Patisserie Valerie’s growth has been phenomenal over the past six years. CEO Paul May explains how he is keeping control

Paul May knows a lot about growth. Since taking over the Patisserie Valerie brand in 2006, he has added two complementary brands – Druckers Vienna Patisserie and Baker & Spice – and overseen a rise in store numbers from eight in London to 97 countrywide today.

He is more than comfortable with the current growth rate of 20 new Patisserie Valerie stores per year. “It doesn’t phase me, ramping this business up. I can see another 100-150 stores just within the UK. We’ve got a lot more to go for yet.”

The figures back this up, and are particularly impressive in the current economic climate. “Sales have grown from £5 million to £61 million. Staff have grown from 256 to 2,500, and we currently employ about 120 new people every month.”

‘We open an average of one store every three weeks – it’s actually easier with an aggressive roll-out plan’

May is not intimidated by the high pace of growth. “It’s actually easier with an aggressive roll-out plan. I’ve got a full-time property person, designer/architect, store opening people and two building companies. It’s a well-oiled machine and everyone is in gear. We open an average of one store every three weeks. Open one every two or three months and it can be difficult to get the ball rolling.”

May stresses that aggressive growth does not require aggressive re-branding. Quite the opposite.

“One thing I didn’t want to do was mess up the brand. Patisserie Valerie already had a fantastic name, product, service, overall offering. We have just replicated that. We haven’t changed portion sizes, quality of ingredients or anything.” So you get the same customer experience in Patisserie Valerie, from Edgware Road to Edinburgh.

But how is such growth possible in a marketplace already well-served by coffee shops?

“We sit right in the middle of coffee chains and restaurants,” says May. “We do the best coffee and cakes and an extensive menu so we can also offer a really good lunch. Our average customer spend is £7. I like to think of us as an affordable treat.”

‘When we open a store people stand and take photos. Our window displays are our best business point-of-sale’

Consensus suggests that UK high streets are dying, but people notice when a new Patisserie Valerie opens. May is in no doubt about the value of his brand to the high street.

“We can come in and re-energise a street. Every time we open a store people stand and take photos. Our window displays are our best business point-of-sale.” May prefers high streets, although “shopping centre sites can work if landlords work with us – there are incentives and it fits our budgets”.

Considering the fresh nature of the products involved, logistics are key to effective growth. May acknowledges that this is a big issue.

“Our operation is centralised in Birmingham. We have a 30,000 sq ft production site, and have just taken on another 25,000 sq ft unit. We also have four small units in London and another in Scotland. Our main production hub handles bulky items, with finishing at our smaller satellites. Very few stores make everything in-house. Having our own logistics helps.”

Controlling logistics has also facilitated the impressive growth of Patisserie Valerie’s internet operation.

“From nothing, this has become an important part of the business – we did £2 million in sales this year. We deliver, but the majority of people browse, order and pick up in store. They might well have a coffee while they’re there.”

‘Every Monday morning I get a report with every complaint so I can target where the problems are’

May is dedicated to maintaining in-house control of virtually every aspect of the business. He is a staunch protector of the brand and of the exceptional customer experience.

“I am paranoid about customer complaints. It upsets me when we haven’t delivered the service we should be delivering. Customer service is absolutely fundamental. Every Monday morning I get a report with every complaint, so I can target where the problems are, and also contact those people to try and get them back.

“I get a weekly report on sales, labour costs, margin costs, and a daily report at 7am with sales from the previous day. I have to be on top of this business – understand the movements, understand the KPIs and make sure they are being adhered to. I will have been to every site at least four times before it opens.

“From a sales performance perspective it’s been superb. The return on CapEx has been extraordinary, 18 months from day one. So let’s not mess that up. Let’s not change things. Let’s put the systems in place and roll it out.”

May’s vision for the future shows no sign of slowing: “We’ve opened our first Network Rail site at King’s Cross. It’s a tiny unit, but very successful, so now we’ll consider smaller units, too. We’re also looking at airports.”

So is Patisserie Valerie destined to take off internationally?

“We’re focusing on the UK at the moment, but when we go overseas I will deploy dedicated people to do that. We’ll definitely go international, but when we do we will stay true to our values.”

Patisserie Valerie’s strategy for growth

Patisserie Valerie began trading in 1926 in London. In 2006, Paul May and Risk Capital Partners purchased Patisserie Valerie’s six stores and two franchise operations.

In 2007 they added the Druckers (42 stores) and Baker & Spice (four stores) brands to Patisserie Valerie Holdings. The group now has 97 stores and an aggressive growth strategy for 20 new stores per year.

In-house control is a central focus of Paul May’s vision for continued expansion of Patisserie Valerie. This applies to physical processes, from finding potential sites, designing and refurbishing, to meeting the logistical challenges of producing, delivering and selling perishable goods from London to Edinburgh.

It also applies to strong maintenance and control of the Patisserie Valerie brand to ensure that the successful formula is never compromised. May is in day-to-day control of information in terms of reporting, receives regular updates on all aspects of the business from sales to customer complaints, and acts on that information.

Image: James Pfaff