Industry Insights: Ann Elliott, Portfolio NED and Board Advisor

From Modern History to Marketing and Mentoring: our Industry Insights Interview with hospitality guru Ann Elliott…

Ann Elliott really didn't enjoy her first full-time job and was grateful to find her 'home' in hospitality not long after. Quickly climbing the corporate ladder, she was a board member by the age of 31 (at a time when very few women were). And despite the crushing blow that Covid dealt her hospitality marketing agency, she's still pursuing her passion for the sector in her post-pandemic role as Non-Executive Director (NED) to five businesses and an Advisor to three more. 

Keep reading to find out about Ann’s journey from a green graduate to one of hospitality’s most respected consultants... 

So tell me a bit about yourself and how you got into your current role…

“Well I went to Liverpool University to study Modern History. And as was the thing back then I attended ‘The Milkround’, where employers used to visit and tell you about their companies and jobs". 

"The business I ended up at was Proctor and Gamble, so I moved to Newcastle to work in the marketing team. And I just loathed it…I didn’t have any interest in it at all. I loved the marketing, I just didn’t like the brand. So I had two more jobs before arriving at Whitbread as a Brand Manager for Heineken and Stella, where it just felt like I’d come home. It was where I was meant to be and I’ve loved it ever since really. And from thinking ‘Maybe marketing isn’t for me’, I’ve ended up in a hospitality and marketing career which has remained interesting to this day. I’ve absolutely loved every minute of it…”.

“I’d describe my journey so far in thirds. So the first third was very much a corporate career at Whitbread. I went from being a Brand Manager to a Marketing Manager to Marketing Director at Pizza Hut—one of only four senior women in Whitbread at the time—and loved it. I was on the Board of Pizza Hut aged 31". 

"Then after 20 years at Whitbread, I decided to go it alone. So that was the second part; I had a marketing agency for twenty years—doing research and PR for hospitality businesses. But then the agency closed during lockdown. The day that Boris said ‘Don't go to pubs and clubs’ was a fateful day. And after that week really, I think all of my clients cancelled. We had such a fantastic team, a close team, and we had to shut…".

"Now I’m on five boards within hospitality—three operators and two suppliers. And I’m also a Board Advisor to another three businesses. So my days are very, very different. And I have to say the difference between 2020 and 2023, how I spend my days, is massive…”

Wow! So the foundation you’ve built over the decades clearly came into fruition, as those kinds of jobs aren’t really your standard advertised roles…

“I think it no doubt helps because all of the eight businesses I’m involved with have come around through personal contact, rather than through interviews. And I do say to people looking for NED roles, don’t necessarily confine yourself to the role of NED because there’s so much value and joy to be had out of being an advisor, not necessarily an NED. Not every business has a formal board structure, particularly those that are founder-led. So being an advisor to a business at a senior level is just absolutely brilliant. The boards and businesses I’m involved with I knew from my agency days, so if you want an NED advisory career look to where you know. It doesn’t mean you can’t get a role through head hunters or adverts, but if you look to people you know there are opportunities there…”. 

So what does your work involve? Describe a typical day…

“Well, I think the thing is that there is no typical day. So today I’ve got three calls this morning and then this afternoon I’m going to the theatre! Tomorrow is full-on meetings in London, Wednesday a board meeting in Manchester, and on Thursday I’m running the Propel Hospitality Women’s Entrepreneur Conference (which has made me quite busy lately). On Friday I’ve got a day off and then next week is full-on again!". 

“It’s obviously important that you prepare properly for your board or advisory meetings. You’ve got to not only read the things that are sent to you but read around them as well. That means reading all the press and reading about competitors. Quite often, when competitor results come out they're just as interesting as anything else—so you need to look at those. Get yourself prepared so that when you go into that meeting you follow the agenda. Sometimes there are actions from a meeting and sometimes there aren’t. It all depends on what sort of business or board you’re involved in as to how much work you do afterwards—they’re all different animals. I’m on family boards, venture capital backed boards, high net-worth individual boards, and boards where founders are on them—they’re all so different”. 

“There’s absolutely no typical day for me. Sometimes I might be up at 5.30 am and heading off to London. And sometimes it might just be working from home. It will be three years in July—an interesting three years. But it's joyful, I have to say! There isn’t a day when I get up and think ‘Oh no, I’ve got to go to work…’. I make my days and I make my weeks. I still have to fit in with timings, but I’m at the stage now where I only have to work with businesses I want to work with. It sounds terribly arrogant, but I like every board I work on. And as I said, it’s such a variety. They're all people I really like, respect, and admire. It’s not quite the same as having an agency as you do sometimes end up working with people you don’t like because you’ve got to financially for the sake of the team. But now, I don’t have to do that. And that really is a pleasure”. 

Do you have any advice for someone looking to follow a similar path? And what character traits would you consider to be important? 

I think you’ve got to be of the mindset that you’re ready to move from an executive role to a non-executive role. Because when you’re working with a business, it’s not your business. So you can't still want to take on executive roles. You have to remember you’re an advisor. For example, it might be that marketing strategy is up for discussion. And in the old days at the agency, I would have gone and written the marketing strategy and plan. But now that’s not my responsibility, that’s the team’s responsibility. You can help, you can advise, you can suggest. You can coach and mentor them, but at the end of the day I’m not writing the plan, they are. And you have to move away from an ‘I can help you with that’ mentality...Yes, you can help—but it’s always got to be at a distance while remembering that it’s your job to help them produce a great plan, rather than doing it yourself”. 

