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The FCSI Interview: David Russell FCSI

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Making the most of every opportunity has enabled professor David Russell FCSI to take the Russell Partnership Collection into a new dimension of foodservice consultancy

Summing up the career of professor David Russell FCSI is not easy. His 40-year hospitality career has seen him go from an aspiring hotel manager to delivering the food strategy for the Olympic Games. Where do you start?

The obvious place to begin seems to be that pivotal moment when his company won the London 2012 contract. As transformative moments go, they don’t come much bigger.

“That was a moment that changed my life, and the life of everybody else in the organisation,” says Russell, founder and chairman of the Russell Partnership Collection – a business comprised of strategic food consulting, hospitality technology and philanthropy – that celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. But it really starts when Russell, fresh out of college, became a graduate trainee with Forte Hotels in the UK – “an exciting time,” he reflects.

He swiftly moved on to become a general operations manager with a group of hotels in the Lake District – “a superb experience”. He made his first move towards foodservice as he became the then youngest regional manager for the roadside restaurant group Little Chef.

Several more moves followed. By the time he was 29 years old, having worked his way through four-star hotels, branded restaurants, event management, contract catering and high-street restaurants, he started considering his next move. In his role as food and beverage director of Forte hotels, where he’d returned to look after 240 UK hotels, he had spent some time looking for a consultant that could offer strategic support, but without success. He spotted an opportunity.

Lord Forte, owner of the hotel group, reluctantly accepted his resignation and off he went. “First child on the way, house move, economy in decline and there was I setting up my own new business,” he recalls. “I got a £5,000 overdraft from the bank on a personal guarantee and hired a small office from which to run the company.”

Taking risks

Setting up on his own at the time was risky, but it was a calculated risk. With 10 years in the industry and good relationships, he convinced himself that if it all went wrong he would have time to re-direct his career. “I’d had the most amazing upbringing in the industry and I had been fortunate enough to make lots of wonderful international friends. I thought I should be OK,” he says.

So, how do you go from “a cupboard in London” to clinching the contract for the 2012 Olympics after 15 years in business, let alone becoming a multimillion-pound business with 600 clients in 30 countries, 30 years in? “I put it down to role models and opportunities and to accepting that time is perishable, so you have to seize your opportunity,” he says.

Growing up in Doncaster in the north of England had provided a good grounding for his budding business career. The mines were closing, money was tight and young Russell often had to navigate fights on his way home. “It was good education of money matters, working for yourself, it was an amazing foundation to your ethics and a principle of how you go and live your life,” he explains.

He says he was the black sheep of the family; his father was an accountant, his brother a lawyer. Russell wanted to be a chef or a hotel manager. Having dedicated hours to tennis and hockey growing up, there was not much time left for reading. He pursued a national diploma in tourism, hospitality and leisure.

As a newly established consultancy, The Russell Partnership’s first job came through one of his former role models at Forte Hotels, Tito Chiandetti. “The British Airport Authority wanted to set up a food model and needed strategic help. Tito thought of me,” he says. “The job, transforming airside and landside foodservice, became the platform for what we’ve done over the last 30 years.”

Following that initial piece of work, Russell spent the first decade as a consultant building a reputation in higher education, starting at University of Warwick where executive director Andrew Paine had big plans for transforming the foodservice, converting university meals to a retail operation that could compete with the high street. It was a chance to be a part of a genuinely different approach.

“We needed to move from feeding in refectories to fuelling the mind. We introduced independent restaurants, snacking, grab and go, outside brands and it was an amazing success,” he says. Warwick, he says, revolutionised the sector and after this project other universities followed. To date the Russell Partnership has worked with 85% of universities in the UK.

The second decade of running his own business continued with education at the core and more business and industry projects. “The industry was waking up and we were working with the likes of Accenture Boots and the BBC. Big operations,” he says.

The big time

Having cemented the competence and reputation in education, business and industry, in 2005 the company decided to pitch for what was to be the biggest – and most important – project: the London 2012 Olympic Games. Bidding alongside 120 competitors, Russell and his team adopted a risky strategy. When asked to provide a 1,000-word document within the tender outlining their ideas, they instead commissioned an artist to paint a picture showing their plans. “It could have gone very wrong,” he concedes. But the organising team including chairman Sebastian Coe, CEO Paul Deighton and director Nigel Garfitt, loved the approach and against all odds the 30-strong company won.

“The 10 years in higher education was the grounding, the 10 years in businesses about credibility, but this was the golden opportunity,” he says. “Were they going to appoint this little consultancy to the biggest food event in the history of the country?”

The numbers involved in the Olympic Games were different to anything the team had worked on before: 17 million meals served in 30 different venues over 26 days. The idea was to create a written food strategy for the Olympic Games. “We had a blank canvas to do something new,” he says.

