Leon CEO John Vincent: why wing tsun is better for business than ‘The Art of War’
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“Punch me straight in the face,” says John Vincent, the co-founder and chief executive of healthy fast-food chain Leon.
I hesitate. This is not a typical request from a CEO during an interview, and the 6ft 2in, 104kg entrepreneur is a lot bigger than me. But we are standing in a kwoon, a training hall for martial arts, that Vincent had built on the third floor of a Leon outlet near Oxford Circus, and I don’t think I have much choice.
Downstairs, the breakfast rush is still on. Customers order flat whites, porridge and avocado-and-halloumi muffins from a menu inspired by Vincent’s idea to remake fast food as “if God made it in heaven”. They have no idea what is going on above them.
I punch, shooting my relaxed arm out from the elbow and keeping my fist vertical, as Vincent has just shown me. The counterintuitive technique, which looks nothing like a boxer’s movement, is taught in the ancient martial art of wing tsun, which originated in the 17th century during a period of transition between the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Vincent dodges my attempt easily but encourages me to try again, holding up a thick black pad for me to hit over and over.
“Punch the way the hand lies!” he tells me.
“Keep the elbow low!”
Leon, which was founded in 2004 and named after Vincent’s father, has cannily capitalised on consumers’ desire for cleaner, healthier food, helping it buck the crisis hitting many British high-street chains. Sales rose 19 per cent to £95m last year, although it remains lossmaking as it expands. Vincent, 48, has also emerged as an influential voice in British food policy after advising the government on how to improve the quality of school lunches and chairing the Agriculture Department’s Council for Sustainable Business. Last year, as the industry reeled following the deaths of two women from allergic reactions to food from Pret A Manger, Vincent persuaded executives from competing outlets to work together informally, to share lessons about how to reduce risks from the supply chain to kitchens.
Yet his discovery of wing tsun, which is a style of kung fu, arrived at a crucial time. Five years ago, Vincent was stressed and suffering from frequent stomach pains. Somehow, learning how to punch, kick, turn and defend himself helped banish his health problems. And, beyond the physical aspects, he was enamoured of the life lessons to be taken from a practice that draws on the religions of Zen Buddhism and Taoism.
Century when Sun Tzu’s military treatise The Art of War was written. Today its lessons in strategy are widely used by businesses
At wing tsun’s heart is the principle that fighting should be avoided at all costs, and if it cannot be, then you must neutralise your opponent as quickly as possible with simple, fast, practical moves. Its various techniques, such as attacking and defending simultaneously and staying relaxed, make it possible for a smaller, lighter person to defeat a much larger opponent.
“Stay relaxed. Good!” he tells me.
“OK, that one would have hurt me a lot,” Vincent says smiling. “You’ve just learnt the key to self-defence — smack them repeatedly in the nose.”
Wing tsun is built around four developmental stages, or “doors”. Vincent suggests we do the first form of the first door, which aims to teach the basics of how to stand, breathe and move the hands. I mirror his movements as he begins to move his hands in slow-motion punches and blocks. Known as siu nim tao, this first stage is all about learning to know yourself and how you think and behave. “It is about man’s fundamental journey, and how we can all return to wholeness,” he tells me during a much-needed break in our session.
Vincent says his new hobby built on an earlier interest in psychology. And, as he studied with a si-fu, or master, named Julian Hitch at home in West Sussex, they began to write principles and techniques on giant flip-chart sheets and stick them to the walls: take the shortest line. Don’t force. Whatever happens is to your advantage.
With the zeal of a convert, Vincent decided to team up with his teacher to write a book that examined how wing tsun could help others. The result, Winning Not Fighting: Why You Need to Rethink Success and How You Achieve It with The Ancient Art of Wing Tsun, is part self-help manual (earnestly delving into the views of Carl Jung and Alfred Adler), part management treatise and critique of modern capitalism, and part history of wing tsun (Hitch’s chapters).
Vincent’s observations on business are remarkably candid. In a chapter on the first door, he discusses his own “bitter” experience of how ego can be responsible for some bad decisions in business, such as chasing new restaurant openings or making value-destroying acquisitions, all in the name of growth. He describes how Leon was guilty of bidding too much to buy three restaurant sites in London from a company in bankruptcy. Vincent admits he didn’t feel good about it at the time, but was driven by the desire to win and a fear of missing out. In retrospect, he realised the deal “was not a good use of our precious money. To any Leon investor reading this, I would like to apologise.”
This kind of introspection is rare among CEOs, who often seek to project an air of invincibility in public. In another memorable passage, Vincent describes himself as a happy Labrador puppy that occasionally transforms into an angry Rottweiler. This aspect of his personality was on full display in 2015 when he clashed with a British government minister to whom he was submitting a plan to improve the quality and healthiness of food served in schools. “Read the f**king plan,” the Rottweiler growled. “We haven’t spent two years developing it for the minister in charge not to read it.” According to a Mail on Sunday story on the incident, Vincent was soon escorted from the room after he “unleashed a volley of abuse” in a “bizarre four-letter rant”.
