Mexican orange grower to test the quality of the fruit, which he silently approves, prompting the grower to run out to the orchard to jubilantly shout the iconic line: “The Man from Del Monte, he say ‘Yes!”.

Retail therapy

For Rose, now the Managing Director of All Star Lanes, the growing high-end food and drink-led bowling brand which attracts celebrities and young royals as well as regular families, couples and corporate business, the idea of a job where he could travel to exotic places and test food and drink appealed greatly. So much so that, much to his parents’ dismay at the time, he rejected the offers of places at three universities and instead joined Marks & Spencer’s management training scheme.

Of course, the reality wasn’t quite like on the telly but he was able to study business at HEC Paris business school. This facilitated him a buying role with Safeway at the time it set up a European buying alliance with six Continental retailers. He was there when it successfully merged with Argyll Group and subsequently started category management, which at the time was in its early days in retail.

Rose’s next move was to Taiwan with Far Eastern health and beauty retailer AS Watson Group where he found he was revered and despised in almost equal measure for his young age and his ethnicity. He loved the experience but his wife, now of 30 years, fell pregnant with their longed first child, so they came back to the UK.

Somerfield, which was taken over by the Co-Op, was his next employer. Rose says his role in the flotation of the business and the later merger with Kwik Save were good learning curves but more significant to him was the setting up of a charity ball, which ran for four years and generated some £2.25 million. It made national news and was supported by members of the royal family.

Rose then went to Homebase, the DIY retailer then owned by Sainsbury’s, where he ran the commercial and marketing arm of the internet business, “it was a real career and life-achievement for me,” he comments. He is proud of the ground-breaking work they did in using ideation on a website – featuring scenes designed to encourage consumers to buy products to recreate a look, rather than simply listing products. However, when Homebase was then sold to private equity investors, they mothballed the online business leading Rose to go back to business needing a strategic change.

Mr Fix It

He worked at The Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI), the government organisation set up to sell goods to servicemen and their families – in 17 countries when Rose was there. When he came on board, the operation was not performing as well as it could, a situation he turned around as he has gone onto do many times in his career since, earning himself a reputation as a Mr Fix It, something the investors in his current endeavour are hoping will be validated further by his strategy for All Star Lanes, more on which later.

Rose recalls having a moment when he was in the Gulf desert wearing a flak jacket in a war zone, thinking what a far cry the job was from his original Del Monte fantasy. The NAAFI role was also memorable for the rollicking he got from a senior civil servant when a news story broke in The Sun about troops running out of toilet paper due to lack of funding. He became a hero, though, when he got Tesco to collaborate with NAAFI to remedy the situation.

Rose’s next role was rather different. He became Director of Food for Spirit Group, then covering 200 pubs, bars and restaurants. During his time there, he almost doubled food sales. Spirit was sold by its private equity owners to Punch, at which point Rose went to what was then Alliance Boots, where he helped to fully integrate the two businesses following the merger between Alliance Unichem and Boots.

It was then back to hospitality when he took the helm at G&J Greenall, the gin distiller owned by De Vere, the hotelier which was underperforming. It was another turnaround job – in Rose’s first six months there, he implemented a much-needed restructure which ultimately resulted in a third of the workforce having to lose their jobs. By the time he left, the business was in growth to the extent that it employed a third more people than when he started.

After this, De Vere deployed him to its Searcy’s retail business, comprising a group of upmarket eateries and champagne bars, to get it ready for a sale which took place shortly after he moved to take on what Rose describes as one of his most challenging roles, as CEO of Atmosphere Bars and Clubs.

Challenging times

Given his job choices over the years, challenges are clearly not something Rose shies away from. The same is true of his personal life – he has run two marathons and at the time of this interview was just about to undertake his third 100-mile cycling competition.

When Rose joined Atmosphere, its outlets were suffering from the general downturn in the nightclub market, which continues to feel the strain from late licensed pubs and bars. Within six weeks of taking up position, the company was put into a pre-pack administration.

“It was one of the most uncomfortable experiences to hand control over to the administrators,” Rose says. But it paid off. Sun European Partners bought the business back and Rose carried on with closing unprofitable units and setting up a new incarnation of what was originally Chicago Rock Café – Chicago’s in Yeovil.

The new version, with more of an emphasis on food and drink, was a hit and the business became attractive enough to sell to Deltic Group.

Rose’s latest challenge is at the smallest company he has worked but he feels the potential is huge.

All Star Lanes currently has five outlets (four in London, one in Manchester), a number that, much to Rose’s frustration, has not changed since he took on the role two years ago, when he said he would like to have 12 outlets within three years. He admits he hadn’t realised how difficult it would be to find 18,000 square foot sites. Expansion is imminent though and the company certainly hasn’t sat still during the past two years.

Rose has implemented a major restructure that has introduced functions such as human resources, sales and marketing, training, online booking and financial tracking that the business’ entrepreneurial founders never got round to, focussing instead on the early expansion that happened, with hindsight, too quickly.

At All Star’s lowest point, in 2014, profits were just £209,000. For the year ended 28 December 2015, the business reported Ebitda of £1.495 million on turnover of £15.32 million. The company has also spent £700,000 refurbishing its Brick Lane venue, putting more emphasis on the high-end food, which is all cooked from scratch using quality ingredients such as wagyu beef. Currently food accounts for about 30% of total sales, with bowling (which operates at 94% capacity overall) accounting for 30% and the remaining 40% from drink. Rose says food has the biggest potential for growth and would like the split to end up closer to three equal thirds. Having said that, he emphasises that All Star is first and foremost “in the business of creating great memories”, something he makes a point of telling every new employee at their induction, either in person or via a video presentation to encourage them to exceed customers’ expectations.

On the fast track

The company is also aiming to grow private hire on the corporate business side and has changed banks, securing a £3.5 million credit facility with HSBC in the process.

“When I joined the company, we were with a different bank in their intensive care group, now we are with another bank in their fast development stream,” Rose adds.

All Star has just agreed heads of terms with a “major landlord” for a site in West London that could open in the next 18 to 20 months and has another three sites in the pipeline. New All Star Lanes cost about £2.5million to open and payback within 18 to 24 months and Rose says the concept would work well in larger cities like Leeds, Birmingham and Liverpool. A smaller store format is being considered in the medium-term plan to enable quicker expansion and to better suit market towns like Bath, Oxford and Cambridge.

Longer-term, continental Europe, Australia and the Far East are all possible locations for the brand, Rose says, maybe with franchise partners or under licence. But both these and the smaller centres will not be a focus until Rose has proven to All Star’s high calibre investors, which includes the likes of the Rothschild and Goldsmith families, that he can successfully open new venues.

It comes as no surprise that Rose seems excited, rather than daunted, by such a challenge.

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