Profile: Zoe Tindall, FD of Yo! Sushi

Simon Woodroffe, the founder and chairman of Yo! Sushi and the man who brought conveyor belt dining to the UK, is a hard act to follow. An inspiring entrepreneur, a successful author (The Book of Yo!) and restaurateur, he is now trying his hand at pop music. Having already recorded How I got my Yo! with the Blockheads of Ian Dury Fame, he’s taking singing lessons and has hinted at an album.

But then Zoe Tindall, the company’s finance director and company secretary, is no stranger to the antics of eccentric bosses, having started her commercial career as head of finance at Moonfruit – an online DIY website-building kit for SMEs and consumers – at the height of the dotcom boom.

Years ago, on a visit to Moonfruit’s trendy Soho offices, I couldn’t help but notice the ‘bum paintings’ by the directors adorning the wall by the reception. For those not in the know, bum paintings involve coating your buttocks in paint and applying them to canvas to create some interesting images.

Tindall may have turned her back on DIY art for her latest venture, but she has not rejected her dotcom roots.

‘When I joined Moonfruit, we didn’t even have a bank statement and we hadn’t closed the seed investment. We raised £8.5m, were running ad campaigns on national television, and had four different releases of the product. At its height, we employed 60 people.’

Yo!’s flagship restaurant sits a stone’s throw away from Moonfruit’s now-derelict offices on Soho Square. It is perhaps ironic that the finance director of the company whose groundbreaking restaurants were used in numerous adverts, and for many symbolised the fast pace of nineties life, was first a casualty of the bursting dotcom bubble.

Although Moonfruit still exists, albeit in a new incarnation, the company was forced to make its staff redundant in May 2001 to make the business cash sustainable.

It was a difficult period, but taught Tindall some invaluable lessons that went beyond her training at Andersen and her chartered accountant qualification.

‘In particular, I learnt to rely on my gut instinct. When I joined Moonfruit, I was told about how it values companies with registered users and put a lifetime value on each user. I had just come from this accountancy background and it didn’t seem to fit with my technical training. I wish I’d said, why don’t we just build a business that makes a profit? It sounds so simple in hindsight. Just because the market is running in one direction doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right direction.’

But then Tindall is not one for going with the flow. After graduating in economics from the LSE, she applied for the job at Andersen, she jokes, because it was across the road from university, and it was a challenge.

‘There was an element of wanting to do what people said I couldn’t achieve. A lot of my peers at the LSE – people who were being predicted firsts – were applying to Andersen and getting turned down.’

Tindall is typically modest when asked how she succeeded where so many of her peers had failed. ‘I think that Andersen quite liked flamboyant characters.

There were some people who were more traditional accountants, but there were characters that really stood out. I was a hybrid,’ she laughs. ‘I don’t see myself as being a corporate animal and I think that is one of the reasons why I like the SME sector – it suits the way I work.’

Tindall started her job at Yo! almost three years ago, just one day after her 29th birthday, having been given six months to make her mark. ‘I think they thought I was probably too young to do the role and were looking for someone a bit older and more experienced. It was a bit daunting, but at the same time my reaction was “right, you don’t think I can do this. Just watch this space”.’

She describes the changes she’s made as evolutionary, rather than revolutionary.

‘We were doing four different draft versions of the management accounts. Now we produce management accounts 10 days after period end and they are final. The reporting cycle is tighter, more robust and more in-depth.’

At the same time, focus has shifted away from the number of restaurants in the company’s portfolio to profitability. ‘You could have 20 restaurants and five of them could be dogs. I’d rather have 15 that are great.’

Step inside the company’s head office two doors down from its Farringdon Road restaurant, and the whole dotcom era comes flooding back – industrial design, concrete floors, and large plasma screens transmitting funky images and pop music.

But you won’t find any pool tables or fishtanks here. The restaurant chain’s flagship Poland Street eatery is currently closed for major refurbishment.

Mock-ups of the new-look restaurant, due to reopen next month, show a style that’s distinctly more plush than its predecessor. ‘It reflects the growing up of a company,’ says Tindall.

‘I come from an internet background, which is all about creating value for the business – what’s the exit and what’s the game plan? I applied the same principles here – what is it we’re trying to actually achieve, how are we going to get there and how much is it going to cost? It has taken us about 18 months to iron out our strategy and now we have a great business plan and templates of restaurants – what works and what doesn’t.’

The last year has been something of a commercial whirlwind for both Yo! and Tindall, as senior management completed a £10m management buyout. Woodroffe himself retains a 22% stake.

‘It was huge – emotionally and physically. I was the only person on the team who’d been through a fundraising exercise and the investment market was a very different world to when I worked at Moonfruit. All the due diligence came down to me.

‘It was a complicated transaction but one that was, I think, beneficial to all parties. It’s been a tough couple of years for the sector from the capital markets point of view. A lot of investors were a bit nervous and they’ve had their fingers burnt.’

Things may be more formal – and grown-up – in the Yo! head office as a result, but in many respects it’s business as usual.

‘We have a whole new stakeholder to consider so we have had to be more formal in our communication. Yo! has moved from being the entrepreneurial baby to becoming a packaged business with more systems and processes. I know it sounds very dull, but otherwise it’s not scaleable. You can’t keep opening restaurants and not applying the same systems to each of them. It’s difficult moving staff around, training and recruiting – it causes confusion and it’s hard to manage.’

But retaining some ‘dotcomness’ is vital, Tindall says, although that is more to do with recruiting the right people than putting specific programmes in place.

‘The culture of the company can never be some kind of board-driven project. It comes from recruiting people that fit and are driven by similar goals. Most of us want to make Yo! Sushi a really great company and a great brand. There are a lot of opportunities overseas and I think people are hungry for it.’

The management buyout completed, the pace may have moved down a notch from frenetic, but the diverse nature of Tindall’s job means there’s never a dull moment.

‘My role here is far wider than just being finance – it’s more of a commercial role. I need to know what property is in the pipeline, is it going to make money? I’m looking at the return on investment and legal contracts.

I’ve just updated our brand guidelines book and made changes to our colour palettes, and point of sale material to make it more consistent and a bit more with the times. That was fun – having to deal with creatives!’

In an industry shaped by fashion, Tindall appears unconcerned by the potential business impact of the current Atkins diet trend.

‘Rice-based sushi isn’t Atkins friendly, but at the end of the day it’s one of the healthiest lunches you can have.’

And as the economy shows signs of picking up, expansion plans are afoot.

‘We have been through some tough trading periods – especially after September 11 when there were no tourists, no confidence in the market and people weren’t spending their money. The past six months has seen a turnaround, sales have gone right up and it’s really coming together.’

Simon Woodroffe continues on his mission to expand the Yo! world – his Yotel! Capsule hotel and Body Yo! Japanese health spa are just two projects in development.

Tindall, meanwhile, is waiting for an idea of her own. ‘I really admire people that have the balls to do that, especially when you get to a stage in your life where you stand to lose a lot if it goes wrong.’

For the time being, Tindall’s focusing on identifying markets for overseas growth. The company already has two overseas franchises – one in Greece, with two restaurants in Athens, and one in the United Arab Emirates and the first Yo! Sushi in Dubai.

But there are no immediate plans to tackle the Japanese market. ‘There’s only a small team of us at head office – 12 – and there are probably more lucrative markets closer to home.’ Personally I wouldn’t put this sparky company past selling ice to the Eskimos.

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