25 Jun 2012

Sinclair Beecham, co-founder, Pret A Manger

Sinclair Beecham launched sandwich chain Pret A Manger in 1986, with his friend Julian Metcalfe. Having grown the business to become an international brand, the pair sold a majority stake in 2008 for £345m. In 2009 Beecham opened the Hoxton Hotel, which he sold earlier this year

As someone who has launched businesses in Britain and America, Sinclair Beecham is well placed to comment on commonly made comparisons between the two countries' attitudes to enterprise. “In comparison to the US, I worry there is a lack of ambition in this country,” he says. “People seem to be happiest getting something for nothing.”

The difference with the US is particularly stark when it comes to starting a business he adds. “In Britain the automatic response from others is that it won’t work. In America when you start, people get excited. In the UK, there is a presumption of failure. It shouldn’t be that way. We need to look at America and ask if they can do it, why can’t we?”

It is essential to separate the dreamers from the people who really have the guts and determination to make something work

Sinclair Beecham

Beecham started Pret A Manger with no money and no relevant qualifications. “We worked hard and against the odds. It was good to have Julian [Metcalfe] with me. Having a partner means you can’t be right all the time. When you have a problem two people get frustrated at different times, which helps. You wind each other up and that stimulates you to keep going. Julian always inspired me to be better than I was and I like to think that I did the same.” 

Being your own boss

Beecham says both he and Metcalfe had similar ambitions. “We both wanted to be our own bosses and to start something. Once we’d started there was no way out. Either we were a success or we went bankrupt and neither of us could afford to go bankrupt. There was nowhere else to go and neither of us wanted to get proper jobs. The only option was to keep working at it until it worked.”

A lot of people would have given up before it reached that successful tipping point. But Beecham says they stuck to their guns partly because they had started with realistic expectations. “No one said it was going to be easy and no one said it was going to be instant. We learnt so much in those early years because we made mistakes. But it was an exciting time and we had a deep, inherent belief that it was possible.”

As well as this conviction and belief, Beecham says the other key factor was instinct. “We both had very good instincts. You use all sorts of tools and interesting data to analyse decisions and you can come up with all sorts of answers. Black can be white. You think you are being rational and thinking issues through. But then instinct tells you to go the other way. We often spent too long analysing things and not enough time trusting instincts. It was only when I started to trust my instinct more that things turned around and our business improved.”

Beecham says that this is a common theme for successful entrepreneurs. “There is a long list of successful British entrepreneurs. They will all tell you that you need common sense and good instincts and lots of hard work. Don’t expect anyone to do the work for you.”

One of the worries for the UK, says Beecham, is that we have created a dependency culture. “We have something of a culture where people expect everyone else to do things for them. We think everything is someone else’s responsibility.”

Land of opportunity

On the positive side, Beecham sees plenty of opportunity for UK entrepreneurs. “It’s about having the guts to do it," he says. "I didn’t have a great vision when I started in business other than a desire to start in business. As I developed and grew up I learnt more of the tools for business and I developed a plan after the fact that some might have called the vision before the fact.”

There’s no doubt in Beecham’s mind that business success boils down to making better decisions than your competition. “The difference between a successful business and a bankruptcy is one person managed to solve some problems the other one didn’t. Plenty of sandwich bars have been started since we started Pret. Some have succeeded, some have grown a bit and some have failed. The difference between the successes and the failures is a handful of good decisions and a lot of hard work.”

“Being an entrepreneur is an option available to anyone,” says Beecham. “Some will fail and others will succeed. But anyone is entitled to try. This is not something that was somehow open to me but is not open to others. But if you want any easy life don’t be an entrepreneur. This is not the easy option. A handful of people succeed and lots of people fail. But all of those people have to do an awful lot of hard work and hard hours and take a lot of hard knocks and get back up again before they succeed. It is essential to separate the dreamers from the people who really have the guts and determination to make something work.

We have made the case for entrepreneurship, now we have to get everyone to believe in it

Sinclair Beecham

The American dream

I believe in the American dream. I started a business in America and it was tough. I went with a suitcase and a handful of introductions to people who turned out to be the wrong people. Although I had experience, money and a working model, none of which I had when I started in the UK, there was also a more positive approach in America. When I told people in America that I was starting a business, rather than shut the door in my face they were enthusiastic. That positive psyche affects everyone. Everyone’s attitude to the entrepreneur is more positive in America. That’s the biggest difference. I found everyone else’s optimism extremely helpful as I was struggling with problems.”

Having stepped back from day-to-day involvement in Pret, Beecham’s next venture was the Hoxton Hotel (which he sold in May this year for an undisclosed sum to Ennismore Capital). Despite his entrepreneurial pedigree, launching the hotel wasn’t plain sailing either. “It was difficult to raise money to do the hotel,” he says. “But the difference was that this time I was able to attract quality people. I also knew a lot more. I knew how to look at accounts, I knew the people I needed to structure the business, and I knew the format of a business. It was as if I’d been to business school and had practical experience. After all, all business is about is making good decisions and managing risks.”

Beecham says there has been a culture shift in the UK towards more entrepreneurs. “Looking at the UK between when I started Pret and today, it’s very different. In 1986, I didn’t know what an entrepreneur was. Today, there is a culture of entrepreneurship and there are lots of well-known entrepreneurs. That’s good because more people see it as a career option. In the last generation we have created entrepreneurs here. As the support system becomes more sophisticated, there are greater numbers of entrepreneurs doing a range of interesting things. In my lifetime there has been an enormous opening of the possibility, now we have got to create the belief. Until now there has only been a handful of people who believed in themselves and fought long and hard enough to win. We have made the case for entrepreneurship, now we have to get everyone to believe in it.”



Richard Cree