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Content Guy’s Note: Each Monday, we are featuring an article previewing some aspect of the annual Food Marketing Institute show, scheduled for May 4-6 in Chicago.

Perhaps one of the hardest leaps for executives in the food industry to make is from being managers to leaders. After all, the day-to-day minutiae of the food business, dominated by concerns about costs and efficiency, almost forces a short-term approach. However, in an industry where differentiation is becoming a requirement for survival, it is critical to embrace a longer-term approach that stresses vision over administration.

The Super Sessions -- scheduled for Monday, May 5 at the annual Food Marketing Institute show in Chicago -- are designed to key in on “Leadership Tools for Maintaining Corporate Values, Goals and Ideology.” There will be numerous speakers addressing the subject, but we were intrigued by one particular choice: Simon Woodroffe, founder and CEO of YO! Sushi in the UK.

YO! Sushi is a fascinating restaurant business -- in essence, it is a sushi bar in which the food is delivered via conveyor belt. (You can learn more about it at the company’s website, But Woodroffe’s approach is far more innovative than even this restaurant concept would suggest, and it infuses his choice of businesses, approach to leadership and entrepreneurial innovation, and vision for what ‘brand’ means in 2003 and beyond.

To get a sense of his message and a preview of what he’ll be telling audiences at FMI, MNB conducted an exclusive e-interview with Woodroffe. Excerpts follow:

MorningNewsBeat: How do you differentiate your approach to market leadership from your internal leadership of your company? Or, how are these two things the same?

Simon Woodroffe:: People say to me that life and business are moving so fast and it's scary and I sometimes think that being in business today is a bit like being at Indianapolis. Driving a race car fast may be scary but it's a lot of fun, too. I know today that while we have perhaps a ten second lead over our competitor, I only have to put a wheel onto the verge and the guy behind can be through in an instance. That’s why we are constantly improving ourselves, to eke out a lap lead.

It’s also why today it is easier to get into a market sector often than it’s ever been (before). As humans we probably tend to overestimate the change that we'll see in the next year or two, what the new mobile phone or home entertainment system will be like. But I think that even the most fertile imagination will underestimate the change that will be seen in the next ten or twenty years. As that glue of the status quo melts, opportunities are created.

To be able to take advantage of those opportunities requires mobile organisations that embrace and react to those changes and enjoy them, and I call the individuals who are able to do this, “Revolutionaries.” Those people are at their best when they are free to run, and while I still in the back of my head have the belief that I can do anything better than you can, experience has taught me that I am deluded in this area. When I let go and let you, my organisation grows and it grows with muscles that are not just mine.

The great leaders are able to empower others and to mentor and support them through both triumph and disaster, knowing that only through failure…is the pathway that leads to success.

There must be a moment when you have the inspiration for an idea -- in this case, sushi on a conveyor belt -- that starts the whole enterprise in motion. In this case, what was your inspiration and motivation?

Simon Woodroffe: I had gotten to age 40 and while on the outside others perceived me as successful, inside that was not how I felt. I also felt that time was running out. So I was ripe, so to speak.

I researched many ideas. With me, I'll constantly change my mind as to whether I should or should not do a new venture, so today I have learnt to ban my mind from addressing the ‘should I/shouldn't I’ subject and just get on with the research - that way I find the decision usually makes itself.

YO! Sushi was conceived in a bar in London's West End when a Japanese friend said "What you should do, Simon, is a conveyor belt sushi bar with girls in black PVC miniskirts." I never did the mini skirts but in that minute a light went on as I heard for the first time those four words in a row: Conveyor. Belt. Sushi. Bar. I went off to do the research.

How are you building on that base to create other businesses, such as hotels and supermarkets? What differentiated sensibility do you bring to these business models?

Simon Woodroffe: We are a relatively small restaurant company with some spin off businesses in the form of bars, event catering and a 3rd party license to manufacture for supermarkets. We also now have licensed an extensive range of clothing called YO! Japan. It is not a restaurant’s merchandising but a stand-alone brand with its own look and style that retails from our own London store in Newburgh street and through around 200 stores through the UK and now going out into Europe. Jeans wear , knits, accessories and shoes. We'll be the new Diesel if we are lucky.

And yet for all that smallness, we are talked of in Europe as the pretender to the jewels of Virgin and Easy . Why? Because when you look around the world for brands that have their prime aim as to be in multi-market sectors, there are not that many, and we have a name that rhymes with many things and feels as if it ought to be. Flippant you may say, but there is some truth in that. They say it is probably more important today…what a brand stands for than what it sells.

We gather than one of your central tenets is to invest in product, not promotion or PR...what advantage do you think this gives you in the retailing biz?

Simon Woodroffe: Simply I think that when you go out and do something that is both well executed but also quantum leaps in terms of how it is different, then you get noticed. Through the 90's we heard so much about passion and vision and I sense the new word is "Outrageous." At least, I use it. When you are outrageous you get noticed - the product still has to be applicable and great great great - but if it stimulates the "whatever next" gene in the human, then it'll be talked about. We get a lot of press, not because of clever marketing or public relations, but because we are always trying things that are interesting and stimulating and to me this seems a good place to spend money. We call it “CAN I ?,” for Constant And Neverending Innovation.

Finally, how do you define value, and how do you think the consumer defines value? Is it just price? Or is it something else?

Simon Woodroffe: The more you want and are charmed by a product, the more you trust it and like it, the more it titillates you and you want it, the more we fall in love with it, the less the rational side of our brain calculates value.

We don't get married because it's good value but because we love it.

That's what I'm after.
KC's View:
We’re not sure that it is more important what a business stands for than what it sells…but we’re pretty sure they are equally important facets in a successful business circa 2003.

The more time we talk to industry executives, the more we are convinced that leadership is in short supply, replaced by managers who can be afraid to make a mistake, fearful of the big box stores, and concerned about their own futures and the prospects for their businesses.

That’s not to say that everybody is like this. We’ve met our fair share of people who find ways to lead, even in a tough and backbreaking competitive environment. Feargal Quinn of Superquinn (who, incidentally, also will be addressing the subject at FMI this year). Jeff Gietzen of D&W. Norman Mayne of Dorothy Lane. Ron Hodge of Hannaford. Bill Andronico. Kevin Davis of Bristol Farms. And there are others. (It is our sense, for example, that new Albertsons CEO Larry Johnston is trying to achieve a balance between management and leadership in his own company, understanding that his leadership will allow others to manage.)

We think achievement of leadership may be one of the most important subjects broached at FMI this year, not to mention one of the most important topics discussed in executive suites and boardrooms across the globe.