The Admirable Roxburgh

28 May 2004
The Admirable Roxburgh

Fine isn't good enough. I can't stand anything being fine," says Johnny Roxburgh, co-owner of The Admirable Crichton. As he speaks, he gestures, signalling that "fine" really isn't up to scratch - and you believe he means it.

"We don't believe in doing fine, we believe in doing stuff that is fantastic and amazing," he continues, and adds that he is a stickler for detail and old-fashioned values, and despises political correctness.

In 23 years, Roxburgh and business partner Rolline Frewen have built up a world-renowned party company. It has made its name by doing the unthinkable, by coming up with extraordinary ideas and themes and then putting them into practice. The word "impossible" doesn't appear in the company's lexicon.

But while Roxburgh might seem to live the millionaire's lifestyle - he jets around the globe, helping people design and plan their parties, mixing with the rich, the famous and the powerful - he insists the company's foundations are built on good, old-fashioned graft. The lifestyle might seem glamorous, but it's hard work, and Roxburgh continues to do the hard yards. He says: "My bank manager once told me that it is amazing how many of his successful and incredibly lucky customers also work 18 hours a day."

Roxburgh used to be a number-cruncher, but gave it up after seven years - because he could see that "it didn't have a big financial future" - to set up his own business in partnership with Frewen in 1981. He says the idea to set up a party business came from another friend. "He was a wise old boy aged about 70," he says. "He said that one thing I always did well was hold amazing parties."

Their first office was in Clapham, south London, where they operated out of Frewen's house. Neither knew a jot about catering or events, although Frewen had an artistic bent and was a sculptress.

For the first six months, every time the phone rang, Roxburgh would say that the company was too busy to do a job. It was a clever marketing plan. He recalls: "When we opened ours doors, everyone remarked, ‘We could never book The Admirable Crichton, they must be really good.' The truth of the matter was that we didn't know what we were doing."

For the first four years, Roxburgh and Frewen paid themselves just £4,000 a year. "Even in those days it was nothing, and we were working 18 hours a day, sometimes two days in a row, non-stop. We just kept pushing and pushing," Roxburgh explains.

He reckons that honest toil was the secret to getting the start-up company off the ground. "I think graft is important," he says. "It might sound old-fashioned. It is actually quite difficult to fail if you work really, really hard, as most people don't work that hard."

The company's big break came when they put up a massive tent alongside King's College, in Chelsea, London, at Christmas about 20 years ago. The first half of it was a dining room, the second half was a winter garden and dance floor with what Roxburgh claims was the first-ever star-cloth ceiling that copied exactly the constellations of the night sky.

It was a great success and was booked night after night, but The Admirable Crichton still lost money on it - £10,000 to be exact, which was no small beer 20 years ago. Roxburgh insists that, despite the loss, the company's name was made overnight. He says: "We suddenly went from being little minnows to a company to take notice of, and from there we just grew and grew."

Roxburgh reckons it took about four years before the company started to grow properly, and it took about 10 years of business before it really took off. Now, The Admirable Crichton is a multi-million-pound international events company, which designs and caters for about 500 parties a year, split evenly between private and corporate clients. It employs 48 permanent staff and 120 part-timers.

Despite its name and reputation, the company doesn't have it all its own way, as it pitches for about 1,400 jobs a year and there are many more party-planning firms than the four there were when Roxburgh and Frewen started.

He believes that you have to build really solid foundations before a company can expand (perhaps this is his accountancy training coming to the fore) and that you have to be prepared to tough out the hard times. "I can remember in the early 1990s when we nearly went bankrupt," he says. "It was just hideous - nobody was holding parties at all, because the economy was so bad."

The company had borrowed a lot of money from the bank, but the bank (which is Scottish, just like Roxburgh and Frewen) stuck by them. Roxburgh says: "I asked our bank manager (we had an old fashioned relationship, he was like one of the family) why he continued to stick with us, and he said he knew the problems weren't to do with the company but with the economy."

He says that you should employ the right staff and pay them well; then they will be loyal. Some of his chefs have been working with him for eight or nine years, he claims.

