PROFILE: Tasting success - Ian Rickwood, Chief executive, Benjy's

Ask Benjy's chief executive Ian Rickwood what he thinks of rival Pret A Manger and he is almost lavish with well-rehearsed plaudits. "It's a great brand. You can't fault it. It has cornered the sexy end of the market and it's the biggest of the specialists in the sandwich retail sector."

But listen a bit longer and it becomes clear that his praise is tempered with a smug certainty that in leaner times, Benjy's is much better positioned to prosper. "Pret is very much a bull market brand. It summed up the 90s very well. But a hundred thousand jobs have gone in the City and West End and tourism is down 20%. In that climate, it has challenges ahead."

Benjy's, which launched the slogan 'Less bread' last year, offers a big range of food at low prices. Unashamedly cheap and cheerful, it is the biggest value chain in the market. It has 60 outlets and is adding two a month.It's not just their brand positioning that are poles apart; there are plenty more differences between the Pret operation and Benjy's, not least the fact that Benjy's sandwiches are assembled the day before they appear on shelf in a factory in East London, while Pret prepares all its sarnies on the premises.

Rickwood can't resist pointing out that his decision to move Benjy's away from "shop basement manufacturing" was prompted mainly by concerns about food hygiene, and that although Benjy's sandwiches might be a day old, the ingredients used to make them are as fresh as possible. Such thinly-veiled jibes means it comes as no surprise when he admits his ambition is to overtake Pret.

The 35-year-old Rickwood's disarmingly youthful looks belie a very smart cookie. Charming and unassuming, he jokes that he welcomes the stress caused by self-employment and two young children, claiming that he used to look so young it was hard to get people to take him seriously.

This is a typically light-hearted comment from the guy who launched his first retail operation while at school, selling records to students, and won the Young Enterprise Business of the Year award for Surrey. He certainly doesn't seem to take himself too seriously.

Now one half of the husband and wife team that has transformed Benjy's from a disparate collection of outlets into a consistent brand, he got engaged to Benjy's commercial director Emma when both worked for PepsiCo, he as European sales and marketing director for Pepsi, she as marketing manager for KFC.

It was "always in the blood" to have their own business and soon enough Emma, a chef by trade, was running her own Subway franchise, while Ian "interfered massively from the back seat". Eventually he left Pepsi to join the franchise, and within three years the couple had 12 Subway outlets to their name. When their aspirations outgrew the business, they secured some venture capital and bought Benjy's.

Three years on, Rickwood is still incredulous at the state of the operation when they took over. The 67-year-old Mr Benjamin used to drive his black Jaguar to every outlet early each morning and collect the previous day's takings, before traipsing into the bank with a stash of about £250,000 cash - making due diligence virtually impossible. Every store looked different, the cups sported "Teletubbies-style logos", hygiene standards were random and many employees couldn't speak English.

Two weeks after Rickwood bought it, immigration officials raided a City outlet, arrested 11 of the 13 staff and deported nine. Now, he says Benjy's has a good relationship with the immigration authorities and pays for English language lessons for all staff who need them.

"While not the height of fashion or image, it had a fantastic reputation for price and a big range, but the quality didn't quite match. It was a £20m company, but wasn't a brand. We did loads of research into what people thought of it and they either loved or hated it. It needed a brand and positioning, so we came up with 'Less bread'." Last summer, Benjy's launched the slogan with a week-long price-comparative ad campaign in London free-sheet Metro, offering free products with the coupon.

As ambitious as he is articulate, Rickwood has already tried to add the Coffee Republic chain to the Benjy's estate, but the deal faltered when the parties couldn't agree on price. He attempted to team up with meal-kits operator Rocket, offering Rocket ingredient kits in selected Benjy's outlets, but quickly canned that when customers said they were too expensive.

His latest idea is a move into the mobile catering market, and Rickwood has secured UK, European and US patents on a revolutionary van that opens out "like a kid's Transformer" into a fully-fledged covered shop in less than a minute.

While he plans to keep all the high-street outlets company-owned, he says the mobile units are a perfect franchise model, and he hopes to have 500 franchisees as well as 200 stores within three years.

Whether he will stay in the driving seat that long is another matter.

Rickwood says that as venture capitalists like to sell up after three to six years, he and Emma are likely to exit the business in 18 to 36 months, and will inevitably seek another business to buy.

One doubts the UK retail sector has heard the last of this sandwich man.


1989-1993: Sales rep to category manager, Procter & Gamble

1993-1996: Franchise manager to European sales and marketing director,


1997-1999: Franchisee, Subway

2000-present: Chief executive, Benjy's


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