WANT to know the recipe for business success?
You could do worse than experience the pressure, teamwork and occasional chaos found behind the scenes of a top-class restaurant, says Paul Dolan, operations director of social enterprise group Sadeh Lok.
And he should know. After gaining a degree in housing at Sheffield Hallam University and working as a housing officer, Paul took a year out in 2002 to work as a chef with Raymond Blanc at his two Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons in Oxford.
“My wife, Amanda, entered my name for a cooking competition in a national newspaper to work with Raymond,” says Paul. “After the final cook-off, I was offered a scholarship with Raymond for 12 months. So we sold our house and I went to work 18 hours a days in the kitchen at Le Manoir.”
The experience left deep impressions, not least the contrast between wealthy restaurant clients and the workers preparing their meals. “You have 30 or 40 chefs on relatively low incomes turning out this fantastic food,” says Paul. “You see two different worlds come together.
“At the same time, with prices of £38 for a starter you can also see the importance of providing service and quality. It shows that every organisation needs to get a clear focus on customer service.
“Raymond is an exceptional leader. Sometimes, you sit in a restaurant and you don’t realise just how hard the proprietor works – if the proprietor cares about the customers, the produce and the staff.”
Paul was tempted to change careers and open a restaurant himself, but returned to the world he knew best. He remains an enthusiastic cook, however. His signature dish is wild mushroom ravioli with spinach and parmesan. “I was inspired by my time at Le Manoir,” he says.
“I have more than 100 cookbooks. For my 40th birthday, we went to a couple of top restaurants in London, including one of Gordon Ramsay’s, to get some inspiration about new flavours and ingredients.
“The TV celebrity chefs have enthused people about food and raised expectations and standards. Marco Pierre White is an inspirational chef, but for different reasons so is Jamie Oliver, who has made cooking accessible and demonstrated a social conscience with projects to improve school dinners. He’s a real food hero.”
Barnsley-born Paul joined Sadeh Lok eight years ago after a career with several local authorities and housing associations. He was a housing officer with Craven District Council covering Skipton and the Yorkshire Dales. He also worked for Sanctuary Housing in Leeds, one of the UK’s biggest housing associations with 70,000 properties.
Sadeh Lok began life in 1988 as a black and ethnic minority housing association and has grown to manage more than 1,000 properties located across Yorkshire, principally covering Kirklees and Wakefield. They include properties in Rashcliffe, Newsome, Dewsbury and Batley.
The group has diversified to cover areas related to housing need – tackling unemployment through its UP & Working recruitment agency based at Huddersfield’s Media Centre and operating national charity Children’s Links to support families and improve the quality of life for children and young people.
It also provides a childcare voucher scheme for employers under the Linking Up banner and – underlining its national reach – runs The Millin Centre, a community centre providing educational programmes and training in Newcastle upon Tyne.
“As a housing association, we have always looked beyond the bricks and mortar,” says Paul. “Many of the people who require social housing also have other issues to address in terms of help to find work or needing support for the family.”
The group has expanded from 50 staff just 12 months ago to a workforce of 160, presenting particular challenges for Paul and his team.
And while Sadeh Lok holds closely its principles as a social enterprise, it has also put functions such as UP & Working on a commercial footing to ensure it generates income to reinvest at a time of uncertainty about public sector funding levels.
“Our vision is greater than just letting houses to tenants,” says Paul. We have some of the best performance indicators of any housing association. We have held the Chartermark Award for excellent customer service since 1999 – and when this award was replaced by the Customer Service Excellence Award, we were successful in achieving that earlier this year.”
The importance of applying sound commercial principles to every type of business was underlined to Paul earlier in his career when he was awarded a scholarship to Cranfield University Business School.
He recalls: “I was sitting alongside senior directors from some of the biggest companies, including Marks & Spencer, Rolls-Royce and Total, focusing on business strategy, income and finance.
“It was interesting to see how the issues about leadership are the same regardless of the type of business – or whether it’s the private or public sector.
“Being the leader or senior manager in any organisation can be a lonely position. You may have nobody to consult – and the wife and family can get the worst of it when things go wrong!
“Everyone has an element of doubt about the decisions they make. The secret is to have a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve and – more importantly – that you have talented people to help you achieve it.
“Leaders are expected to have all the answers, but they don’t. The key is to work with your team to understand the issues and to come to the right conclusions. It is also about empowering people and giving them the space to do their job.”
Paul, who lives near Penistone and is a keen Sheffield Wednesday fan, certainly enjoys his job at Sadeh Lok.
“I’ve been here eight years – and that’s longer than I’ve been anywhere during my career,” he says. “The work is interesting and challenging – and it’s never simple because of the bureaucracy you have to deal with.”
One of its proudest achievements was a regeneration programme to build more than 70 new homes to replace old tower blocks on land at Thornton Lodge. “There had been major issues with vandalism and anti-social behaviour,” says Paul. “Thanks to the regeneration project, it became somewhere people really wanted to live.”
And that dream of owning his own restaurant? “It’s on the back burner!” Paul jokes.