When it comes to waiting staff, the company unashamedly employs young and beautiful people, and Roxburgh expects high standards. They must turn up for duty looking pristine, having washed their hair not less than three hours before. They all have their hair dressed and have make-up applied, and they get sprayed with Joe Malone aqua de limone to ensure that they smell sweet.

They also have extensive training on how to deal with celebrities. "We don't want them to be standing there shaking, because they are standing in front of the Prince of Wales or Sting," Roxburgh says.

It's the little touches that make the difference and you guess this is a hallmark of The Admirable Crichton, but Roxburgh puts its success down to being a "sticker" and being prepared to sacrifice everything. "You must live, breathe, eat, sleep and dream it," he says. "I believe everyone that is truly successful in business does this."

Asked if he is still walking the walk and working 18-hour days, he replies: "Yes - I hate it at times." He then recounts his exhausting schedule for the preceding week. Caterer was lucky to have grabbed an hour of his time before he dashed off to check the lighting for an event for Asprey on London's Bond Street prior to flying to Jordan the next day to oversee a very expensive wedding. He wouldn't reveal whose, as keeping his counsel keeps The Admirable Crichton in business with the rich and the famous.

Whether or not he's a millionaire (he neatly sidesteps the question), he lives a millionaire's lifestyle. "I've done 32 trips since Christmas," he says, pointing out that he has in that time staged events in Italy, Spain and Portugal, and two in the south of France, one in Cannes for the film festival. "I always insist on two luxuries," he says. "Staying in the best hotels, and flying club class. Good hotels are a lifestyle experience and it helps me to be exposed to the most amazing things."

Is this where the inspiration comes for some of the world's most amazing parties? "I don't know," says Roxburgh. "It's just there. The tap just turns on." This brings to mind another of his pointers for success - talent. Clearly, Roxburgh has that in spades.
Additional research by Ben Walker

Roxburgh on…
Tips for success - Start off with a business plan.

  • Organise your finances.
  • Have vision and guts, and stick at it for as long as it takes.
  • Remember the ladders you climb on the way up - you may need them on the way down.
  • Back your talent.
  • If you can't do something yourself, pay someone else who can to do it.
  • Be prepared to put in the hard yards.
  • Be determined and prepared to sacrifice everything.
  • Employ well and gain your staff's respect.

Party food Great food at a party is a given now, Roxburgh says. He feels food should be wonderful, but not tricksy. "We produce wonderful food that looks and tastes fantastic," he says. It is served by staff employed by The Admirable Crichton itself, not from agencies.

Hosting a party
Learn every guest's name and something about them. Pin it up somewhere so you can read it every day and learn it. Then, when you introduce guests to each other, you know their names and something about them or something they might have in common. This can get them talking and break the ice. Then you can leave them to socialise. If you are having a buffet for the main course, serve a starter and ensure that guests can sit down and establish groups and people to talk to. When the room has some nervous guests or people who don't know each other, serving a finger-food starter will help gueststo make eye-contact and to establish conversation.

Routes to the top… The corporate ladder
Michael J Bailey - Mike to his friends, and anyone who works for Compass - left school in 1963, aged 16. He worked as a commis chef in the staff canteen of a car factory and earned £8 a week. Last year, as chief executive of Compass worldwide, he earned £2.6m.

That's a lot of money, Mike. Can anyone make it to the top? That's the exciting thing about this business. If you work hard and grab the opportunities, you can go all the way.

What's your story? I got involved in the cookery classes at school - I was useless at everything else. When I left school, I went to work for Peter Merchant [one half of what was to become Gardner Merchant] at Ford Motor Company's Worley car plant in Brentwood, Essex.

Any lucky breaks? I started a Gardner Merchant (GM) management training course but, after a few days, there was a strike somewhere and I had to go and help out. The strike didn't last very long but I must have done a good job because GM said: "You've passed the course. You're a manager now. Go and run the food operation at Thames House, Ford's Gants Hill offices." So, at 19, I was managing a unit of five people, feeding 350 workers a day.

You spent a long time in the car industry. What did you learn? Every other day, there would be a strike, so it taught me a lot about industrial relations. Ford also had good cost control and accounting systems.

