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From YO! to yeah, whatever: The mellowing of "steamroller" Simon Woodroffe

by LLB Editor
14th Aug 13 9:26 am

Can he repeat YO! Sushi’s success?

Simon Woodroffe has definitely mellowed. At least, it doesn’t seem like his 61-year-old self is much like he was back in the days when he was nick-named “The Steamroller” by those working under him at YO! Sushi (He was so micro-managing then that his management team threatened to walk out if he didn’t change.)

These days he chills out on the very cool and chic Victory houseboat on Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk, one of the three big, beautifully-designed houseboats he owns here. He has a tiny team and is distinctly hands-off with the brands he founded.

Woodroffe likes boats – he took a couple of months out earlier this year to go on a sailing adventure. Plus his daughter, Charlotte lives on the houseboat next door to him. Bright colours are his thing too. Often there’s a pop-coloured fedora and matching trainers. Today he pads around Victory in lime-green-and-turquoise stripy socks and a lime green shirt, saying hello to Charlotte’s King Charles, Molly, introducing me to his daughter’s friend breakfasting on the next-door houseboat, and throwing a lot of languid “yeah”s into conversation.

“I don’t see the world as a war anymore,” he explains. “I think I’ve been difficult in the past, and people have rightly copped resentments. But generally I think people have a good attitude to me [now]. It’s not me-me-me anymore.”

Woodroffe sounds like he’s got it pretty made, actually. He sold his remaining 22% stake in YO! Sushi in 2008, reportedly earning £10m, having sold his controlling stake a decade ago. His company, YO Limited, playfully referred to as YO! Co. earns licence fees from YO! Sushi and now YOTEL, though he’s not involved in day-to-day operations. Each YO! brand sits within YO! Co. “like cousins” – the same family, but independent. Not all worked. You won’t hear much now about the radio station, or clothing line and the long talked about spa is still just an idea, but YO! Sushi and YOTEL are testament to his ingenuity and entrepreneurialism.

“What I’m really good at is I’m good at having ideas, and getting people excited, and getting things started and getting things up and running. What I need a partner for is to operate and run businesses.”

Now there’s YO! Home, too, launched in September 2012. The concept is to use counterweights and clever sliding panels to turn one 800-square-foot room into a multi-purpose home that actually offers several different rooms and functions within the same space. It features 12 moving parts, essentially providing three to four times the space of the actual floorspace. It’ll make more sense if you just watch this video:

YO! Homeseems to have been well-received by the interiors and design press – but a clever, creative idea does not necessarily constitute commercial success.

So far, there haven’t been any external investors. But Woodroffe is unfazed. He is the lime-green-clad personification of ‘build it and they will come’. “It’s simple. You do what you do really, really well, then people queue up.”

He is “full on” looking for a site to build 10 to 20 YO! Homeapartments himself. “If we get it right we won’t have to do pitches or sell it to anybody, because everybody will want it. That’s the way I like to do things.”

The beauty of this approach is, he says, is that “you don’t have to do pitches and elevator pitches and all that bullshit”.

It’s always hard to tell whether someone’s anti-corporate attitude is pretentious or not, but his seems genuine to me. Woodroffe is a maverick entrepreneur whose career has been a bit of a sashaying creative adventure. He left school at age 16 – he believes school kills creativity – then went on to becoming a roadie for rock-stars, then a theatre then stage-set designer (including for Rod Stewart), then into selling TV rights for live rock concerts before a reflective stint in the Alps and on to YO! Sushi.

On the cover of his original business plan, for the company that made him the UK’s first sushi multi-millionaire, was printed: “If you want to make God laugh, show him your business plan.”

It still takes a particular and rare type of confidence, though, this pretty cool, pretty renegade approach to business. Woodroffe doesn’t come across as arrogant, but a certain self-contentedness and self-belief slips into his speech. It would betray itself as egotism if it wasn’t all said quite gently, and cushioned by hippyish “yeah”s that soften out any brashness. “I do think I’ve got something, I do think I’ve got something,” he muses. It’s self-reflective at times, too: “I said this thing which I thought was really interesting, and it sort of came out of my mouth.”

He seems very relaxed about the project plan for YO! Home- quite blasé, in fact, on the subject of sensible business plan things like financial projections. And he hasn’t released any pricing for YO! Home. Has he worked out costings? “The thing about property – well, put it this way, YO! Homewon’t… [long pause]. Well I hope it will cost a bit more than the same home of the same size, because that’s the business model.”

