Interview – Sarah Willingham

The happy family that drives a Dragon’s quest for success

‘I came out of the lift and walked to the point where the entrepreneurs present to the Dragons, then turned and went back again. It was terrifying and I have an enormous amount of respect for anyone who puts themselves through that process’

Sarah Willingham, Oxfordshire businesswoman, serial entrepreneur, investor, consumer expert and married mum of four is talking about her first day as the ‘new girl’ on BBC 2’s Dragons’ Den.

She’s just been invited back for her second series and is already looking forward to reclaiming ‘her’ chair rather than simply filling the space left by Duncan Bannatyne’s exit.

“It’s been an amazing experience. Since this series has been on air I’ve realised the incredible power of the show, even for people who don’t get the handshake deal. Knowing I’m returning to my chair makes a real difference to me and I’m really going to enjoy it this time,” she says.

For the budding entrepreneurs keen to bag a Dragon, Willingham’s track record is impressive. Growing up in Stoke, she was taught the value of money from an early age, as neither she nor her younger brother were given pocket money. Instead, their parents insisted she found a job – first taking on a paper round aged 11, and then progressing to washing old ladies’ hair for £7 a day.

Her big breakthrough, and one that was to set her on a future career path in the hospitality industry, was aged 13, when she took a job in a café and realised that providing good service to customers usually resulted in a tip.

From a young age she had been fascinated by business and the fact that the majority of kitchen cupboards at her house – and those of her friends – housed the same big brand names, such as Heinz Baked Beans and Mars bars.

“I was always intrigued, I wanted to know why people kept buying the same brands and how that happened,” she said.

With university on the horizon, Willingham’s plan to take a gap year and go travelling was scuppered by her father, who was adamant that if she was going to see the world, she would have to be paid for it.

Her solution was to study for an international business degree in France and, armed with a second business degree from Oxford Brookes University, she duly spent her 20s opening up restaurants all over the world, first for Planet Hollywood (mainly Europe) and then for Pizza Express.

“I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur at that point or even have my own business. I was having a brilliant time, I loved food, I loved travelling and business. Equally, by my late 20s, I realised that if I wanted to be a mum, I needed to start thinking about something else to do,” she said.

‘I became a CEO so I could delegate, I didn’t become a mum in order to delegate’

In 2004, armed with some savings and a determination to take on a new project she was passionate about, Willingham joined forces with management company The Clapham House Group, to buy The Bombay Bicycle Club.

“It was a lovely business, fantastic food

and great customer loyalty, but it was losing money. It was perfect for me because the one thing I knew really well was how to make money out of restaurants. I had what they needed in terms of expertise and they had the business, which I didn’t have,” she said.

She turned it into Britain’s largest Indian restaurant chain, but by 2008, with a toddler and a new born baby in tow, Willingham realised things needed to change and decided to sell her shares.

“Minnie, my first born, came everywhere with me, but when Monti arrived 15 months later, the 12-hour days and trips to London became very difficult,” she said. “By then, we had 1500 staff and I realised I had created something too big to balance effectively with the time I also wanted to spend as a mum.

“I became a CEO so I could delegate, I didn’t become a mum in order to delegate. I appreciate that’s not the same for everyone, but it was for me and it couldn’t have been a better time for me to sell my shares. I knew that the most valuable thing I had to give was my time for my babies and I’ve never looked back.”

Citing her “simple” background, Willingham says although by then she had made enough money to fund a comfortable lifestyle, she also recognised she wasn’t ready to give up business life entirely.

“I still wanted to work but I wanted to call the shots, to be able to do the school runs, go on holiday with the family and be there for my children when they needed me,” she continued.

Having invested in other projects with her husband and business partner Michael Toxvaerd, Willingham then realised that being an entrepreneur and investor could be the very idea she was looking for.

“We asked ourselves, could we run this as a business,” she said. “For the first time in my life, I felt this could be the set-up I was looking for for the next 40 years.

“As an investor, you meet the most brilliant people and gain an insight into lots of different industries. I don’t want to create another monster, however, so it’s important to manage expectations in terms of how much time people expect you to be able to give them.

“In terms of choosing who to invest in, Michael and I have what we call the Sunday dinner test, in other words, would we want to sit down for dinner with them. You can have the best business idea, but if you can’t work with the person then there’s not a future in it.

“It’s also important that when you invest, you don’t take too much out of the business. The entrepreneur must always feel it’s their business, so it’s a question of finding the right balance and, over time, you get better at that.

“In terms of my life set-up, I’m very happy. I’m doing some really cool stuff with different businesses and we’re starting to see plans for some of the early businesses we invested in come to fruition.”

One such success story is The London Cocktail Company which, after what Willingham describes as “an incredibly fun journey so far, with a lot more to come” launched a public fundraiser on investment crowdfunding platform Crowdcube earlier this month.

On the topic of women in business, she says: “A lot of women are very vocal about being gender neutral but the reality is I am a woman and a mum and I don’t feel the need to be gender neutral.

“I am proud of the fact I have four great kids and I work. I don’t go out of my way to try and inspire people but if there is just one mum who thinks ‘I can do this’ as a result, then that’s great.

A lot of women are very vocal about being gender neutral but the reality is I am a woman and a mum and I don’t feel the need to be gender neutral

“I think you can’t ever judge someone else’s life by your own and you can’t say what’s right or wrong for someone else. I have been very, very lucky, I know I am living the life that’s right for me and that’s what matters.

“When I speak to other people, I say find out what you want your life to be like and work towards it, that’s when you will be successful. I truly believe that happiness is a way of life, not a destination.”

Willingham says it was the need to be totally independent and to have freedom of choice which drove her ambitions, adding: “I wanted to ensure I didn’t rely on anybody else, if something was a success or a mistake, then the decisions were mine.

“I didn’t set goals, it’s been more about my way of life and my journey. The decision to work in restaurants abroad was because I couldn’t take a gap year and I wanted to travel.

“When I cashed in my shares in The Bombay Bicycle Club, it was because I needed more time as a mum. When I started to invest in people, it gave me the ability to enjoy businesses and add value without actually having to run them.”

The entrepreneur says she has two secrets to success:

  • Understanding why you are doing something is a powerful motivator – in her case in order to achieve a certain way of life
  • Always surround yourself with brilliant people.

Looking to the future, Willingham wants “more of the same” and says the travel bug still burns brightly, leading her to predict a possible future move abroad, as she is keen to embrace new cultures, new foods and new languages.

Closer to home, however, her latest crusade is campaigning for money and financial management to be added to the curriculum in primary schools.

Through her consumer website and her work with families and young people, she says she is often “horrified” by the serious debt problems and lack of financial knowhow that she encounters.

To this end, in conjunction with Experian, she has just launched Jangle, a new free app designed to help youngsters gain valuable money management skills while also helping them save for the things they want.

For her own financial nous, she credits her parents and her mother in particular, for knowing that handing out pocket money on a plate was never the answer – and there’s no doubt it was a life lesson which set off a burning desire in this Dragon’s success story.