Features
30 Jan 2013 03:04pm

You shall have a fishy...

Fighting to protect his family fish business from Olympic developers, Lance Forman used his ACA training to stop the company going up in smoke. Liz Loxton reports

Sitting within sight of the Olympic Park in east London, Lance Forman considers the missed opportunity last year’s Games turned out to be for his business, Forman & Son.

State-of-the-art premises, an international reputation among world-class restaurants and hotels plus a location within sight of the main stadium remain a strong proposition for the fourth-generation fish smokery and food business. Yet despite investing in a £1m building and staffing a successful outdoor hospitality area and pop-up club on the River Lea during the event, the Games failed to deliver the hoped-for returns.

Lack of footfall from the Olympic Park is to blame, Forman says. The London Development Agency promised renewal and regeneration but the Olympic organisers kept visitors away from the real East End, steering them out of the Olympic Park via the Westfield shopping centre and straight onto trains.

 

“The ACA came into its own in the battle against the compulsory purchase order… it meant I had the skills”

“The Games were supposed to bring people in their thousands to east London,” he says. “In the event the organisers wouldn’t allow them to spill out into Hackney Wick. As people approached the western Victoria Gate of the Olympic Village, only three minutes’ walk from us, they were turned away.”

Even those who asked for directions to Victoria Park or to Forman & Son itself didn’t get any help from volunteers, he claims. Yet the locality has much to offer. “We are in the centre of the largest art community in Europe,” says Forman. “There are 650 artists’ studios within a 250-metre radius and we have our own gallery, too. There was an opportunity for visitors and Londoners to really engage with the local community.”

London 2012 proved to be a decade-long distraction. In 2003 Forman heard that his company, founded in 1905, and 250 others faced compulsory purchase orders to make way for the 2012 Olympic Games. He spent the next five years fighting for survival. In the event his business was able to relocate very close to its original home, on Fish Island. Other businesses weren’t so lucky, a fact he believes hasn’t been taken into account in the value equation for the Games.

Forman’s training in chartered accountancy, as well as periods in property consultancy and politics, meant he was better equipped for the challenge than many. He trained with Price Waterhouse (now PwC), staying for three years post-qualification. Having worked with the firm on Poland’s first ever privatisation, he and an architect friend set up a consultancy to take advantage of the emerging development opportunities in eastern Europe.

In 1990, another change in direction took him into politics, when he was appointed as a special adviser to Peter Lilley, secretary of state at the Department of Trade and Industry as it was then known. When the post came to an end he returned to consultancy before joining the family firm in 1994.

Forman describes the ACA as a good discipline that provides solid training for a career in business. An aptitude with sales and marketing and other business disciplines all play their part too, he explains, but the accountancy qualification is the element that brings that “all-round understanding” of how a business fits together.

“Where it came into its own was in the battle against the compulsory purchase order. We had to understand the values of building costs and weigh up the risk to our business of not being able to relocate successfully. If the business had failed they would have had to compensate us. That kind of insight made a huge difference to the negotiations. I had the perfect skills to deal with that kind of battle. Accounting and finance skills were more useful then than at any other time.”

Being able to understand and set budgets day to day is invaluable, says Forman, as is having a strong sense of how a business should

I had the perfect skills to deal with that kind of battle. Accounting and finance skills were more useful then than at any other time.”

 be structured. “You never quite know when you’re going to use your accountancy skills. If you’re going into business you are always learning in everything you do. If you have the ACA, you have a structure into which that learning fits. And it’s good for people in your business to know that you know the numbers.”

However, straightforward year-on-year performance measurement has not been an easy task for Forman & Son. Even before 2003 the business had experienced more than its fair share of dramas – fire and flood among them. Planning rebuilds and insurance are among Forman’s other areas of expertise. “Our business has been thrown in so many different directions,” he says.

That said, he is proud of what he achieved in advance of the Games. The Fish Island Riviera – a two-storey outdoor bar and hospitality area constructed on pontoons on the River Lea – featured 40 palm trees, a Sunseeker yacht and a giant screen on which to view the Games, all within earshot of the event itself.

A 1,500-strong crowd turned up for the opening night and 3,000 for the close. Local people, even those who had expressed scepticism, fell in love with it. “We had the giant screen; you could hear the roar of the crowds. People told me it was the best experience they’d had in the capital,” says Forman. But it didn’t attract the visitor numbers needed to make the numbers work. So what does the future hold? “Well, there are bills to pay, so the focus is the core business.”

Forman & Son recently came fifth in a worldwide seafood brand listing – proof of the business’s reputation. Building on that and its relationship with loyal customers are Forman’s priorities.

“Over the past nine years, we have held on to existing customers but we perhaps haven’t shown them enough love. What has happened in that time is that we have allowed others to break in and devalue the product. We want to re-establish smoked salmon as a high-end, gourmet food.”

On the retail side the business has made strides with Waitrose, a key customer, and is on a much stronger footing on brand recognition. “There’s no doubt the Olympics has added value in that respect,” he concedes.

The Fish Island restaurant and venue, which also hosted a Masterchef semi-final two years ago, continues to do well. In addition, the events side of the operation is still taking bookings and Forman & Field, which sells Formans smoked fish and meats, plus artisan products from other producers, has gone from strength to strength.

The Olympic Park is a building site once again and will remain so for about 18 months. “But on the plus side, we are a 15-minute walk from Westfield and there are much greater long-term opportunities around that,” says Forman. “The site where we created Fish Island Riviera remains in our ownership and is still a fantastic site – the closest bit of private land to the Olympic Park and with the best view of the stadium.”

The business did everything it could to enter into the spirit of the Games, Forman believes. “There are times when you have to take a gamble. And if you can’t take a gamble when the world’s biggest sporting event is taking place 100m away you never will.”

 

Liz Loxton

 

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