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Interview: The man who would be king fish

Part of the fish empire of the Lipscombe family
Part of the fish empire of the Lipscombe family

James Lipscombe knows a fair bit about fish and chips. His great-grandfather opened a fish and chips shop in 1923 in a town just outside of London called Romford. Ninety and bit more years later James now heads the biggest chain of fish and chips shops in the UK.

James is managing director of a company called The Chesterford Group, which oversees a group of fish and chip restaurants called Churchill’s Fish and Chips; fishnchickn, and Bankers. Altogether the Chesterford Group oversees around 40 outlets concentrated in southern England.

Arguably the most famous food in the UK, fish and chips is big business. It still tops the most popular takeaway food in the country every year, beating hamburger chains and curry takeaways – the latter being, like fish and chips, another British institution.

The person driving the business should be rewarded for the success of the business.

— James Lipscombe

Despite the business being around for nearly 100 years, James isn’t thinking too much about the philosophy of the long term. For him it’s about growth now and aggressive growth at that. He wants to swell revenues by 25% this year, which he hopes can be achieved by opening up to 10 new outlets. “We have a great business, but the challenge for us is to really grow it and make it even greater,” says the 35 year-old. Probably the long-term for James is four years when he sees having at least 80 outlets.

James’ determination isn’t just confined to the business growth plan, but is also about how he views the structure of a family business. “The person driving the business should be rewarded for the success of the business,” says James. He says this thinking – the one who leads it should also own it – is something he learnt from his father, Hugh, who is also chairman of the group. Hugh was determined that his side of the family, the ones who worked for the business directly, should own the business and bought his brothers out in a management buyout in 2008.

James is the youngest of three siblings, but the only member of the fourth generation involved in the business. Like his father did with his brothers, James was involved in buying all of his siblings out of the group. James has also bought shares from his father and now controls 80% of the share capital of the business. The other 20% is still owned by Hugh.

For James it’s obvious that a clear definition of who owns the business is crucial to take the group forward. Maybe that determination to control things goes back to 1923 when Harold Lipscombe opened his fish and chip shop. A coal miner from Accrington, a town in Northern England, Harold was also an accomplished cricketer. From the money he made from the game Harold headed south and opened a fish and chips shop in Romford, which still exists and is still part of the group.

The next generation inherited that shop, but it wasn’t until Hugh and his two brothers took over in the early 1970s that the business gained momentum. “He took it to the next level, opening more outlets, and eventually led the management buyout,” says James.

James joined in 2000 straight out of school and worked for four years in the fish and chip outlets servicing customers, which he still does every Friday night. “Being a family business is very much about being in tune with the people around you and genuinely caring for their development and wellbeing as much as anything else.”

The closeness to the customer is something James reckons he couldn’t have had if he’d taken his studies further after leaving school. “If I’d done an MBA, would I have been as willing to stand in a fish and chip shop in my twenties cooking fish and chips on a Saturday night at 10pm? I’m not so sure.” he says. “That is the reality of our business, we are here to serve our customers wherever, whenever; the customers are not here to serve us.”

James reckons he gets more of the theoretical side of running a business from his membership of the Young Presidents Organisation. He says he uses it a lot, and that might be why he was recently voted by the group as the best networking officer in the UK.

Staff is also a priority for Chesterford and the group prides itself on very low staff turnover, says James. “We’ve had managers who’ve been working for the group for 40 years.” All the outlets are also closely linked to the community they serve with various charity initiatives.

James is clearly an entrepreneur with ambitious goals, put underneath these is someone connected to the best attributes of stakeholder values. He, of course, will need to take those values with him as he grows the business.

The inspiration to do so will no doubt come from his father and the generations before who laid the foundations of a great family business – and an even better fish and chips shop.

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