“You’ve also got to understand that the teams you’re talking to can ignore you. They can ignore your advice because it’s their business. You might just be one of three people advising them. So while you will always be listened to, you might not always be taken notice of because they’ve got to do things their own way, it’s their prerogative…So if you’ve got an enormous ego and you want to say ‘I did, I did’ then you’ve probably got to wait a bit to do a non-exec role…And I think you’ve really got to listen, you’ve got to listen more than you speak. The board is not a vehicle for your voice. It’s a vehicle to bring out other people’s voices. So any questions you ask, any comments you make, have really got to be in the context of ‘Is this helping this business be better and more successful?’. And if it isn’t and you’re just saying it for the sake of it, trying to look clever or show off, don’t say it! You’ve always got to have it in your mind that you’re there to help other people and to help those businesses be more successful”.

What's your favourite/least favourite part of the job?

“Well, I really love going into board meetings to hear what people have to say and then seeing if I can add anything. And for me, the overriding joy is that you’re there to help the business be better and more successful. I can’t honestly say there’s anything I dislike about what I do. My diary’s a bit of a nightmare but I’ve got a fantastic PA to manage that. And honestly, if I don’t like doing it then I won’t be doing it! My life is too short to not be getting enjoyment out of what I do”. 

What do you think is the recipe for success in the restaurant business?

“Well for me, in restaurants the key things you’ve absolutely got to get right are food and service. I can’t stress that enough! If you haven’t got those two right then don’t bother doing anything else. And you’ve got to be, in my opinion, constantly looking at the food. So what’s your food strategy? Does each dish fulfil it? What do you want to do in terms of pricing and margins? What’s your food going to look like on the plate? How easy is it to make? Food, in restaurants and gastropubs, has got to be an obsession. And you’ve got to have service that is consistently great! You can’t fail at that…”.

“When you’re running any business, cash is key! It’s easy to see the money coming into the till and think it’s brilliant—it’s not. You’ve got to take off your tax, take off your VAT, take off your costs. And really you’re left with about a tenth of what was put in!".

"The overheads are huge, and you just never know what’s going to happen. I mean, look at what’s happened with all the costs that have gone into businesses within the last few months! You wouldn’t have necessarily predicted those but you’ve just got to have something up your sleeve and in reserve so that you can cope, otherwise you go under…”. 

Which restaurants do you admire most in terms of business model and/or brand? 

“I think the one I admire the most is Dishoom. Inspired by The old Irani cafés of Bombay, this brand’s got it right. The food is always good when I go; the service is always good. And I honestly think if you put a Dishoom person somewhere else, you could tell they were trained at Dishoom…I also love (London-based Italian delicatessen and restaurant chain) Lina Stores, I think they’ve really captured the ‘zeitgeist’, what’s happening at the moment, in terms of small plates and great value for money".

"Those are the two that stand out for me, but then I think you’ve got to admire Greggs! They’re just consistent, they know what they’re doing, they understand their marketplace. It’s 'horses for courses' and I think they're fantastic!".

"So in terms of which pubs I really like, I think I’d probably pick Anglia Inns if I was looking at pubs—and ETM. I really like what ETM do and the way they’ve gone into rooftop bars and sports bars very successfully. They’re really great operators. It’s alright having a wonderful idea, but you’ve got to be able to operate it! And I think they’re very good. You can’t get away from it really, being able to execute is so vital…”.

What's your favourite place to eat?

“Well it would be a toss-up really…As I said, I love Dishoom. But if I was going out for an informal occasion it would probably be either (London sensation) Caravan or Lina Stores for me”. 

What do you predict for the future of hospitality? And do you have any advice for restauranteurs in particular?

“Well (the current crisis) isn’t finished yet, it’s very, very difficult…You look at the food price inflation and the only way you’re going to keep your margins is if you affect the quality of the product you’re selling or you raise the price of it…Or sometimes companies are doing both, as you're seeing with a lot of the beer brands. They are increasing the prices and reducing the gravity of their beers, so you can do both. But it’s a very fine line…And I worry that sales across the sector at the moment are being led by spend per head, not by covers. It’s important to keep a very close eye on that balance of increasing spend per head and hopefully increasing covers. Because you’ve got to get the covers…”. 

“We’re not out of the woods…So the operators—and the prolific Lounge is another great operator—have got that covered. They know what they’re doing and they’re really on the mark with it. For restauranteurs, it’s just going back to those core things, you know? You’ve got to be a cracking operator, and you’ve got to make sure that your food doesn’t lose that edge because I think customers are very savvy. And if they’re getting out less often now—which they are because covers are down—and they’re spending more when they do go out, they don’t need much of a reason to stop visiting your restaurant or pub". 

"You’ve just got to keep on it all the time as customers are changing. They’ve always changed, but Covid has had a big impact. So keep an eye on your customers and what’s happening with spend per head and covers. And for me, the drive should always be on covers. Always…”. 

We hope you’ve enjoyed our chat with Ann as much as we have, don't forget to keep an eye on our socials and website for more Industry Insights interviews!

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