Norfolk Network stories

A tale of hospitality

Charlie Watson
Singular Publishing

For the happy occasion of Norfolk Network’s 15th birthday, Karen Jones was the perfect guest speaker. Not only is she a UEA alumna, now returned to the university as chancellor, but she is a lifelong entrepreneur in the hospitality business, and – in case you didn’t know this already – UEA is the Network’s lead sponsor. The stars were aligned.

Before Karen Jones’s talk, however, there were some celebratory formalities to attend to. First, Lucy Marks, Norfolk Network’s managing director, welcomed the audience and speakers, and introduced the two sponsors for the evening – long-time member Sarah Daniels of The Red Cat Partnership and Richard Ross of Chadwicks – who had only good things to say about the networking community and its work in the city. Better yet, Sarah Daniels was revealed as the recipient of the Norfolk Network scholarship to study for an executive MBA at Norwich Business School.

Next, Professor Fiona Lettice, pro vice chancellor for research and innovation at UEA, paved the way for Karen Jones by speaking for five minutes on the university’s areas of excellence in research, on Norfolk Network’s engagement with business-minded students, and on the university’s drive to nurture the spirit of enterprise on campus. This last point was a perfect cue for Karen Jones to step forward, as it chimes exactly with her vision for UEA.

It all began at Betty’s ...

Karen Jones first taste of hospitality came when she was 18 and worked in Betty’s Tea Room in York. From there she waitressed her way around America for a year, before reading English and American Studies at UEA and Wellesley College in Massachusetts. The university experience was a positive one – “I was a very happy student there, doing the things that happy students do” – but what followed was what sounds like the one blind alley in Karen Jones’s entrepreneurial journey: a job in advertising.

“I spent a lovely 18 months in advertising after university,” she said. “But as all you entrepreneurs in the room will understand, I knew I wanted to run my own enterprise, however big or small it might be. I just couldn’t get past the visceral feeling that I didn’t want to be a cog in someone else’s wheel.”

And so it proved. A waitressing job at the fashionable Peppermint Park restaurant in central London led to a better job offer from the founder, Roger Myers, and very soon Jones was “an entirely ill equipped PLC director at the age of 25”, helping to float the company on the stock market.

Once she had found her pathway and was moving at speed, her entrepreneurial drive kicked in. With Roger Myers again, in 1989 Jones founded Café Rouge, which grew over the next seven years to 120 locations. In 1996 they sold the chain to Whitbread, and the plan was then for her to step off the business-building rollercoaster to spend more time with her husband and three small children.

But no. “Instead, five of us bought Allied Domecq’s 3,500 pubs in 1999 with our own money and a lot of private equity backing,” Jones recalled. “Having had the privilege of building a company from the ground up, I now had the very different but no less fascinating job of sorting out a big company in very steep decline. And you know what, the defining jobs to be done weren’t different at all: sort the strategy, have a clear goal, find great people, build a culture, execute brilliantly.”

Britain’s biggest barmaid

The team of five split off the tenanted pubs, which became Punch, and kept the remaining 1,100 managed pubs, which were named the Spirit Group. They then won the auction to buy Scottish & Newcastle’s 1,500-strong pub group, and started on an immensely difficult task: integration. But in a few short years that goal too had been successfully achieved. “The whole thing was an incredible turnaround brought about by many talented people working harder and faster than they knew they could,” she said. “And although I loved being what the Sun’s business editor called ‘Britain’s biggest barmaid’, we sold the business in 2006.”

Which brings us to today. Karen Jones now runs the Food and Fuel pub group in central London, as well as chairing the Hawksmoor, Mowgli and Prezzo restaurant chains, and investing in young hospitality businesses such as Good Life Eatery and Fernandez and Wells. Her entrepreneurial journey has been an inspiring one, and Karen Jones shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.

Event sponsors:  The Redcat Partnership and Chadwicks

Event photos: Joe Lenton Photography