You went to the USA as well.
I went to the USA in 1985 to run Trusthouse Forte Foodservices. Business increased from $40m turnover to $250m in five years. I loved the States. Still do. I like the casualness - no airs and graces - and the weather's fantastic.

And now you're the boss of Compass, the world's largest food service company. How does that feel? I love it. Every day I wake up and look forward to going to work.

Any tips on getting to the top? Don't do anything you don't enjoy. If you love what you're doing, you'll do a good job. And if you do that, you'll get noticed.

Routes to the top… Set up on your own
Ruston Toms worked as a waiter, commis chef, catering manager and sales executive before he co-founded Blue Apple Contract Catering with Brian Allanson in 1998. In its first year of business, turnover was £72,292. Today, it has 13 contracts, 88 employees and annual sales of £2.5m. "Starting out wasn't a massive risk," Toms recalls. "We didn't borrow lots of money - not more than £30,000."

You met a target to run your own business by the age of 35. Do you still set yourself targets? It's always a good idea to start with the end in mind and plan a route to get there. We still set ourselves targets. One is to take the Blue Apple brand to the high street. We're under no illusions that this represents a completely different set of challenges.

What have you learnt that has been indispensable to running your own business? People don't have the same allegiance to their employer, and jobs are most certainly not for life any more. People work for people, not companies, so unless you seek to understand them as individuals you can't expect them to understand you and the direction you want to take.

How important is it to have a business partner? I think you would have to be a very special person to have the complete set of skills to set up a company, get business, set standards, and continually improve what you do. Brian and I have different strengths and weaknesses, so we complement each other.

How about support from family and friends? My father ran his own company, so I think I've got the entrepreneurial spirit in my genes. He's given me plenty of guidance in a subtle way. You do need your family to have faith in your ability, because a new venture is risky. However, when I started Blue Apple with Brian, I felt deep down we couldn't fail.

Any sticky moments? Last year, we discovered another catering company in the North of England was using our name. We created Blue Apple as a food service brand, which has been trademarked, and our brand identity is fundamental to the business. We were left no choice but to defend the brand via our lawyers. Eventually, the other company backed down and relinquished the name and website address before it went to court.

Any regrets? No, only that we'd had the confidence to do it sooner.

What's hot - Perspex

  • Bales of hay wrapped in plastic
  • Contemporary chintz for tablecloths, teamed with very unchintzy china
  • Hot colours are acid greens and yellow, and very sugary pink
  • Watch out this autumn for brown and cinnamon, and the colour of frosted honey
  • And smells - these are becoming more important than ever at parties

What should be banned from parties? - Gold lam‚

  • Silk flowers

Routes to the top…Start your own company, flog it to your old boss, then start another one
When William Baxter left Sutcliffe (now Compass ) at the age of 27, his boss, Don Davenport, gave him a matchbox Ferrari and said: "You'll never have a Ferrari working here." Baxter was able to buy the real thing by building Baxter & Platts into a successful business. He then sold the company he co-founded with Robert Platts to Compass. A few years later, he co-founded his second company, BaxterSmith. How did he raise the initial capital? By selling the Ferrari, of course.

How did you borrow the money to start Baxter & Platts? Both Robert and I increased our mortgages to raise £15,000 each. We also secured a £40,000 overdraft from a high-street bank, but never used it. My father always said that if high-street banks will lend, your business plan is safe. Contract catering is a great industry because the entry level is so small. All you need is a telephone, an office and a car. And if you really want to cut costs, your can use the car as your office.

You also need the knowledge.
Before starting your own business, you need to work as an area manager or higher for an existing contract caterer. If possible, a stint in sales would help.

Do you need a partner?
I think it's very useful to share the experience with someone, both in terms of responsibility, ideas and encouragement.

You have the funding, the knowledge and the partner. What now? Decide on your targeted market and define what is going to make you different. Produce a company look that is unique, new and exciting. Work hard and be focused. Sell, sell, sell. Concentrate on the detail. Don't give up and, most importantly, enjoy it.

Any tricky moments? We've had some horrendous ones over the years. Once, a City client caught two of our staff shagging on the boardroom table.

How did you get out of that one?
Apologise to the client and fire one or two people.

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