· Features

Interview with Niall Howard CEO of Hakkasan Group

The first thing Niall Howard does most mornings after waking up must be to wonder: “Where am I?”

The CEO of the Michelin-starred Hakkasan Group has visited 20 countries in the past six months or so. His empire comprises two restaurants in London, another in Miami, a further one in Abu Dhabi, with two more due to open this year, in Mumbai and Dubai. Howard also plans Hakkasan openings in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York, Paris and Shanghai, in a £50 million programme. He has also closed one, in Istanbul, and is responsible for a sister restaurant, Yauatcha, a Michelin-starred dim sum teahouse in London's Soho, for which he also has expansion plans. To top off the travelling, he lives in Edinburgh.

Based on Cantonese cuisine, Hakkasan London has been called 'top Chinese restaurant' by the Evening Standard, which makes it sound like something you might find in a dingy shopping parade. In fact, Hakkasan attracts what Howard calls "global residents": Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern oil moguls, you get the picture. And Hakkasan is definitely a group, not a chain. "Can I ask you not to use the word 'chain'?," Howard says, with tongue just about in cheek. "We are much too snobby for 'chain'." His is a disarming presence; he is slightly less well-dressed than his well-heeled customers and quick to smile.

There are no plans to open any more Hakkasans in the UK because, in essence, he believes Londoners are the only ones who can regularly afford dishes such as steamed mini New Zealand lobster wrapped in glass vermicelli with Gu Yue Long Shan rice wine - or charcoal-grilled quail in foie gras sauce. Yauatcha is cheaper, so there is more scope. While no restaurant is recession-proof, many of Hakkasan's diners could probably lose a couple of million and not worry too much about it. "These people have sheds of money," says Howard.

Yet when he came on board in 2009, staff morale was poor and the group was in the red. A £6.4 million loss then has since been turned into a £700,000 profit for 2010. But this is not because Howard brought direct experience of the restaurant trade with him. During a 30-year corporate career, he has worked for oil companies Conoco (now ConocoPhillips) and Amerada Hess, as well as Scotch distiller William Grant & Sons and Royal Bank of Scotland, where he rubbed shoulders with then chief executive Fred 'the Shred' Goodwin.

Howard's knowledge is therefore drawn mainly from implementing change-management programmes in the oil and gas and financial services worlds. In the UK, Hakkasan and Yauatcha together have 650 staff, with another 350 staff overseas. Howard has managed up to 3,000 people in multiple countries in previous roles, but with no experience of catering or hospitality (actually, that's not quite true: he does have a youthful qualification as a humble demi-chef de rang). It must have been quite a daunting task to face the staff at Hakkasan.

"I have more of a passion for people than for other things," Howard insists. "They are the absolute key: not coming [to Hakkasan] with any restaurant baggage meant I couldn't impose a formula. I had to listen to everybody, and had to work out who my friends were, who the leaders were, who could help the company forward, as well as those who weren't going to make it. A lot of people had to leave. But a lot of good people stayed."

Hakkasan was founded by Hong Kong restaurateur Alan Yau (who also created the Wagamama chain) and then bought in 2008 by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, who owns Manchester City Football Club. The Hakkasan group is now owned by Abu Dhabi investment company Tasameen. Howard had been doing some freelance consulting with Hakkasan and was asked to take over. He hadn't wanted to be involved, he says, but the backers would not take no for an answer. "They have entrusted me with their investment," he says easily. "I had to get the people right or we'd lose the business. Here, the guest is in your face every day, so your people have got to be right. There is no respite. I treated everyone with respect, whether I liked them or not. The restaurant business is notorious for being a bit brutal at times."

Is that the atmosphere he found when he arrived? "I don't want to disparage Alan Yau or his management style, because I wasn't around," Howard continues. "But he probably had a different management style to me." There is a pause. "I remain a great admirer of his creative talent," Howard goes on, carefully. Another longish pause. "But he was an autocrat!" he laughs.

