Hamilton’s ‘doctor’ of hospitality

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In a short time John Lawrenson has had a huge impact on Hamilton’s hospitality scene. Andrea Fox finds out what makes him tick.

Genetically speaking, Hamilton’s bar czar John Lawrenson should be in a white coat dispensing health care, not hospitality.

His dad is a professor of population health at Waikato University and a former dean of clinical medicine at the Auckland Medical School while his mum is a professor of dentistry at Otago University. His brother is a professor of physiotherapy.

The 39-year-old entrepreneur was born into what he calls “a science family”. That said, patrons of Lawrenson’s 16 bars, gastrobars, restaurants and nightclubs might suggest he does offer a vital health service – of a social kind.

The wayward gene that steered John Edward Lawrenson away from white coats could be down to his grandfather Edward John Lawrenson, who was born above a butcher’s shop in London and built a business empire out of nothing, only to lose it all.

“He started by developing a small industrial estate which got to the point where it was worth seven million pounds in the late 60s,” recalls his grandson, who was also born in London.

Edward diversified into construction and concrete when the 70s oil crisis and one of England’s coldest ever winters hit. Concrete couldn’t cure, interest rates rocketed, and there was runaway inflation.

“The bank took everything and he ended up dying in a small flat in Brighton. But he was an entrepreneur and very successful. He was undone by circumstance.”

John Lawrenson at the opening of The Roaming Giant last year.

As Lawrenson tells it, that’s why his doctor father Ross and Edward’s other children went into “good careers”. They learned that being an entrepreneur was “stressful”.

It is, Lawrenson agrees. But the urge to walk on the wilder side of value-creation is strong. He’s backed it up however with law and business degrees and suit-and-tie stints at big name accountancy firms.

“I was always doing extra-curricular stuff at school. At 13 I would draw and design buildings for hours. I made the biggest hut you’ve ever seen in our backyard – it really needed to be consented. It had tongue and groove and a vaulted ceiling.

“My big thing was animals. I was breeding chickens and ducks, quail and guinea pigs and goldfish and selling them to pet shops. I sold eggs to caterers, I built rabbit hutches and sold them. I made fish tanks. At one point I had about 40 chickens laying. I built a big barn thing for them and even built a windmill to power a generator from an old car to power lights so they would lay eggs through the winter.”

As a school kid he learned his first harsh business lessons.

He’d signed a contract with a caterer to supply eggs all year round but couldn’t meet it. He was working two hours a day with his sister’s help to feed all the animals. Then his mum’s dog got in among them with fatal results. Sheep ate half his new shelter tree plantings.

“It became too much for me and I failed. I learned that unexpected things are going to happen in business.”

Lawrenson, who recently opened the sleek suburban gastrobar The Wayward Pigeon in north Hamilton, his encore for The Roaming Giant in Claudelands, says he “just likes growing”. Making money isn’t his primary motivation, he says. Until recently he’s ploughed everything back into the business. He lives in a flat in the vintage part of the CBD and for 10 years drove a banged up old Telstar wagon which his team dubbed the Deathstar. Today his daily drive is an aged Audi wagon with dents on seven panels.
“I care about what my business looks like, not the car.”

It wasn’t long ago that as chief executive of the Lawrenson Group, annual revenue more than $25 million, he was paying himself $30,000 a year.

On a rare splash this year he indulged a fancy to import a Mercedes convertible. Five minutes after he placed the order, he was dismayed to hear a radio discussion about mid-life crises and cars.

The Lawrenson Group has become one of New Zealand largest bar and restaurant companies in just 10 years in business.

More than 380 full-time and part-time staff are on its $11 million annual payroll and opening the Pigeon took Lawrenson’s investment so far in Hamilton hospitality to more than $10 million.

Most of the group’s 16 establishments are in Hamilton’s CBD and range from award-winning fine dining and bistro restaurants to bars and nightclubs. Its brands include the Victoria Street Bistro, Keystone, Bluestone Steakhouse, The Bank, House on Hood, Shenanigans Irish Pub, Bar 101, the Outback and the Easy Tiger cocktail lounge.

There’s also a bar and nightclub in Auckland and next year a Lawrenson bar will open in Christchurch. The Auckland venue accounts for about 25 percent of the group’s income, Lawrenson says. Auckland expansion is on his radar.

His first opening in Hamilton was the Furnace bar and restaurant in 2007. Then followed growth at a blistering pace until 2011, by which time there were nine outlets on the books.

