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Botanist operator strikes out from Living Ventures' shadow with £23m NatWest investment

Published:  03 February, 2017

New World Trading Company (NWTC), the company which is responsible for the numerous Botanists springing up in UK town centres over the past few years, until recently belonged to parent company Living Ventures.

New World Trading Company (NWTC), the company which is responsible for the numerous Botanists springing up in UK town centres over the past few years, until recently belonged to parent group Living Ventures.

Like any parent and child relationship, NWTC was nurtured and quickly outgrew its initial home, culminating in a management buyout which completed in June last year.

Now firmly in its adolescent years and eager prove, the company has put its resources into opening seven sites within the last financial year - bringing the total racing up to 16.

A risky acceleration of growth some might say, but the company's decisions have just been validated by its first big financial endorsement from NatWest to the tune of £23m.

Chief executive Chris Hill likens this process to flying the nest.

"Following the buyout, it was always our intention to seek banking investment, with the plan one day to 100% independent.

"We have we have some of that independence now. Living Ventures is an entrepreneurial restaurant and bar company and they experiment with ideas. We started NWTC in 2013 with just one site, when realised we had something good. With Living Ventures it was like we were one of the children in a big family. Now, we're set up with our own team and our own HQ," he said.

Out of the £23m roll out fund from NatWest, £4m will be combined with operating profits to set up at least six new sites in regions such as Birmingham, Didsbury and Reading in the coming months and increase staff numbers by a further 200.

The wheels were put in motion for the buyout in June 2016 and the company was eventually acquired by private equity firm Graphite Capital for £50m earlier this year.

In 2017 alone, they have already added two new Botanist sites in York and Sheffield.

The transfer to operating independently also involved switching from Lloyds as a banking backer to NatWest, which has fronted the money for the rapid development.

The enthusiasm and the rate at which the company is growing points to an element of youthfulness behind the controls - and this is exactly right.

At not-so-ripe age of 36, Hill proudly put himself forward as as an exmaple of what the younger generation in the trade can achieve given the right support, encouragement and room to grow.

This uneven ground of retaining well-trained staff was well traversed at a recent joint Harpers and WSET roundtable in which Simon Kehoe, learning and development manager at Majestic Wine - among others - lamented the challenges surrounding holding onto talent.

Hill puts his ability to grow within the same company down to his mentor, the late Tim Bacon, who he credits with helping him to maneuver into a managerial role in NWTC.

Having begun his career at the age of 23 as bar staff, he was involved in the setting up and running of NWTC before proposing to buy out his managers.

Hill was ready to move on after 13 years with Living Ventures - which most employers would agree is time well served.

The trade shouldn't settle anything less than this, Hill says, although they often do.

"Not a lot of people believe that the opportunities I was given actually exist," he added. "This industry accepts high staff turnover and there's no need for it. I joined as bar supervisor and never felt need to leave until I was buying out my own brand for £50m.

"I'm young for the role of chief executive, but it shows that it's possible for others to do the same. It's about creating jobs that people want to do."

With a 1,000-employee strong workforce to manage, Hill now has the task of keeping his own staff enthused and motivated.

One way he addressed this was to implement a Tribe system across the 16 NWTC sites - a kind of traditional house system aimed at uniting and motivating the company's up and comers.

While 'investment in people' is uttered so often by employers it has almost lost all meaning, Hill took his 'in the bath' eureka moment and has turned it into something that his staff actually get excited about.

He said: "The reason we're doing so well is that we motivate staff to deliver above and beyond what's expected. We pay them very well, we have an in house training and development scheme, and the Tribe initiative drives staff to constantly compete against each other and get involved in activities. Recently we held a quiz of the year for charity in a big hall at Oxford University.

"I could talk about this for hours. We do 1,000 things well: great food and drink across all categories, but none of it works if you're staff aren't engaged. We really do invest in people."

We believe him.