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Lucy Gemmell: Telling the story of Rhubarb, expanding the business in troubled times.
Entrepreneurs Forum Special Report
October 2010

Rhubarb’s story is interesting as it can developed from being one of the country’s leading event players into also operating in a number of new areas such as contracts, restaurants and on The Thames. What led to this diversification and how could Lucy bring her creativity to meet the demands of each sector?

Rhubarb is due to take on the Royal Albert Hall in January 2011 and the turnover will come close to doubling the size of the company from £10m to £19m. At the same time, there will an increasing workload as London prepares for 2012. The next two years, it can be argued, will be crucial to the long-term position and success of Rhubarb. Was the company ready for such a challenge and how had it prepared itself? Lucy spoke about these issues in a refreshingly candid manner. In the course of her presentation, she touched on a range of interesting topics.

Working in two different market sectors :

“Event catering and venue catering are like football and rugby. Yes, they both use balls but they operate to two completely different sets of rule. One has to learn the rules of each in order to be competitive and deliver.”

In acknowledging that Rhubarb would not have won the Royal Albert Hall contract with out having other existing, successful ventures in place, Lucy also pointed out that the challenge ahead is large and arguably the largest in Rhubarb’s history. However, the company is confident that it is ready for the challenge and can make a real difference. The challenge ahead applied both to the logistics of running the Royal Albert Hall but also not losing focus on the existing clients - ensuring that those relationships are still focused up and developed. “You must be careful how you split yourself. Winning one new contract doesn’t mean you can abandon existing ones”

One of the interesting aspects of Lucy is that she is very humble but with a clear passion for the company and catering. She spoke about how she left school early with just 1 O level to become a leading equestrian rider, representing GB; only to break her back which led to her move into catering. She had a clear talent and in 1996 set up her company. In 2001, she faced real trials by ordeal when her business partner left and as the world struggled with the after effects of 9/11. She spoke about how her team came together, and grew the company without making any redundancies. She revealed that the turning point came when she appointed a Chairman and MD for the company freeing her to do what she did best – being the creative energy, ambassador and founder of the company and leaving them to run the day to day. It was this change that led to Rhubarb’s expansion into new sectors and areas such as a site at T3 at Heathrow at Airport, a new restaurant in Fenwick’s on Bond Street, The Saatchi Gallery on Kings Road as well as The Royal Albert Hall.

Lucy acknowledged the difficulty of letting go of 100% ownership of the business but at the same time spoke about the importance of teamwork and how different skills and mindsets do create a better and more effective leadership team.

Lucy clearly won over the audience with her approach but as with all good entrepreneurs, there were many still interesting questions left hanging. For example, Lucy spoke in such a modest almost unassuming fashion, yet this is belied the fact that she was clearly a resilient character. Was the fact that she left school early a driving force for her or was she always a naturally driven character? It was also clear that her appetite for the business and the industry had not diminished and she still had many ambitions for growth into new areas.

Lucy spoke of her work with the IOC over the course of 7 Olympics and meeting the requirements of such a demanding event: “Where Team China will want lychee for breakfast, Team America will be expecting pancakes – and there’s only forty five minutes for service”

A round table of industry professionals were never going to disappoint in asking some interesting questions and lead to a fascinating range of discussion points including:

* How was the decision made to cross over from events catering to venue catering?
* How do you manage business retention whilst also proactively doing business development?
* As an entrepreneur, your business is almost an extension of yourself.
* How do you cope with rejection when it’s so personal to you?
* Have you maintained control of the company or do key staff or investors also have shares?
* Where does your inspiration and work ethic come from?
* How do you manage your day-to-day?
* What is the most extraordinary event you’ve ever run?
* What’s in a name?

Another interesting question, was whether or not there is a trend at the moment for a move towards smaller independents and away from the larger corporate caterers. While many admitted that there is a significant inclination of companies to choose the “personal approach” of smaller caterers, it was also noted that this is part of a natural cycle.

Article taken from EP Magazine.