From entering the world of hospitality and catering at the tender age of 14 as a kitchen porter, to becoming a director and shareholder of one of our industry’s biggest names, Westbury Street Holdings, is quite some journey. I sat down with Simon Esner last week to gain insights into that journey and some of the lessons learned along the way.
When you meet Simon one thing is apparent immediately, he smiles a lot and exudes a positive and cheerful disposition. I like positive people, so it set our ‘Five minutes with…’ off to a good start.
During school holidays at the age of 14 starting work as a kitchen porter doesn’t sound like an ideal start to anyone’s career, but you seem to remember it fondly, why?
“It opened the door to the kitchen, and from the first day I entered one I felt at home. I just loved the environment, the buzz around the kitchen was contagious, it was exciting, and I looked up to and admired the people within it.
“My first job was at a casino in London’s Tottenham Court Road, in the ‘70s and to a young boy it was like working on a James Bond movie set. Many of the people who came in were the rich and famous of the time and I remember they all seemed to be dressed so stylishly.
“The people working there were from all four corners of the world and this diverse mix of languages and cultures was alluring, it added to the excitement. I remember the waiters – they all dressed so smartly and took the time every day to ensure they did so. Everyone had pride in their work and their working environment, I followed their example happily.
“After a good stint at KP’ing, the head chef one day made the time to ask me what I wanted to do and if I had any plans. I replied that I wanted to train to be a chef just like him. He offered me the opportunity and told me to go and collect my whites. For me it was like all my Christmases come at once. I walked over and collected my jacket and put it on, it was well worn, smelled from excessive use, but it was mine and that’s all that mattered to me in that moment.
“When I think back now, above all else this first introduction to hospitality and catering instilled an understanding of team, structure and process. We all had our own jobs to do, they were all set out within a strict and well-understood process that was applied to the whole team and executed with precision and pride. These lessons have served me well ever since.”
What was your next step?
“My parents saw that I loved what I was doing, and they supported me wholeheartedly. They were both professional people, although what I was doing wasn’t exactly what they wanted or had planned for me, they saw that I was happy and that made them happy too.
“After one year of working in the kitchen I was given the opportunity to do an apprenticeship at college and I loved it. I had always enjoyed school, but at college I applied myself, my apprenticeship would be a ticket to develop my career and I took full advantage of the opportunity.
“My next job was to move to another casino, this time in Mayfair. This was a good step for me as the customers expected everything and anything to be available to them 24/7, the casino dutifully delivered on those expectations. The kitchen prepared, made and delivered the most diverse range of culinary art and science I had ever seen to that point. So, working in the kitchen stretched every sinew I possessed.
“It was like being in the engine room of a party that never paused, the glamour of the venue alongside exquisite service kept the party busy. Always.
“I moved around different departments of the kitchen learning everything from basic butchery, to presentation of fine dining and everything in between. I was like a sponge happily and enthusiastically soaking it all up.
“From casinos I then moved into hotels, again in London, and from my experience of casinos I sought out hotels with high levels of service alongside well-drilled teams able to deliver it.
“I loved working in hotels and then an opportunity came along to enter the world of sales, as a chef demonstrator for Hobart. It was an opportunity to try something completely new and a company car came with the job, my first ever, a Ford Sierra and it clinched the deal.”
How did you adjust to this new role?
“Just like the waiters and other customer facing roles at the casinos and hotels the sales team were all well dressed, in those days everyone wore suits and ties. I will always remember the MD at the time, David Smithson, he exuded cool and always dressed impeccably.
“The job was 9-5 and for me, being used to working all hours, I wanted to occupy my evenings, so I went back to college. This time teaching, passing on some of what I had learned and learning at the same time in how to train people.
“Commercial kitchen equipment sales was an exciting place to be, I loved being out meeting people and I loved smashing sales targets. It was another sector of our industry full of great people and I learned from many. People like Bill Downie, Trevor Burke and many more that were happy to mentor and develop people like me who were keen to learn and get on. Our industry is full of great people and they are our greatest asset.”
While we chatted, Simon regularly referred to his good fortune and luck, I challenged him that nobody is consistently lucky, he argued that he has been. So, how have you been so lucky?
“I was fortunate that my parents supported me, not many in their position would have been similarly disposed to being content at seeing their son happy, so that was lucky.
“I was also lucky that on many different occasions opportunities were presented, or came my way. As I moved around the industry people were generous and kind with their time, I was shown how to do things, and how to get things done. That is both good fortune and good luck.
