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The FCSI Interview: Toni Clarke FCSI

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After years of success working in hotels and restaurants worldwide, Toni Clarke FCSI tells Elly Earls how she found real fulfilment in turning a business around

Her career has taken her from New Zealand to London, China and Australia, via restaurants, hotels, clubs, corporate recovery and finally her own consultancy, RT Hospitality Solutions. And although she’s about to take her first steps into semi-retirement, Australia-born Toni Clarke FCSI has no plans to completely walk away from the industry that’s brought her so much happiness and success since she fell into it by accident 45 years ago.

It all began when her daughter started school. Looking for a part-time job where she could use her people skills, Clarke decided to try hospitality. “I thought it would interest me,” she recalls.

After quickly progressing from waitress to manager, her first defining moment came when she was asked to be a partner in the opening of a small fine-dining restaurant in Auckland, New Zealand, Ponsonby’s Council Chamber and Fire Station. “I was the manager and sommelier and my business partner was the chef, so while working there I learned to cook virtually by osmosis,” she smiles.

It was a skill she brought with her to her second venture, casual café, Dr Livingstone, I Presume?, which she opened with a friend, this time as chef. Yet although extremely successful, the restaurant was firebombed during anti-Apartheid protests in only its second year of operation.

Clarke decided it was time to try her hand at hotels, starting as room service manager and front of house training manager as part of the luxury Regent of Auckland hotel’s opening team. She later moved across to become conference and banqueting manager, and following four fantastic years, London called.

“Despite having no formal training, I was offered a job as conference and banqueting manager at the 1,000-room Cumberland Hotel in Marble Arch. In my department, you got into as much trouble if you came in above the forecast revenue, which I often was, as if you came in below because they liked to manage the cash flow,” she explains.

It was Clarke’s next role, though, that proved to be the most demanding. In 1989 she accepted the opportunity to become the first female F&B director within Sheraton Asia Pacific, in Tianjin. “The role was extremely challenging, not only from a hospitality perspective, but also because of the cultural and political environment at the time,” she says. “We had a lot of expatriate live-in guests and couldn’t choose our staff. I did two years there and it wasn’t until I came home that I realised how tough it had been.”

In need of rest and recuperation, Clarke returned to New Zealand, but it wasn’t long before she was snapped up again – as CEO of a high-volume restaurant that was operating at a loss. “My career from there shifted somewhat because I recognised that what I really liked was the challenge of successfully turning a business around,” she says.

After two years of being something of a mentor within the hospitality industry in New Zealand, Clarke realised there would be more opportunities in Australia to take on the sort of challenges she had grown to relish. This time, it was the registered clubs industry in Sydney that came calling.

“Registered clubs are a beast peculiar to Australia,” Clarke explains. “They have poker machines and slots, but no gaming tables, as well as extensive F&B, entertainment and often sporting facilities such as golf courses and football grounds.”

The new CEO of one of these venues, Robin Riddle, ‘a visionary’ Clarke believes, employed her in his third week on the job and the pair instigated a massive financial turnaround, in concert with KPMG Corporate Recovery, which was already investigating the club.

As part of her role, Clarke also helped develop new F&B concepts in line with market preferences and industry trends, and so successful was she in this area that in 1998 KPMG asked her to join the company as a consultant, specifically to work with hospitality businesses to improve their operations and performance and develop F&B concepts.

During her four years at KPMG, Clarke worked closely with her immediate superior, Robert Brennan, and the next natural step for the duo was to team up and start a business. “The ‘RT’ of RT Hospitality Solutions initially stood for Rob and Toni because we couldn’t think of anything but we changed it later when people asked to ‘Right Team’,” Clarke laughs.

While Brennan specialises in the financial advisory aspect of corporate recovery, Clarke’s side of the business is all about operational and F&B improvement. Along with a third partner, Jo Cahill, who joined in 2003, and a range of external consultants who are brought in to help on specific projects, they aim to provide proactive, timely, commercially practical services, which help clients to achieve their commercial and business objectives. Fifteen years later, the business is still going strong.

Projects include retirement villages, hotels, sporting complexes, restaurants, conference centres, government venues and the registered clubs that initially brought Brennan and Clarke together. “I’ve even done an immigration detention centre and a university – if there was food and beverage, then we would do it,” Clarke says, adding that her favourite part of consulting is the depth of involvement she has from start to finish of each project.

“As a management advisory service (MAS) consultant, I get involved with a project right at its very inception and often it’s just a suggestion I make that triggers it,” she explains. “You can encourage your clients to think outside the square and look at what else is happening in the market. Instead of bringing up the rear or being a follower, be the leader. That’s a philosophy I’ve always had and I think you can only do that when you have your own business.

“My clients also know that if they ask my opinion, they will get the truth, not something warm and fuzzy. They don’t ask me unless they really want to know what’s going on.”

Since 2005, FCSI Asia Pacific Division (APD) has also played an important role in Clarke’s career – after being encouraged to join by kitchen designer Bruce Smith, she became a board member in 2009 and subsequently APD chair and past chair. Until the end of 2017, she will act as a special advisor and she looks back on her years of involvement with FCSI with pride.

“It certainly added another dimension to my consulting role and also provided an opportunity to travel extensively to research hospitality trends. I’ve also worked closely with Clara Pi FCSI, who is the current past chair, to try to grow FCSI and we’ve had a lot of success raising the profile of Asia Pacific at trade shows.

“The big challenge in Asia Pacific is to encourage consultants to become members of APD. In Australia and New Zealand, persuading younger people to come in as consultants is particularly tough. But in the last two to three years we are seeing a changing of the guard to the younger guys that will then help to grow Asia Pacific across the whole region. That’s something Clara and I have really been pushing.”

“Whatever I’ve done, I’ve either taught myself or learned from other people. If you don’t have the knowledge, you need to be able to ask without feeling embarrassed. I’ve had some very good mentors”

For Clarke, the biggest achievement of her career has been the fact that she’s done it all without any formal qualifications. “Whatever I’ve done, I’ve either taught myself or I’ve learned from other people,” she says. “If you don’t have the knowledge, you need to be able to ask someone and not be embarrassed that you don’t know. I’ve been lucky to have very good mentors along the way.”

Andrew Thomson, Clarke’s GM at the Regent of Auckland; Robin Riddle, the CEO at Easts Leagues club in Sydney; Rob Brennan, her ‘red pen during the KPMG days’ and Bruce Smith, Greg O’Connell and Clara Pi from FCSI all stand out as both mentors and friends. As her own career has progressed, Clarke has also been happy to be in a position to be able to pay it forward.

“I mentor a lot of young people right across the board in the hospitality industry – from chefs to restaurateurs to managers,” she says. “I have surrogate children almost everywhere that I’ve been a mentor to and this will be ongoing for the next generation of consultants, chefs and hospitality operators.”

Indeed, as she moves into semi-retirement – a phrase her family can’t help but joke about, she admits – Clarke is by no means cutting all ties with work. “I certainly want to spend more time with my family and friends in Queenstown, New Zealand, but I will continue my involvement with some special projects and continue to research and travel with study groups,” she says.

In 2018, Singapore for the Food & Hotel Asia show and Chicago for the National Restaurant Association Show are already on the agenda and Clarke certainly won’t be giving up one of her favourite hobbies – researching food and wine trends everywhere she goes.

“Today, I had an email from a friend: ‘We’re going to Hong Kong in October. Where should we stay and where do we go and eat?’ That’s when I get to use my Hong Kong list,” she grins.

So, we have to ask, is she really ready to slow down? “Oh, I’m ready,” she answers, already halfway to joining her family at the dinner table.

Elly Earls