Small Business

Neil Perry's recipe for greatness

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Meet the man who has carved quite the career. Today, Neil Perry – restaurateur, entrepreneur and an internationally renowned brand – joins Peter Switzer on his program, SWITZER, to share his recipe for turning a culinary vision into a big time business success story.

Then and now

Perry never suspected he’d be where he is today – a long-standing history with Qantas, four internationally acclaimed restaurants, over 400 staff – when he first started out.

“I think I would have run off at 100 miles an hour,” laughs Perry of his reaction if he’d known what was in store for him.

“It really was just a focus on the food and focus on the fact that I wanted to create a world class restaurant. I don’t think anything’s changed from that as far as the vision is concerned, just an awful lot’s happened to me along the way.”

Switzer says that Jim Collins, in his bestseller Good to Great, pegged a common characteristic of entrepreneurs as the goal of creating a world-class company.

“I wanted to cook great food,” says Perry. “I wanted people to enjoy the restaurant experience and I wanted them to walk away thinking someone - as well as myself, but many other people in Australia – were cooking great food and as good as anyone else in the world.”

Build it and they will come

Build it, it’s said, and they will come. Perry has a knack for seeing the possible, the potential in places many haven’t thought to look. His flagship restaurant – Rockpool – established in Sydney’s The Rocks is further proof of this.

“It was really all about finding the right spot. We thought we found it in the Rocks and we did, creating a world-class restaurant, a brilliant place that married design and wine list and service standards and food and created a destination dining experience in Australia. We felt that we needed to create an experience that drew people.”

For anyone familiar with the modern day Rocks, this seems second nature. But Perry founded Rockpool two decades ago.

“In those days … it was still a little bit of a blood bath on the weekend. It was pretty unsavoury, so we took a big plunge.”

A little help from his friends

Perry attributes his business success to date to those around him.

“I’m blessed. I’ve got two terrific partners.”

The first is his long-term colleague, Trish Richards, “who’s very much been an inspiration financially and fed me all the figures and given me a good understanding of where the business has been heading.”

And the second, David Doyle, joined Perry’s team three years ago.

Switzer recalls interviewing Perry in the 90s when Richards was first on board. Perry told Switzer a business mentor had told him to do a SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats – on himself and to find people whose strengths were his weaknesses.

“It is true, you have to figure out what you’re good at and get people around you who can do the things that you’re not good at. That’s part of leading … the first thing you’ve got to remember when you’re a leader is you can’t do everything. Captaining a team is about getting the best out of all the people around you.”

The key ingredient

Perry says a key ingredient to his success was to be surrounded by likeminded people who can drive the business in the same direction.

“And you’ve to have a bunch of likeminded people who will almost blindly follow you over the cliff because sometimes you’ve got to do that. Part of building a great business is getting all of these guys and girls together who really believe in the one philosophy.”

Without this philosophy, Perry says it’s hard, if not impossible to move forward.

“You’ve got to be able to get people to follow you, you’ve got to put the flag up, you’ve got to march forward and people need to believe in something to be able to do that.”

Having talent like Richards and Doyle around him has allowed Perry to scale new heights by focussing on his strengths.

From the kitchen

So, does he still think like a chef or is he more inclined to the entrepreneurial bent?

“No, I’m just a cook at heart,” laughs Perry. “I live my whole life really thinking about food – and the next great glass of wine that I’m going to have is also very important.”

Perry says top of mind is the people he works for and the potential they have.

“I think about roles for them,” says Perry. “And to be honest, some of the reasons and the driving force behind why David and Trish and myself want to grow the business is that we’ve got these brilliant people. We don’t want them to go off and work with other people; we want to keep them and we want to grow them and we want them to become a very important part of our business.”

So, for Perry, the focus is two-fold: “the food content and the experience in my restaurants and the people within them”.

Lessons learnt

Perry says the journey has proved a steep – if profitable – learning curve.

“Life is a learning experience. I learn stuff every day about how people behave and what I should and shouldn’t do.

“You spend your life learning. I’m 52 now [and] I’ve realised that I’ll never know everything and every day is a new day and there are new things to learn. When I first started cooking, I was 26 and I thought I knew everything, I thought I was probably going to burn out by the time I was 30.”

Now, he says, it’s daunting that there is so much to achieve and so little time to do it in.

So, will the Perry Empire ever float? Perry says a move to list is highly unlikely as is an exit strategy.

“I don’t think about that,” says Perry. “I think about my three daughters and the people who work for me. I hope one day that someone takes it over. I’m hoping I’m sitting at a table when I’m 80 and they’re bringing over a bowl of soup and they say, chef, ‘is that ok today?’”

That, says Perry, would be more than ok.

Click to watch Peter Switzer's complete interview with Neil Perry. 

Tired of putting out fires in your business? Book a free business assessment with Switzer Financial Services today. 

Published on: Friday, November 13, 2009

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