I tried again, arguing that opportunity has to be recognised and taken advantage of but to no avail, Simon considers himself lucky and he’s not for changing on that. I changed tack. When did you first try running your own business?
“A restaurant in North London, close to where I lived at the time, had an Italian name and served French food and it was doing OK. I found out that the chef patron wanted to sell up and retire and I thought that this restaurant had more to offer as a business than was being realised by the owner.
“I bought the lease and hired great friends from the restaurants I had previously worked with, who I trusted. I was in the kitchen doing the food, and a friend who was a local estate agent took charge of front of house as well as the finances.
“We had 65 covers and a full restaurant very quickly, it quickly became a huge success.
“One day one of the suppliers came to me and asked when his invoices would be paid, then one of the waiters asked me when he was going to get his wages, a few questions later I discovered that many suppliers and colleagues hadn’t been paid for a long while. We had a thriving restaurant and the profits were being syphoned off behind my back by the estate agent, who on finding out I had discovered what was happening disappeared. I was left with a team of dedicated people, lots of unpaid bills and a huge problem to resolve.
“It is at times like this that you need advice and guidance as well as support, my father in law provided all three. Once again, I was lucky. We sat down and he showed me how to make a start to fixing my problem. It was too difficult to face in its entirety, so he showed me how to break the whole situation into ‘bite-sized chunks’.
“Dealing with each part of the overall problem one at a time, I was able to break even after two years. It took lots of blood, sweat and tears, but it was all worth it, and not one person lost one penny.
Did that experience change you?
“Yes, it taught me much and with the benefit of hindsight it wasn’t an expensive lesson either.
“After that experience I wanted to go and work for somebody else and my good luck then presented itself again, I met a man called John Symonds.
“John introduced me to “contract catering“ with a job at Hallmark Executive Catering. He quite literally taught me everything about contract catering (now more frequently known as foodservice management), I shadowed him and learned about selling and bidding and much more besides. He taught me ‘the art of a deal’ how it had to balance for all involved. Hallmark was then bought by High Table, which in turn was part acquired by Elior. The journey through different ownerships taught me much, including how important company culture and values are.
“I then found out that Linda Halladay and Nigel Anker were looking for a sales director, I interviewed and got the job. I quickly fell in love with both Linda and Nigel, they both had tremendous vision and an ability to always deliver. It was teamwork personified and I was so proud to be a part of that team.
“When what was then Wilson Storey Halliday merged with BaxterSmith to become BaxterStorey in 2004 this became a momentous part of my journey. I had joined the team at BaxterStorey and as such I had the privilege of working alongside Alastair Storey OBE and Keith Wilson.
“Alastair often drew business analogies with Formula 1, a sport he is passionate about. The focus of many of his comparisons was teamwork, how all members of the team work together to achieve a common goal, and winning.
“Due to health challenges I made the decision in 2018/19 to step back from the cut and thrust of BaxterStorey/WSH with the tremendous support of Alastair Storey OBE.
“This change brought about its own challenges and I remembered a conversation I had with Ian Sarson, a former Managing Director at Compass. The advice Ian gave me at the time went along the lines of: ‘When we start our career/jobs we are given training, advice, occasionally mentoring etc on how to prepare and execute our job to the very best of our abilities. However, we receive no training etc on the coming out of full time commitment from ones company. As such one can feel adrift and of no consequence.’
“I went through some tough emotional and mental health challenges coming to terms with ‘not being required’ and having no contact with colleagues who I considered friends or good acquaintances.
“Fortunately for me and with tremendous support from my amazing wife of 30+ years, Melanie, and my mentors as referenced along the way in our conversation. I saw this new chapter as a real opportunity to firstly ‘give back’ and to also focus on elements of the business community that I could add value.
“I am privileged to sit on the board and be a trustee of the industry’s most important charity, Hospitality Action. I am also a Patron of Springboard and act as a mentor for its GEMS program.
“One other critical area that I’m delighted to be involved with is The University of Surrey School of Tourism and Hospitality Management, for the past few years I have been a mentor to the university.
“I have also set up an advisory business, Uncommon Sense. One of the key platforms for Uncommon Sense is to mentor hospitality and business development professionals on how to exceed in their chosen profession and realise their own unique potential.
“It is my hope that the good luck I have been fortunate enough to enjoy throughout my career continues through this new chapter.”
I still disagree that all Simon has achieved to date is down to luck, another conversation for debate another time perhaps. What does shine through is a sense of gratitude as well as more than a hint that much is yet to be done, watch this space.