In Conversation With Restaurant-Pro Monique Borst, Non-Executive Board Director and Adviser To F&B Entrepreneurs


February saw, for the first time, the Global Restaurant Investment Forum (GRIF) come to Europe. As always, the conference hosted a ‘deals den’: It provides up-and-coming restauranteurs with the opportunity to pitch their concepts to seasoned investors such as Chris Miller (White Rabbit Fund) and Robin Rowland (TriSpan). The format is reliably delivering on some of the hot topics with which the up-and-comers in the industry are battling, such as scalability, securing funding and finding the right partners to grow and/or help establish a new concept.

Taking the opportunity to be together in one spot, Aethos™ caught up with Monique Borst over a cup of coffee in Amsterdam. Monique is a seasoned industry expert and can draw on more than 20 years of experience in food service and food retail. She has worked with world-recognised brands such as Harrods, Sodexo and the Compass Group, and has held commercial as well as board-level functions. Nowadays, Monique uses her corporate and start-up experience to help restaurant entrepreneurs kick-start and/or expand their business.

Aethos: We frequently speak with industry leaders about their ‘roadmap to success’. Clearly, those career paths are as manifold as the characters who shape and define the sector. How has your own journey shaped you to become an advisor to the start-up community?

BORST: A lot of my industry compatriots are keen to lead from the front, to make the decisions and to ‘call the shots’. To some extent, I have been there, and I have done it. And, I certainly enjoyed my corporate career with the John Lewis Partnerships and some of the more globally operating organisations such as Sodexo or the Compass Group. I could have continued pursuing such a career path, but consciously opted against it.

Some people thought this to be yet another example of the proverbial ‘glass ceiling’ for women in executive leadership roles; however, I do not believe this to be true. In my opinion, some women simply are not prepared to make the same sacrifices required for a corporate life that others are. I happen to be one of them, and I do not think that this is a bad thing! I value a personally fulfilled life, travelling, spending time with family and friends, reading a lot and pursuing side projects that I care about. Many men I know in top jobs have simply put all that to the side. Personally, I would not want to swap places with them.

More importantly, my choices have not resulted in less success. Having left the corporate world, I decided to pursue a ‘pluralist’ career rather than a single, high-profile management job. I did so because it offered me so many more challenges and interesting opportunities to learn and widen my professional horizon. Nowadays, I jokingly say that I am an ‘unblocker of obstacles’ and, above all, facilitator and driver of change for my food and restaurant clients.

For example, many of my founder clients (who mostly are in their late 20s/early 30s) want me to lend gravitas during investor meetings or to facilitate and lead introductions to the finance community. I enjoy doing this as much as advising them on business strategies. The bottom line is this: Whatever your age or position, you must be open to learning and harnessing everyone’s influences and opinions, because we can all learn from each other. A career as a (non-executive) director and/or board advisor allows me to do just that, without being ‘blinded’ by having to personally leave my own mark on an initiative just to drive my own personal professional agenda.

Aethos: Is inspirational leadership a concept that works for board advisors albeit that one is not personally in control?

BORST: Most certainly! Ideas are cheap, but they only thrive and yield the desired results if they are properly executed. So, this is where board advisors come in – they help direct, lead and influence whilst maintaining and/or boosting morale and holding the occasional pep talk!

I talked about leading from behind the scenes. This does not equate, though, to a lacklustre approach to leadership. On the contrary, I see my role as one that is centred around making others more successful. For me, it is about facilitating rather than dictating. Motivating others, helping them find the right path and directing their strategies form as much of my daily routine as ensuring that they strive for certain goals based on their own beliefs and persuasions rather than pursuing targets because everyone else pursues them. For example, a lot of restaurant entrepreneurs think that the best way to grow their business is through securing the backing of a big private equity house. However, that is not always the case, and entrepreneurs should certainly be cautious of choosing the right equity partner.

My role as an advisor and early stage investor therefore is primarily centred around identifying and nurturing the qualities and resilience of the founders with whom I work. The character traits I look out for, and foster, are self-belief, tenacity, passion and the ability to sell as well as, most importantly, the ability to get people on-board and take advice. There is no doubt that company founders need an unbelievable amount of conviction to see them through the inevitable challenges and the dark days of building and growing a business. The best way to check whether they have the right level of conviction, I find, is to ask them about their motivation for founding the company and developing its proposition.

Aethos: One of your mantras is that you want to be the catalyst who changes the story of the start-up businesses with which you work. How do you unlock potential in the businesses?

BORST: Most businesses I work with still find themselves in the initial start-up phase – they are small companies with perhaps five to a maximum 50 employees. However, they all have the determination and the gumption to initiate the next level of their growth. A lot of the times I help those businesses find and partner with an investor or boutique finance house – and as we all know, these are the guys who are looking for their next ‘investment gold’ – i.e., the young concepts that are fun and interesting but can graduate into ‘a proper business’.

The areas I typically find myself focusing in on the most to unlock the potential in the start-ups are the building of internal competencies and teams, as well as the set-up and creation of organisational efficiencies.

  • Building teams and internal competencies: In today’s world, success often hinges on managers becoming ‘grown-up’ confident leaders. This is as much about being able to develop and implement strategies as it is about ensuring everyone on the team pulls on the same string. But it also involves building internal competencies and developing a talent pipeline and succession plans – the latter is particularly important for exponentially growing businesses.
  • Creating operational efficiencies: Scalability is about having a stable platform in place from which to grow – something that is easily duplicated. Investors like having that type of ‘re-assurances’. And let’s face it, typically, start-ups grow organically – meaning often in an ad hoc and perhaps chaotic manner. Being able to take a step back and identify the key areas that need improvement, and helping to subsequently develop processes, policies and procedures to streamline ‘best practices’ is therefore a key area on which I focus. Simultaneously, I work together with the entrepreneurs to discover, define and drive their own USP – in other words, to (1) understand the opportunity for their business in the market, to (2) develop a breakthrough strategy to realise their growth ambitions and goals and to (3) put a specific and concrete action plan in place to achieve those goals.

Aethos: Monique, any parting words or piece of advice for the up-and-coming food and restaurant entrepreneurs out there?

BORST: Know what your guiding principles are. My own ‘house rules’ are to always and only ever work with people you trust, to always take responsibility and to not be afraid of disruption and change – and, of course, to not forget the fun element in all of that!