That growth came despite the onset of the Global Financial Crisis.

“Movies and the pub are great escapes in those times. And we did so much ourselves from design to project management. Also we were trying to grow when interest rates were low, the cost of finance was very cheap and landlords were desperate to hang onto tenants. People wanted job security so it was easy to find staff.

“We had great success between 2007 and 2011 and became well noticed. The likes of DB Breweries and Lion started courting us instead of us having to court them.”

The reason he’s succeeded in a high risk industry?

“This is where people like me are supposed to come up with some humble comment. Look, I was just better at it than anyone else. But I also put the yards in as did some other people. At the end of the fourth year I worked out I’d had four days off in the whole year. I literally worked 361 days.

“I also ballooned out to 108kg and my hair started falling out. I had an ulcer. My health really suffered. Now I have a lot more balance.

“Some of the people with me still have put a huge commitment into helping us grow to this size.”

Lawrenson started in business with shareholder partners but today is the group’s majority owner.

He found going into business with friends and/or celebrities tough.

“Expectations are always the thing that unhinges any relationship or employment relationship. As HR people will tell you, the biggest creation of job dissatisfaction is a staff member not understanding what’s expected of them. It’s about communication of expectations. And it’s the same in business.”

Lawrenson landed in Hamilton via Dunedin where he’d been studying at Otago University and working after graduation. (But it’s not his first time living in this neck of the woods. When he was three his parents came from the United Kingdon to Te Kuiti, but had to return because of a family illness.)

As a tax and business advisor, he saw a lot of business structuring and diversification activity by clients.

“It ignited something in me. I saw opportunities. I said to some (dentistry graduate) mates you’re going to be pulling teeth and I’m going to be writing up trust deeds for the next 40 years watching people around us getting wealthy. So we bought and sold a few properties in Dunedin and made a bit of money.”

The Roaming Giant, Claudelands.

He’d come to Hamilton for business or to catch up with friends.

“I’d say to my mates what bar or restaurant are we going to? Literally there was only Cullen’s and The Bank. This place was a barren wasteland of hospitality nothingness.”

In contrast the Dunedin hospitality scene was jumping. “There’s real hospitality density there. I’d worked in hospitality when I was studying, as a bar tender and then a bar manager and did a bit of food service work in Dunedin. I hadn’t done a lot in the restaurant industry and it wasn’t until I came up here and worked that I did a lot more food service.

“Then I just started collecting people. One of the things about being an entrepreneur is that you have to be able to draw people into dream. To get them to share it, and see it.”

Lawrenson likes Hamilton. A lot. But it’s hard territory for his sort of business.

“It’s the sort of place I’d want to raise kids. It has amazing resources and amazing schools for a town of 150,000. We are very lucky. But I get frustrated at times.

“I have people coming and saying we’d love you to do restaurants with this kind of food and that kind. And I think: yes, I’ve done that before and you say that, but people don’t come out and support it.

“The biggest selling food in the Lawrenson Group besides fries is the chicken burger at The Bank. It kills my soul.”

He wants to offer more Auckland and Melbourne-style food. “But people love steak and burgers and pizzas. The House bar sells over 500 pizzas a week.

“Yet I have the Victoria Street Bistro which is recognised as one of the best restaurants in the country and though it’s pretty full every night, it doesn’t make any money. In Auckland when you run a restaurant like that you’re in a place with huge population density where people dine anywhere between 6pm and 10pm.

“In Hamilton people dine at 7pm. They don’t want to come in later than that. So all the meals are ordered at the same time. It’s really hard on the kitchen. You need multiple services per night turning over tables three times a night to make the business work.

“In Hamilton it’s empty at 6pm and empty at 9.”

Lawrenson says it’s frustrating when the group works hard to offer quality outlets with great fitouts and menus which “don’t really make us money”.

“Then you have sites like The Bank and The Hood and Outback which make really good money but The Bank’s selling chicken burgers.”

That’s why he’s looking to Auckland to grow.

“I’m not driven by wealth-creation. I can’t say I don’t consider money at all, but once you get it you realise you don’t need a lot. Happiness is a choice.

“I know now what makes me happy is playing tennis, watching tennis, travelling, playing my guitar and watching movies and hanging out with my friends and my girlfriend.

“I can do all that – except for maybe travelling – with bugger all.”

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Andrea Fox is a business journalist, a former Waikato Times business editor, Fairfax Business Bureau journalist and author. Andrea.fox@xtra.co.nz

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