Things appear different under Howard, who defines his own management style as 'open door'. Staff, including the wonderfully-named mixatologists (cocktail makers), wine managers and chefs, are encouraged to deal direct with suppliers. "In the end I have to pass it all, but I see myself as more like the conductor in an orchestra," Howard says. He has brought in Learnpurple software, introducing more formal appraisals and "more open" team meetings, trying to increase internal communications and more informal get-togethers or 'huddles'. "We invite people to come up with ideas and then we support and implement those ideas," he says. "We have had an excellent response internally. People say they are beginning to feel more valued. There wasn't much structure before, it was not necessarily inclusive."

This all sounds great. However, Hakkasan does not have an HRD. "This is an anomaly," Howard says, firmly. "If we are taking people more seriously, why don't we have a higher-level HR person? But our HR manager does 80% of what we need. As we grow, there will come a time when we have a critical mass and we will bring on a more senior HR person. I can't really justify it at the moment."

He might have wished he had. At Yauatcha, earlier this year, Howard suffered a blast of the wrong sort of HR publicity: a gay waiter at Hakkasan's sister restaurant was awarded £21,500 in a discrimination claim after suffering harrassment from fellow staff and having his nipples tweaked by a customer. "As a company, we have zero tolerance of discrimination," Howard insists. "But the tribunal found against us and the papers were after this sensational story. It was horrendous for me. We disciplined the people involved and I immediately put a clear message out to all staff saying that this behaviour would not be tolerated. We respect each other."

There remain a number of hardcore HR issues to face, however, not least recruitment. Staff turnover is "quite low", Howard says, although "some turnover is good". There is an international market for chefs, but those from China are finding it more difficult to get visas to work in the UK, following a tightening of immigration rules. "Our success in the UK has been harmed by the visa set-up," he explains. "I wrote to the prime minister, business secretary Vince Cable and London mayor Boris Johnson. We need to bring in some people to the UK and 10 visas can create 1,000 jobs. This is inward investment from Abu Dhabi and without those visas I can't expand. The response was, 'we understand, but there's not a lot we can do about it' - all quite polite." He believes legislation restricting skilled immigration could hurt the UK's place "as the culinary capital of the world". "Strangling inward investment is a huge threat to the country," he thinks.

At present, he concentrates on the things he can control - and encourages staff to do the same. "Over the years, I have become convinced that stress is related to control," Howard begins. "It is not about being busy or having a high-powered job - it is about feeling in control. In the kitchens, Chinese chefs often felt isolated and undervalued. I spent a lot of time there and I see better people and, as a result, better food. I hope we have changed the whole culture of the company."

Howard appears mild enough, but has no time for employees who are obstructive. "The phrase I like to use is 'learned helplessness'," he says. This is where someone becomes "a bit of a whinger", he continues. "You know the sort of thing," says Howard. "Talking about how 'they' don't understand - 'it's the company that's wrong, not me'. But people have got to take control of their own lives: it should be 'I'm in control of my own life, not the company'. It is not about the company, it is about three boxes: their lives, families, and future. Where the company comes in is providing the environment and training to achieve high scores in those three boxes."

Howard clearly prizes his home life in Edinburgh, where he has three sons: 18-year-old twins and a 13-year-old. He plays golf and - more surprisingly - does a little scriptwriting for "a project I'm desperately trying to get off the ground". Given Hakkasan's access to finance, Howard surely shouldn't have any trouble finding the backing. "Hopefully," he says.

Does this mean he will be getting out of the restaurant business? "I might get kicked out," he laughs. "If I look back over my 30 years of work, I could never have predicted two years in advance what I would be doing. I am quite a believer in fate: prepare for success and grab it when it comes. I am a change agent, rather than a caretaker."

Howard is clearly someone who takes little for granted. Perhaps that is how he has managed to find his feet in the alien environment of haute cuisine.