Per cent of Leon’s sales come from vegan and vegetarian food
Vincent dissects his behaviour without shame in the book, though admits he wished he had handled the moment differently. It taught him something about himself, however, and in wing tsun, that is a key to progress. “What’s the downside of exposing yourself? It’s only fear,” he says. “The upside is that everybody knows how to navigate you. Here’s the map of me. Here’s where the treasure is. Here’s where the dragons are . . . ”
By the time they reach the fourth door, muk yan chong, or the wooden dummy, students live in a Zen state of freedom. Vincent admits he is far from achieving that level of mastery — “I’m just at the end of door two” — and he trains once a week with Hitch and a few times on his own. Each door has physical routines that must be learnt to teach you how to stand, punch and kick to best effect. He reminds me that wing tsun is not like karate where a person’s skill level is ranked by the colour of the belt.
It’s not just CEOs that wing tsun can help. At Leon, baristas are put through training, as are managers and all new employees. Vincent claims “remarkable results” in the quality and speed of their coffee making, all while becoming more relaxed. “I’m not sure it would stand up to peer review but according to measurements we did, their pulse rate went down dramatically, the quality went up and the number that they could do within a given period of time went up,” he says.
I ask him what made him want to bring his passion for wing tsun, which, in its psychological aspect, is quite personal, to work. “I don’t think you can really separate the different spheres of your life. Business, family, entrepreneurship, emotional and mental health — these things all come together and cannot be abstracted and separated.” Although he has not been able to persuade his wife, broadcaster Katie Derham, to take up wing tsun, one of his two daughters has started practising.
Besides, he jokes: “A lot of people who are founders, their business is a form of therapy.”
Vincent was born in north London and started his first company while still a history student at Cambridge University, after he and some friends realised they could make money from doing the sound and light shows at student dance parties. After graduating, he joined the corporate world at Procter & Gamble, getting a crash course in how marketers cultivate consumers’ desires by appealing to shame and “fear”. Then it was on to management consultancy Bain & Company, where he met Henry Dimbleby, with whom he came up with the idea for Leon. (The third co-founder was chef Allegra McEvedy.)
Number of movements in siu nim tao, the first door in wing tsun. The figure is significant in Buddhism and Hinduism
As a child, Vincent says he loved McDonald’s before realising how bad fast food was both for his health and the environment. “I’ve been a bit of an addict of McDonald’s and, at times, I got into this really weird situation where I could almost not walk past one without having something,” he says. “This country’s got such a poor food culture that we’re brought up to think healthy food is grated carrot and the only stuff you actually enjoy is fast food . . . it doesn’t have to be like that.”
With Leon, he wanted to give customers healthier fare while still bringing them pleasure. In recent years, the chain has made sustainability a central part of its brand, working to remove plastics from its operations, rely on renewable energy and shift half of the menu to vegetarian and vegan options. He believes that more businesses need to make such changes, even if consumers are not yet demanding them.
I ask him what he thinks about how business leaders, even in the arch-capitalist US, are increasingly talking about how companies must go beyond serving only shareholder interests to consider the impact they have on employees, communities and the environment.
“It’s like an alcoholic who joins Alcoholics Anonymous but still goes to the pub,” he sighs. “I don’t think there are enough businesses still to this day making enough change. There’s a green shoot of possibility about what’s happening but it’s not an inevitability.”
As Vincent demonstrates something quite fierce called a chain punch, his wing tsun teacher Hitch has joined us in the kwoon. He is clearly enjoying himself. I, on the other hand, am starting to regret my total inexperience. Sensing my discomfort, he launches into an explanation of how wing tsun is the ideal martial art for me. He points to a painting on the wall of the kwoon that depicts three women in traditional Ming dynasty dress against a moody beige backdrop. These are the founders, he explains. “A young woman named Wing Tsun, which means beautiful springtime, was their first student and they taught her how to defend herself when she was being forced to marry the local bully.”
Its history gives wing tsun a starkly different approach to conflict than the one espoused by better known forms of kung fu, which were made famous in the west by Bruce Lee films. And for Vincent, learning about these origins had another effect. He became more conscious of how, as a CEO, he had internalised the martial culture of modern business to a harmful degree. “We must all be aware of and careful of the language we use,” he writes. “Does your company really need to call the place where strategy is conducted the ‘war room’? Do we need to ‘kill’ the competition?”
He calls out fellow CEOs for being enthralled by the ideas of Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s Art of War and conceiving everything from sales to budgets as a battle. “I believe we’d have a better world if businesses were not trying to destroy each other and the planet,” he says. “The war metaphor leads to behaviour that doesn’t respect the environment or people.”
Number of punches that Leila Abboud was able to land on John Vincent
With wing tsun, Vincent says he slowly found an alternative to the persona of a general leading his troops, which he had unconsciously adopted at Leon as it grew to reach more than 70 outlets in six countries and 2,000 employees. Ironically, in learning a martial art that would allow him to maim, stun, and kill, Vincent learnt how to abandon the militaristic culture that he believes has infected capitalism.
He stops talking and offers to teach me a technique to break free if a baddie grabs me against my will. “The key is to stay relaxed, to respond and not react,” he says.
You can escape a seemingly fierce arm lock with one deft turn of the arm, and use the moment of surprise to shove your opponent away from you. “Now you go,” he says, grabbing my arm quite hard.
The movement comes naturally, and suddenly John Vincent goes flying across the room.
“Winning Not Fighting” (Portfolio Penguin) is published on November 7. Leila Abboud is the FT’s consumer industries correspondent
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