Eat dinner with colleagues in their homes if you can, says Will Stratton-Morris, UK CEO of Caffè Nero
What’s the best piece of business advice ever given to WILL STRATTON-MORRIS, UK CEO of Caffè Nero, a chain serving quality coffee in 825 coffee shops in England, continental Europe and the USA? What does this businessman, known for his skill in transforming companies, suggest regarding that elusive work/life balance? And finally, how would Brexit affect the company? KATY MACDONALD asked him
Will (53), is married to Tania and they live between London and Shropshire. They have three sons, one daughter and two working cocker spaniels
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Top piece of business advice you’ve ever been given? Understand people. People think the bigger your job, the cleverer you are with numbers, but it’s actually about managing relationships. I believe the difference between great and good leadership is humbly listening to people and learning their motivation. Go to dinner at their home if you can.

Your particular skill? Growing people and nurturing talent. This can be quite difficult. It’s tempting to cop out, give staff members a three out of five for all areas in their annual review, and say everything’s good. But you often need to go to a place of discomfort to say, ‘You’re fabulous at this but not so good at that yet’.

Helping people grow and make the best of themselves is the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my business career. I always ask staff whether they want deep and honest feedback or something more general, and they usually go for the deep stuff.

I guess the other thing I do is join the dots, find the big picture in the detail.

Caffè Nero currently sports 825 coffee houses. Some are in the USA and Europe but most are based in the UK, where it often feels as if there is one on every high street. These two serve coffee fans in Oxford and London

How can hard workers protect their personal life? Try to be as structured and ‘planful’ about your personal life as you are about your work life. It may sound OCD, but if you devote all your thinking to work and squeeze your personal life in afterwards, everything crumbles. Yes, this means you lose a bit of spontaneity, but that usually gets squeezed out by work anyway.

Don’t try to separate your work life from your personal life: one life, one diary. If you can get home early to watch your kids play football, do it. You’ll be working late another time and won’t manage it. Don’t feel guilty about taking time to be with your family, if you’re a good leader and hard worker you’re going to give plenty of time to your work. I always say to my staff, ‘I’m going to expect a lot from you, but I want you to have the flexibility to take the moments you can.’

Do business and ethics mix? Yes, but before you get into ethics, make sure you’ve got a business in the first place! Ask yourself: has it got customers who are going to buy, market places where it can sell, is it going to provide job security? If you pay your staff over the odds, can’t make a profit and go bankrupt, you’ve got the worst of all worlds because you’ve lifted people out of a previous job and thrown them out the door. If your long-term goal is sustainable employment, the numbers must work. Don’t shy away from difficult decisions and do the ‘nice’ thing in the short-term which will actually create pain in the medium term.

‘Growing people and nurturing talent can be quite difficult,’ says Will, who spent time in the British navy. ‘You often need to go to a place of discomfort’

Biggest challenge of your job? Caffè Nero is a really great brand that’s been around for 20 years and had a tailwind of growth because coffee’s become so popular. Suddenly, thanks to the economy, competition and Brexit, the market is tough. But telling people to do things differently when they’ve had 20 years of success is not easy because no one likes change and when you’ve come out of two wonderful decades, it’s particularly difficult.

My challenge is how to get my strategy and ideas bought into by people with different experiences and perspectives, from the founder of the company to someone who’s been a store manager for some 15+ years.

Basics of any business as you see them? 1) Making sure the products and services you offer appeal to customers and finding out what they’re willing to pay for them. 2) Understanding what your competitors do. 3) Building a strategy that takes your services to market, cuts into people’s consciousness and engenders brand loyalty.

The Caffè Nero X factor? We pride ourselves on coffee and service. We’re not franchised, we’re owned and managed by one big ‘family’, and consider our service culture to be very, very important.

‘Don’t feel guilty about taking time to be with your family,’ says Will, pictured here with (from left to right) eldest son Sam, wife Tania, daughter Phoebe, second son Jake and third son Max

Brexit: opportunity or threat? Threat in the short term because many people who work for us, particularly in London, are European Union nationals willing to come across and work really hard, and they now feel threatened. It’s horrible, they feel parts of Britain don’t want them. Plus the pound has weakened so their earnings aren’t worth as much.

I guess Brexiteers would argue Brexit will make the British market more dynamic. I do feel things will reach a sensible outcome ultimately and it will be fine because we’re good at trading as a nation. But my view is that in the short term, it’s more of a threat than an opportunity.

Is the customer still always right? Yes, in the sense that you must stay connected to your customers and listen hard. But while we have loads of great customers giving us positive feedback, we also get some who write unreasonable and offensive things to us – it never ceases to amaze me how racist and horrible they can be. They get aggressive about minor things: maybe they need help. I don’t mind if people do it to me, but I don’t like it when people are offensive to my staff. So in that context, the customer is not always right!

Does Nero have any plans to expand into Africa? I personally would love to expand into Africa, there are so many countries we could go to. South Africa is one of my favourite places in the world and I’d be very open to it at the right time. There’s a healthy coffee culture in South Africa already, so we’d probably go into partnership with somebody. But we have no short-term plans to do so.

Will’s working cocker spaniels take him jogging and are his ‘surrogate babies’ when his sons are at university. ‘They’re small enough to cuddle on the sofa,’  he confesses

You’re a committed Christian. How do you believe in a living God in the 21st century? I would say, very easily. To me, the Christian message is overwhelmingly powerful and even more so today when there seems to be a deep spiritual hunger in the world.  

How did you find your faith? I went on an Alpha course 27 years ago, quite anti the whole thing and only doing it because a friend I admired had become a Christian. I couldn’t believe how practical and relevant it turned out to be.

Initially I was a ‘macro Christian’ who got the big picture but didn’t particularly relate to God on a daily basis. Latterly, I have become a ‘micro Christian’, by which I mean that I connect with God in my daily thoughts and engagements.

An example, please? One strong memory I have is about 10 years after the Alpha course when I was dealing with a restructuring. I went to bed saying, ‘I can’t cope with this’, and felt this peaceful voice saying, ‘I’m here for you’. It gave me such a restoring sense of purpose and peace.

Best thing about God? His overwhelming grace and forgiveness.

What wakes you early? Anything to do with relationships: I don’t like being out of sorts in one.

Favourite coffee? Caffè Nero flat white!

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