Success is sweet, from the Hacienda to Waterloo
James O’Malley meets Paul Cons, one half of the couple behind Konditor & Cook
Like much of central London, Waterloo can feel as though it is in a constant state of flux. But some things remain constant.
Konditor & Cook, now also at six other sites around the capital, is celebrating the 25th birthday of its original Cornwall Road store, from where it built its reputation as a purveyor of rich and spectacular sweet treats. Few upmarket chains can rival it for exotic cake creations; Patisserie Valerie’s nearest presence south of the river is in Clapham and points west.
Gerhard Jenne started the company when he bought up an existing bakery, the Queen of Hearts. Renaming it Konditor & Cook – Konditor means “Pastry Chef” in his native German – he was CEO until 2010, when he handed over the reins to his husband Paul Cons. “Gerhard’s passion is creativity – he’s more of a visionary and a pioneer than someone who wants to run a business day to day”, Paul explains.
The couple today live with their two boys on picturesque Roupell Street, just around the corner from the store. It is a very different environment for Paul compared to where he started his career – as brand manager of Manchester’s legendary Hacienda nightclub. Is there anything in common between the two roles?
“It’s all about celebration”, Paul says. “Our mission at Konditor & Cook is to spread joy through cake…. And my mission at the Hacienda was probably to spread joy through.. something else”, he laughs, in reference to the club’s wild nights.
Paul studied drama at the University of Manchester and in the 1990s was the brains behind Flesh, the Hacienda’s legendary gay night. He met Gerhard in 2006 and finally got involved in the business while Konditor was still recovering from the financial crash, a “challenging” period which he says involved a lot of “fire fighting” rather than longterm planning. You get the sense that his experience provides a vivid example of the advice he’d give any budding entrepreneur in Lambeth today.
“I think that it’s really important to be clear about the purpose of your business and put together a strategic plan”, he says. “I’m very much a believer that if you’re setting out on a journey you need to have the end in mind… not that it won’t change, but you need to have a map.
“It becomes an anchor point for everything: your brand, your operations, your services, and how you engage with customers”.
There is a picture in his office of mountains overlaid with the text “as long as you’re going to be thinking anyway, think big”.
What’s on Paul’s map for the future of K&C? In addition to a further new store, the company will be making another big shift: after a quarter of a century, it has decided to drop the “& Cook” part of the name – reflecting a tighter focus on the celebration cakes that it does so well, rather than trying to compete on savoury foods where there is more competition. While this might make business sense, it was not an easy decision: “I used to love the sausage rolls – that was hard to get rid of.”
Aside from a rebrand, what really seems to excite Paul is his plan for his employees. Paul and Gerhard intend to give something back by turning Konditor into an employee-owned trust over the next five years. Shares would be given to staff members with more than two years’ service.
Having taken the first steps on this path, in 2016 Konditor & Cook won the Employee Ownership Association Investment Award, sponsored by John Lewis & Partners, the UK’s largest employee-owned company.
“It just felt much more in line with our purpose to spread joy”, Paul says. “It’s not just about the customers but about the people who work for us. If we sold the business to a third party or to venture capitalists it wouldn’t really feel like that would spread a lot of joy – it would just be about the money.”
The plan is very much in line with Paul’s management philosophy. He uses a technique called “The Great Game Of Business”, pioneered by Midwestern entrepreneur Jack Stack who outlined it in a 1992 book of the same name.
In a nutshell, it is based on every employee knowing and understanding what makes the business successful and being given a stake in the outcome – taking an “open book” approach to management. To this end, one wall of Paul’s office is covered in whiteboards containing an array of numbers, tracking sales in each store and forecasting the month ahead so that everyone can see. There’s a similar whiteboard in every store, and each week staff will hold a “huddle” to discuss the plan.
“Part of doing that is to make everything really transparent: the numbers, the figures, the profits, and we also have a profit share”.
The strategy isn’t just about being nice – it pays off for the business too. “We obviously employ a lot of very young millennials and it’s quite a transient [population] in Central London, so I think people having that five year timeline is quite challenging if you’re 22-23”, Paul says.
“But we are really engaging with people who are here and want to stay here for the long term around that goal.
“We really believe in teaching people the ‘rules’ of Konditor & Cook – how we make money, what’s the best way for us to thrive as a business, and then we make the score really transparent. So everyone really knows how they’re doing, so there’s no confusion about what’s going on. We keep everyone with a stake in the game by sharing the profits and then eventually the ownership of the business.”
And when it works, they won’t be short of choices for celebration treats.
Konditor & Cook, 22 Cornwall Road, London SE1 8TW