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My first boss: Sarah Willingham, founder of premium drinks-led bars Nightcap PLC

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My first boss: Sarah Willingham, co-founder of Nightcap PLC
Sarah Willingham is a former director of the Clapham House Group plc and helped develop The Real Greek and Tootsies brands. Photo: Nightcap PLC

Sarah Willingham is one of Europe’s most prominent entrepreneurs and investors, working mainly in the hospitality and lifestyle sectors. She is a mother of four and former investor on BBC’s Dragons' Den.

In her twenties, Sarah led the international expansion of Pizza Express and Planet Hollywood before going it alone to buy Bombay Bicycle Club, turning it into the UK’s largest chain of Indian restaurants.

Launched in January 2021, Nightcap PLC (NGHT.L) has a £35m ($41.8m) market cap with 750 staff across its Cocktail Club, Adventure Bar Group and Barrio Bars stable and aims to open 20 sites in the next year.

Sharing an office for a year in the 1990s with Pizza Express chair David Page and managing director John Metcalf was one of the most significant moments in my working life.

Still in my twenties, I had been running the international department and franchising for three years, lived in Tokyo, but it had become obvious that expansion wasn't core to the business.

I wasn’t someone who ever wanted to be an entrepreneur but the first seeds were sown when I went to the board telling them of the expansion theory, with a view of moving on. They told me to come and work with them on strategic projects — my dad once told me that this role was the first one to get redundant — and working for the board.

Read more: My first boss: BBC Test Match Special producer Adam Mountford

Pizza Express has always been one of the best ever business models in hospitality. The return on capital you were getting out of the sites was phenomenal and it was the benchmark of excellence. I asked so many questions and I got everyone on a pedestal thinking that they were all so clever running this public company.

I understood the brand having opened up sites across the globe, but I didn’t understand value creation. It wasn’t about making more cash, it was all encompassing, where you are improving the value of the pound that the shareholders had invested.

Left: Ian Eldridge, Chief Executive and Right: DAVID PAGE Chairman, PizzaExpressAt the announcement of the 1997 Interim Results.   (Photo by Avalon/Getty Images)
Pizza Express chairman David Page, pictured right, at the announcement of the 1997 Interim Results. Photo: Avalon/Getty (Avalon via Getty Images)

I soaked it all up. I sat back and thought why David and John were making certain decisions on buying sites, paying the premium, spending money, and what made this business model work. The learning has been the foundation of every single business decision — understanding shareholder value, structure and corporate finance — that I have subsequently created or been a part of since.

For every pound I am spending, what is it I am getting back and over what period of time? At Nightcap we have a minimum of 75% return on investment (ROI). Within two years, every million we spend, we get 750 back. That was even better than Pizza Express at the time.

Whenever you spend shareholders’ money, you have to know what you are getting back but also what its relative value is to the rest of the industry. You are competing for the pounds and they want to see they are getting good returns.

When I got to the end of the year and I began to understand David and John’s way of working. Rather than looking at one site, it was about capital structure, market expectations, what the City expected of us and looking at the bigger picture.

My first boss: Sarah Willingham, co-founder of Nightcap PLC
Timing is everything in business, says Sarah Willingham. Photo: Nightcap PLC

It gave me the confidence to walk away and go it alone; I had decided that I wanted to have the largest chain of Indian restaurants in the UK (Bombay Bicycle Club) and was going to copy the Pizza Express business model. I had four kids relatively quickly and I was lucky to be sat in an office where I could learn to control my own diary and also to make some cash. I was driven by freedom.

David was very good at growth and expansion, John was more about detail and logistics. When you are operating at scale, even if you save 4p on tomato sauce, you multiply that by 200 sites and you move the needle as you understand the small move on a price, delivery time and storage. The detail was critical.

I was lucky to have been born with a lot of drive and to find a solution when people say there isn’t one. To soak up the information and, importantly, to have the confidence, I shall be forever grateful for that.

I never thought that I would love doing something as much as Nightcap. I was done with running businesses — I sold Bombay Bicycle Club for around £10m after three years — and I wanted to support other businesses.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 15:  New Dragons Nick Jenkins, Sarah Willingham and Touker Suleyman attend the reinvention of Ghost on Kings Road hosted by Touker Suleyman on April 15, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by David M. Benett/Getty Images for Ghost)
BBC Dragons Den judges Nick Jenkins, Sarah Willingham and Touker Suleyman pictured in 2015. Photo: David M Benett/Getty Images for Ghost (David M. Benett via Getty Images)

Timing in business is everything when my husband, Michael Toxvaerd, and I came up with the idea for Nightcap around the time of COVID, born out of an observation and belief that consumers would continue to enjoy premium drinks-led bars post the pandemic.

The property market was nothing I had seen before and there was demand in the drinks industry, while we had this perfect storm where company PNLs were better than they had ever been, but the balance sheet was shot to bits.

We wanted to float a listed entity and our first acquisition was to be the London Cocktail Club. It wasn’t an easy IPO but we were successful from day one and we are still trading at almost twice what we floated for a year ago. One of the reasons is that we have purchased three successful businesses and are going from strength to strength.

The demand really is there for good late night bars and we are hitting a sweet spot for what the millennial crowd now wants. Moreover, it is the quirky, exceptional, different people that are running and working in these businesses that sets us apart.

Read more: My first boss: Anne Boden, CEO and founder of Starling Bank

Having started Nightcap I’ve been surprised that there aren’t more female entrepreneurs. I never felt anything other than being supported or championed at Pizza Express. It was always outside where I experienced being judged, as the board made me feel very capable.

There was one time, in my late twenties, when I was doing an acquisition for Pizza Express. I was the last person and only woman to walk into the meeting with lawyers. One of them didn’t look up and said, ‘Thank god for that. Mine’s white with one sugar’. There was tumbleweed as everyone else knew what I was there for. I made his coffee and then said, ‘Shall we start the meeting now?’

He never acknowledged it but as I say to women now, ‘No one sees the rhino coming.’ I always say now to let them underestimate you, let that be your superpower. It meant that I walked out with that deal. That was the 90s and I still say today for women to own it and to enjoy the fact that they underestimate you.

Watch: Why do we still have a gender pay gap?