David Campbell

David Campbell tells Mel Flaherty how he plans to use his experience to reinvigorate PizzaExpress

“If I am being honest, it should always be a bit daunting, otherwise you are not challenging yourself enough and I like challenges and things that are a bit difficult.

Evolutionary vision

You could be forgiven for thinking that for the man responsible for introducing London’s hugely successful annual New Year’s Eve fireworks and for helping to turn a white elephant in Greenwich into the world’s biggest live music venue, getting the job of helping PizzaExpress get its mojo back might seem quite tame.

But David Campbell, the new(ish) CEO of the iconic casual dining chain doesn’t see it like that. His illustrious career has covered marketing, media, music, Formula One and, in more recent years, branded restaurants. He has held high profile positions with organisations including the capital’s tourism promotion body, then called Visit London, which was where he upgraded the city’s somewhat staid image by launching fireworks out of the London Eye; with Virgin, where he launched Virgin Radio (which he later bought back with Chris Evans and they set up Ginger Media Group), and with Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG, the sports and live entertainment company), where he played a significant part in transforming the much-derided Millennium Dome into The O2 arena – the job, he reflects now, that gave him more sleepless nights than any other thanks to the £350m risk involved. And he has worked closely with some of the largest larger than life characters including Richard Branson (the biggest influence on his career, he says, who made him see anything is possible), Ken Livingstone, Bernie Ecclestone and, of course, Evans.

Back on track

Having joined PizzaExpress in November, Campbell has taken on a restaurant business that has been closed for the majority of his time in the job so far, but that had lost its way some time before Covid-19 made its presence known. Under the ownership of Hony Capital since 2014, the now 55-year-old chain’s leadership operated remotely from Asia where it concentrated on growing the brand, taking away focus from the core UK and Ireland business and amassing a debt pile that was looking increasingly difficult to service as profits began to fall. However, in September last year, creditors finalised a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) as part of a major recapitalisation and restructuring of the company. Bondholders have taken control of the UK business, where almost 100 restaurants have now closed permanently. They divested the China operations, reduced debt by £400m and agreed new funding to refresh the remaining estate of 370 sites.

“We are probably unique in terms of being a company that in March 2021 is much, much, much stronger than it was in March 2020,” Campbell says, adding that this new strong platform and the opportunities it provides is what attracted him to the role.

That said, he does not underestimate the job of getting PizzaExpress back to its former position as the leading casual dining operator, top of every landlord’s list and, more importantly, every customer’s. He says this will be a process of “evolution rather than revolution”, involving refurbishment of existing sites, moving gradually away from the heavy discounting the brand had become reliant on and implementing a top down “laser focus” on the customer.

Campbell came on board at PizzaExpress at the same time Allan Leighton joined as chairman – they are already a well-established double act having turned the tired Wagamama chain around and doubled its value from 2013 to 2017. He says the task ahead is exactly the kind of positive challenge he relishes:

“If I am being honest, it should always be a bit daunting, otherwise you are not challenging yourself enough and I like challenges and things that are a bit difficult.

Ambitious plans

“This is a big company and a big estate but, unlike at the beginning of my time at Wagamama, I have done multi-site restaurants before. However, I am pretty ambitious and so is Allan and I would be disappointed if we don’t see some changes at PizzaExpress by the end of 2021, quite a lot of changes by the end of 2022 and a whole load by the end of 2023.”

Given that at the time of this interview in April 2021 only 187 restaurants are open, only for delivery and collection – the ones that make less of loss opening this way than they would if they remained shut – and that unrestricted indoor dining is not scheduled to resume until 21 June at the earliest, this is a brave aim to state.

But Campbell is a dyed-in-the-wool optimist and is confident of achieving his goals, not least because he believes that the strength of the PizzaExpress brand DNA will shine again and allow growth in its multiple channels – restaurants, retail and delivery and collection. The firm’s slice of the takeaway pizza market has of course grown, being the only viable trade for the restaurants for so long. While Campbell says takeaway’s share of total PizzaExpress sales will go down as the restaurants reopen for dining in, he believes its value to the overall business will remain much stronger than pre-Covid times.

“Delivery volumes at the beginning of January more than doubled to the last week of March – we have got more marketing support and we have got better operationally with more focused menus and quicker cooking times. We are also working on new packaging – our delivery product at the end of 2021 will be far superior in every respect,” he explains.

Campbell is also confident in the company’s executive committee, newly completed by the appointments of a chief business officer, Jo Bennett, and the firm’s first chief customer officer, Shadi Halliwell. He likes to keep reporting structures lean and simple and to focus on four or five tasks at a time. He admits he doesn’t find it easy to switch off from work totally but is very happy being like that, even if “Mrs Campbell isn’t always so happy with it.”

He still enjoys music though and is a non-executive director of Pacha Group, the Ibiza-based leisure, entertainment and hospitality operator which plans to open cabaret dining and a hotel on the Greek island of Mykonos this summer and cabaret dining as Lio at London’s Café de Paris later this year.

Lasting legacy

Campbell is infectiously positive about everything he has ever been involved in and genuinely has good things to say about every company and boss he has worked with.

“I never go into a job thinking about when I am going to leave and, yes, there are places where I haven’t achieved everything that I set out to,” he admits, referencing his one-year stint at Formula One Management and the two years in his most recent roles as CEO of The Ivy Collection and Executive Chairman of Bill’s Restaurants, “but one of the most important things to me is that I leave any business a whole lot better than when I started and that that legacy lives on.”

Since he started his career proper as marketing manager for PepsiCo in the US (he moved out there with his family in his teens), Campbell’s working life has followed a path dictated by opportunity rather than design and that’s the way he likes it.
“I tend to take things one step at a time,” he says. “If I wind back the clock to 10 years ago, I would never have figured out that I’d end up doing what I’m doing now.”