Delivering a project with so many moving parts needs careful structure and strategy; you have to be calm and calculated and know the facts. It’s not that different, he says, from planning a dinner party. “You ask how many people are coming, what style of food, what dietary requirements, when are they coming, how much space do we need and then you multiply it by thousands,” he explains.

Originally, Russell’s vision was to deliver London 2012 and write a guide to how to do it that they could pass to others. “We wanted to explain how you work out what 205 different countries want, how you speak to 24,000 athletes and team officials. We went to all the countries and federations, talking about food villages with nutritionists, we set the boundaries for what it should be in the future. We wrote it up as a case study and a guide,” he says. “We didn’t know that we would subsequently be appointed to deliver the Sochi Winter Games in 2014 and the Rugby World Cup in 2015.”

The Olympics turned out to be a wonderful platform. Other countries approached the team to deliver their events and suddenly the Russell Partnership Collection went from national to global.

On his return from the Russian Winter Games, Ascot Racecourse contacted him; they needed help with F&B, would he be willing to step in? He returned to the operations side for a year as acting F&B director and now sits as a non-executive director on the Ascot Hospitality Board. Concurrently with his Ascot duties, Russell was working on the most significant project to date: the World Expo 2020 in Dubai.

The importance of people

If there is one thing that Russell returns to repeatedly during our conversation it is people – the importance of having role models and encouraging the next generation. “This is an industry I love and I want to nurture the next generation. My own life has been shaped by role models and I feel a duty to those young people around me. I invest in them and expose them to things they never could have believed they could do,” he says.

He practices what he preaches. Consider the 25-year-old employee, Charlotte, who joined the business as a Saturday girl. She is now a trained nutritionist with additional training from the Chartered Institute of Marketing, responsible for the collection’s rebrand in 2018 and completed a six-month secondment to the Rugby World Cup 2015 where she was an F&B project manager.

This approach breeds loyalty. Michelle Harbour who joined as maternity cover in Russell’s office has now worked with him for over 10 years. “You need a rock in your organisation who can look after things. Michelle is my rock,” he says.

He is keen to stress that his own role models – Lord Forte, John Hampson, Trevor Harvey, Douglas Goodall, Tito Chiandetti among them – played a huge part in his first 10 years of corporate life and that experience stuck. “Having witnessed it myself, I have worked to replicate it. We have brought into our business six people under 30 in the last six months, we have people who are under 25 we are sending on nutritional courses and psychology degrees,” he says.

Russell says when he started the business 30 years ago it was with a focus on the ‘why’, not the ‘who’ or ‘what’. “I believed I could make a difference,” he says. “That is our purpose, it is really simple and it can transcend all those markets, from a small job to the biggest food job in the world.”

There’s the same pride in relationships with professional services – the bank, law firm and accountancy firm remain the same 30 years after starting the business.

“You can’t do it without those people, you need their belief and trust,” he says. “There have been many bumps along this journey, we have run out of money, the bank has had to help us, all sorts of things have gone wrong,” he says.

Asked to name his biggest achievements he seems reluctant. He is proud of his sporting achievements as a young man – he originally planned to compete in professional sports – something that has clearly informed his approach to business. “A lot of my lessons came from that; being resilient to losing, being humble when we won. I constantly go back to those years of ‘we can come back stronger, we can be better, we can take risks, we play every shot as if it is the first not the last’,” he says.

Next stop the Middle East

While developing the next generation is a priority for Russell, he doesn’t exactly give any sense that he is about to walk away from the coalface – there’s too much excitement. “I am just as inquisitive and restless today, and keen to broaden our reach, increase our depth and find new challenges for us to do,” he says.

These challenges don’t come much bigger than the World Expo, the latest project the company has been awarded. The numbers involved are staggering: 200+ restaurants on a 438-hectare site, 190 countries participating, serving 52 million meal occasions with up to 350,000 daily visitors over 173 days. “It will change the world of food,” he says.

It’s the biggest international exhibition to be staged in the Middle East.  All of the Russell Partnership’s previous experience will come to bear here and the team is involved at the most granular level. “The team is in the process of hiring circa 30 operators, we have done the food master plan, what should it be, what locations we need, how much space is required and so on,” he says. “You can’t be too involved tactically in a strategic business but you do need to be connected to understand the business and to be able to deliver the bigger picture.”

Delivering huge events such as the Olympic Games may not have been part of the plan when Russell started out, but he seems thoroughly in his element as he outlines the plans for the World Expo.

“It is another golden moment where we were asked to pitch with a global group of people, where you think it will never happen, but we were awarded the contract in 2015,” he says. “Another blank canvas to do amazing things.”

Tina Nielsen