I’m at Leon’s Kwoon, a facility set up by its leadership team in April on the upper floors of its Eastcastle Street branch in London. Kwoon, by the way, is the Chinese word for a training hall for martial arts, which is entirely appropriate as a rather charming young man is obligingly allowing me to punch him repeatedly as hard as I possibly can. I have to confess it is curiously satisfying and surprisingly relaxing, though I doubt whether I am doing my opponent any harm. He is also holding a protective pad in front of his solar plexus. As our instructor, master Julian Hitch, explains, wing tsun, the form of kung fu we are practising is more about brains than brawn. It was invented in the 17th century by Buddhist monks – and an abbess of Chinese royal blood, no less – who, despite their peaceful inclinations, nevertheless needed to protect their monasteries from marauding bandits and political opponents.
Fascinating though this is undoubtedly is, how does it relate to Leon’s 900 or so employees who work across its 52 branches? Well, it’s not about applying a sly karate chop to the back of the neck the next time a customer is rude and entitled, tempting though that instinct might be. As Julian, who is also Leon’s director of wellbeing, explains, wing tsun is a concept of “winning, not fighting”. It’s a discipline that also reduces stress, improves decision-making and enhances wellbeing. The ergonomics involved reduce stress and the ever-present risk of repetitive strain injury, something of an occupational hazard for any barista turning out anything between 50 and 70 cups of coffee an hour during peak rush periods. Wing tsun can also boost speed and productivity. The hope must surely be that these desirable attributes will give the company a competitive edge in this increasingly tough commercial environment.
It’s still early days, but the Kwoon, which has now been in existence for a little over six months, is proving highly popular among the employees who to date attended its various sessions. These involve not only wing tsun but also yoga, zumba, meditation and chi-gung, comprising gentle stretching movements. Some 94% of the people attending say they want to return to the classes and there has been a 5% reduction in team turnover from the Shepherd’s Bush and South Kensington Leon branches where efforts have been particularly focused.
Interestingly some of the instructors, particularly in areas such as yoga and zumba, are also Leon employees, many of them drawn from the restaurant chain’s large, diverse international labour pool, who also happen to have appropriate qualifications in their respective disciplines. It allows them to earn extra money and also adds an element of interactivity and inclusion to the overall wellness scheme. Above all it allows for a degree of self-determination that prevents the scheme from being just another top-down initiative by management, no matter how well meant.
Leon, like all businesses centred on prime central London locations, faces ever increasing commercial rents and an increasingly difficult labour market, where skill shortages and the implementation of the new minimum wage are beginning to really bite. Success in the hospitality sector will increasingly depend upon imporoved productivity and better staff engagement and retention.
Leon’s is on an expansionary path; while it is busy expanding to other UK cities, its restaurants are still predominantly centred in London and one of the key characteristics of that specific market is transience, something that Marco Reick, Leon’s people director, says they must constantly strive to counter. “I need and want people to stay with us. We can be a really good home for someone who shares our values.”
So, what are Leon’s values? Perhaps it can be best described as a form of enlightened capitalism, which not only works for those who provide the money behind a business, but its customers, suppliers and workers too. It is very much the philosophy of the company’s chief executive and co-founder, the irrepressible John Vincent. He, along with his former colleague and co-founder Henry Dimbleby, found time to also reform the school food industry, with government backing, at the same time as they were preparing for Leon’s current massive expansion. “I like sailing and parties, and you’ve got to have money for that stuff, but I do not want a Philip Green style-yacht with gold taps,” he says. “I want to remain connected so we can remember our rightful relationship with each other and our rightful relationship with nature.”
John spent much of his earlier career working for more conventional enterprises such as Proctor & Gamble and later as a management consultant for Boston-based Bain & Co., one of the world’s big three consultancy firms where he worked for many major global companies. Those traditional enterprises depended, to a high degree, on fear for success: “We were told to create fear, for example the fear of embarrassment that your armpits might be sweaty if you didn’t wear deodorant,” he says. “I became more and more sick – physically sick – of having to work in such environments.”
Leon, he says, is the giant antidote to his former business life and something he describes as his “own Giant Fisher Price play station”. It is also a place where he has implemented a coaching culture in which conventional thinking is often turned on its head in favour of more ancient wisdoms and philosophies, many of them surprisingly relevant to anyone wanting to run a more enlightened business enterprise.
While John refers to ancient texts that conform to his own set of beliefs, such as the Chinese Dao Te Chin, written in 4BC, as well as the works of more contemporary thinkers such as Stephen Cope, the American author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, he is also heavily influenced by the philosophy of wing tsun. This is something he feels is well suited to the business world, which he so fervently wishes to change. “It’s about knowing yourself, but also knowing when to set ‘you’ aside and bypass your mind. It’s about getting back to instincts and about not over-rationalising.”
Above all, he says the Leon philosophy is all about positivity: “It is being like water and going around problems and not over-planning things and occasionally expecting to be punched,” he says.
But philosophy is still grounded in reality. As people director Reick says, what gets measured gets done. It is still far too early to measure the result of Leon initiatives such as the Kwoon. Benchmarking Leon’s performance against other competitors in the field can also be problematic, given that different companies tend to use different measures when it comes to issues such as staff retention. “We are getting better [at retention] but we are not where we want to be,” says Reick, who previously worked as HR director for Bill’s.
On the other hand, the company appears to be heading in the right direction, something recently acknowledged by Caterer.com, which recognised Leon as having the best employee engagement programme in its 2017 People Awards. Leon employee perks include a free meal on every shift and a 60% discount at all other times, something that must be of genuine value given the quality and healthiness of its food offering. Breaks tend to be 10 minutes longer than normal and, unlike some other restaurant chains, are included as part of paid work. Childcare vouchers, opportunities to advance
through various training and development schemes, a cycle to work scheme and a discounted gym membership also form part of the overall employee benefit package.
Business and consumer confidence may be falling on the back of Brexit, but pessimism is not something that sits readily alongside John Vincent. If his enlightened business philosophy can engender better productivity and enduring empathy among its people and managers, it will indeed be onto a winning formula in these less than certain times.