So what are the margins, exactly? “If we can sell it for 10, 20, 30% more than a normal flat, bully for us! […] It’ll cost us 5, 10, maybe 15% more to build, and we’ll sell it for 10, 20, 30% more per square foot than somebody would normally sell an apartment for. And the customer will get more for their buck. But to actually put amounts on it is not possible.”

That’s because “it entirely depends on the land cost. […] If it’s in Mayfair it’ll cost one thing and if in Barking it’ll cost another. And most of the cost is in the land.”

So the land cost is more than the unit build? “Yeah, oh yeah, yeah, yeah. The actual cost [of a YO! Homeunit], once we’ve done the actual mechanisms for moving things around, is not that great – amazingly enough, it’s not that great. Don’t tell everybody that!”

Of course, the numbers might all sound a bit vague, but a person of Woodroffe’s entrepreneurial experience clearly knows what he’s doing. “We absolutely do [do financial projections] – it’s just that I don’t! Jack and Nick do that and we’ve got people who do that. And actually, that said, at this very early stage, to go and build 20 flats is not that complicated. To open one restaurant is not that complicated. To open one hotel is not that complicated.”

You entrepreneurs – you always make it all sound so easy. There is structure underpinning the creativity, though, even if Woodroffe’s take on that structure is about the most wildly poetic way I will probably ever hear someone describe Excel. “Yes, we’ve always had spreadsheets – but all a spreadsheet is a sort of imagination of the future.”

The parent YO! Company is lean. A Duedil search estimates the company turns over just under £2m, though this is obviously just an estimate. “I don’t employ very many people. I’ve got Nick, who has run things for me for 10 years, there’s Jack who is leading YO! Home, there’s a couple of other people, and we’ve got some really good professionals around us. You know, what you see is it.” And I’m about to see a management meeting of three, standing around a breakfast bar on a boat. It is all pretty chilled.

“This is not a sort of company with, you know, heavy meetings, saying we’ve got to meet this financial target. This is a creative business that has really good professionals around it.”

It is a bit easier to be so relaxed, of course, when you can afford the biggest houseboats in the bay. Woodroffe readily admits he can afford to be more laidback about business now. “It doesn’t threaten my existence [financially], you know, so I’m able to be easy about it. […]

He wants to democratise the experience of a lifestyle more laden with luxury, in fact. It’s his driving business motive. “One of the things I’ve always tried to do with [the] YO! [brand] is to give to everybody what rich people have, by using some kind of quantum leap. […]

“Everything you see in luxury yachts, in jet aircraft, in cars – that sort of detail of finish, you know. But it costs a lot of money to do, unless you do it on a big scale.”

He believes that YO! Homewill be a success because he has the same kind of good feeling about it that he had about YOTEL and YO! Sushi, and because he really believes in it. But he doesn’t want to grow the company much, past this first stage, then he’ll just hold shares in it. “I don’t want to start and run a business any more.”

He prefers to step back, now, and has learnt over the years that other people are better at operations than him. “One of my little mantras is: let other people do it their way not my way. Because of course they’ll be good.”

In his younger years at YO! Sushi, it was different. “I suffered from the delusion that I could do everything better than you. Eventually I found out that it was a delusion, but it was only because I was so, sort of, extreme about it that I wanted to micro-manage everything.”

He says “the biggest liberation” that he’s ever had was his YO! Sushi senior staff telling him they wouldn’t work unless he got more structure in place and stopped micro-managing. “It became the benefit rather than the fear of letting go – so that was amazing, really.”

Woodroffe says he now realises that “things get done best when they’re a bit more relaxed”. “Maybe all the shouting and screaming that I used to do years ago did make things happen, and maybe you have to do that a bit more when you’re younger. But I don’t know, maybe not.

“I think maybe I would have been better if I hadn’t been quite so aggressive.” He’s not sure, though. “If I hadn’t been extreme I wouldn’t have done any of this really – so it’s all just okay, really.”

Now that the world isn’t a war any more – although “obviously there’s some bad people and people out to get you, and the City is very back-breaking and knifing, and you’ve got to be careful of all those VCs and everything” – he seems contented. “Generally I see the world as a reasonably good place, and hopefully I’m putting a bit of good back into it as well.

“Shakespeare said: ‘Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ And I do find as I get older that I think less. I used to analyse everything. […] I think when the great world religions talk about peace, what they’re really talking about is that actually the constant radio in your head just quietens down a bit.”

Listening to the River Thames softly patting the side of the boat, with the early morning easing itself through the Victory’s French doors that open onto a London that looks quieter and stiller, somehow, from the comfort of this sunshine-bathed coach, it seems to me like that’s no bad thing at all.

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