December 4, 2011 11:24 pm

Interview: Chain reaction

It was curry that persuaded Sarah Willingham to pursue a master of business administration degree. After a decade working in the restaurant chain business – at Planet Hollywood and Pizza Express – the straight-talking 37-year-old was convinced the same model could be applied to Indian restaurants.

“I went to the [board of Pizza Express] with the idea of doing to Indian restaurants what we had done to pizzas: offer high-quality food at mid-market prices,” she says. “They looked at me and went, ‘No – we do pizzas. You’re barking mad.’ That was when I thought, if I don’t do this now, I never will, and I started thinking about doing an MBA.”

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IN European Business Schools 2011

Willingham is sitting in Fitzrovia’s London Cocktail Club – in which she holds a stake – trying to distract her five-year-old, Minnie (the eldest of four), while she talks. She recalls thinking that studying for an MBA would give her the environment to “nurture this idea, bring it to fruition and hopefully complete it, all within the year”.

She already had two degrees – one in international business from Oxford Brookes University and another in international finance from the Sup de Co in La Rochelle, France. She did some intensive research on business schools. “I looked at the top four or five in Europe,” she says. Her top two were Cranfield School of Management in the UK and Insead in Fontainebleau, France. She was advised to apply some way ahead for Insead, but she wanted to start sooner. “Fortunately, I got into Cranfield.”

An MBA, she says, “is probably the most self-indulgent thing you can do”. She explains: “Everybody goes on about how hard it is, but I feel, ‘Get real. You’re taking a year out to focus on yourself – it can’t be that bad.’ Of course, it’s really hard work, but that’s what you buy into. But it is such an indulgent time. It’s so wonderfully selfish – and I mean that with all the positives.”

So Willingham left Pizza Express and, partly by remortgaging her London flat, she was able to start at Cranfield in 2003. By this time she had identified Bombay Bicycle Club, a loss-making group of six Indian restaurants, as a potential acquisition.

“I stood up on the first day and said this is why I’m here: [to get advice on starting a chain of restaurants]. This is what I want to do. From day one, every module that I took, every choice of coursework that I had, every assignment that I was given – where I could twist it, I did. Everything was based on [this] outcome. I was writing the human resources plans, I was writing business plans before I had even bought the business.” Speaking about her plans so openly helped to motivate her. After all, she thought, if she didn’t achieve her goal, she would feel a fool.

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Aside from the “free help” and academic teaching, Willingham learnt a lot about herself through constant feedback. “It makes you a miles better manager, team player, subordinate, everything. It makes you just a much better person in general, actually.

“The thing that really surprised me was how important it was to understand how different people are. I was working with people and thinking, ‘You’re really annoying.’ Historically I just would have just thought, ‘You’re so annoying – why don’t you get it? Why aren’t you working like I work? What’s your problem? You’re being neurotic.’”

Having completed the degree, Willingham appreciates others’ different skill sets and realises she needs complementary personalities to her own, although learning this was painful at times. “Quite brutal” is how she describes some of the feedback.

Cranfield also gave her a very good network – a term she spurns. “I hate the word ‘network’ because it sounds so contrived.” Instead, she prefers to describe it as a “very good group of friends and colleagues that I could call on, for fundraising to financial [advice]”.

When Willingham finally did buy Bombay Bicycle Club in 2004, she hired a very different team than the one she would have done previously “I was very, very aware of my weaknesses, and what I was good at, and how I was able to motivate people the best, and what sort of people I needed… to really fill in a lot of my gaps. I recruited the most amazing team on the planet. And it worked.”

She credits Cranfield for encouraging her entrepreneurial zeal. “I was inspired by a lot of people that came in to Cranfield to talk about their businesses. I used to walk out thinking, ‘That’s going to get me out of bed.’ That really excites me – that freedom they have, the choice they have and the fact that they’re totally in control of their own destiny. They live or die by their failings and their success.”

The MBA set up Willingham well for her own business which she turned into a profitable chain of 17 restaurants and sold for an undisclosed sum (“it had six noughts on it”) in 2007. At present, she is preparing to launch a website to help people save money on everything from utility bills to grocery shopping. Meanwhile, she also has interests in consumer retail website mysupermarket.com, a private equity company, HBG Holdings, and speaks at events for organisations such as Unilever and the NHS.

An unexpected benefit of the MBA was that it prepared her for appearances on business reality television programmes The Apprentice and The Restaurant, the latter with chef Raymond Blanc, as well as to offer ­money-saving advice on daytime show This Morning. “We did a lot of training for public speaking and press and things like that at Cranfield,” she says. “Of course, ­­I never thought I was going to use it.”

Her advice for anyone contemplating an MBA? “If you’re going to do it, do it well, really. And throw everything at it.”

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