Willingham 'blown away' by double Publican Awards win

By Amelie Maurice-Jones

- Last updated on GMT

Vibrant, young & fun: Sarah Willingham bursts with pride for her team (credit: Nicky Johnston)
Vibrant, young & fun: Sarah Willingham bursts with pride for her team (credit: Nicky Johnston)

Related tags Nightcap Finance

Sarah Willingham was “blown away” after she won big at The Publican Awards, scooping both the Business Leader of the Year title and Best Late Night Operator award for her business Nightcap.

The awards took place at Battersea Evolution in south London on Wednesday 29 March. The ex-Dragon’s Den investor said winning the awards​ gave her team a “big boost” for her team, after Nightcap was founded only two years ago.

Judges were impressed by the business’ commitment to creativity and called it a company daring to shake things up in the late-night sector and dare to do things differently.

To be crowned Business Leader of the Year​ was also a “shock” and a “privilege”. Willingham said: “It honestly never really entered my head because I was up against some really strong candidates.”

Afterwards, she recalled, women came up to her. They were impressed, and said it was great to see another woman up on stage. “I was absolutely blown away by the whole thing,” said Willingham.

Team pride

While she was pleased the company won the award, she was most proud of the team’s reaction; how loud they were, as well as how passionate, fun, and collaborative, and how they ignored the rules and stayed on stage a bit too long.

“Everybody was in it together,” she said, “and I was very proud of the team.​ They really shone – they really stood out and made a lot of noise.”

Willingham is the oldest person in the business (which was “crazy” and “slightly depressing” she said), and the senior team has a good male and female mix.

She believed this said a “hell of a lot about the team”, which was young, vibrant, exciting, and fun, and understood Nightcap’s customer base inside out.

“We have a culture within the business that we try stuff. If it doesn’t work, we try something different.”

The staff were also part of the company’s consumers who frequented its bars. “We try as much as we possibly can to listen to them,” added the chief executive.

What’s more, agility was key to the company, and Willingham’s worst nightmare was to end up running a huge oil tanker of a business.

In January, the bar operator reported a record-breaking boost of 60.9% in its revenue and a 4.7% hike in like-for-like sales in the 13 weeks to 1 January 2023.

“I want to still be driving a jet ski,” she said, “and I want people within the business to feel they can drive a jet ski and we don’t have to go through loads of layers of bureaucracy and decision making.”

It's party time

“We have a culture within the business that we try stuff,” added Willingham. “If it doesn’t work, we try something different.”

Willingham was particularly proud of Nightcap’s entertainment brunch offering, which drove sales at midday on Saturdays and Sundays – times which were typically quiet for the late-night sector.

She was also super proud of the company’s reaction to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last year: Russian vodka was removed from bars and placed with Ukrainian vodka in 24 hours. Furthermore, a Ukrainian cocktail was rolled out across all bars, with thousands and thousands of pounds of proceedings donated to Ukraine.

“To me, this was proof of the agility and our ability to move really quickly within the business,” Willingham added.

She believed Nightcap shone as a company for its ability to host great parties,​ and for its managers who understood the difference in what customers were looking for on different nights of the week.

On Tuesday night, for instance, the founder thought you needed great lighting, good music, great colours and great quality products. “You need to a bar,” she said. Whereas, on a Saturday night, people are celebrating: “it’s a party”.

There were talks of acquisitions in the work for Nightcap, as well as making sure the three brands (The Cocktail Club, Adventure Bar Group and Barrio) that integrated into the company’s group structure last January​ were all “talking the same language”.

The best piece of advice Willingham had ever received was to surround yourself with brilliant people. “As I’ve gone further and further, the more I’ve realised how critical to success that piece of advice is,” she added.

She continued: “Yes, we're in the late-night bar business, but really, we're in the recruitment and retention business. We have to recruit great people; we have to keep them.”

Sexism in the sector

More than anything, she wanted to make sure staff felt heard and seen and feel like they could be their best selves. Keeping the team motivated was the most important thing, she added, for a business leader.

Furthermore, she believed the sector was becoming more inclusive​ for women, with more and more of them reaching senior positions.

It was really important for women to know they “didn’t have to give it all up” for the job, she advised. “I've done it while having four children, and my family has always been the most important thing to me, and I've had, I've managed to keep that balance,” she added.

However, she said sexism still existed in hospitality, with some conversations leaving her “very surprised,” thinking, “am I still in the 90s?” Despite the publicity of her work life success, due to acting as an entrepreneur on Dragon’s Den, she still faced judgements and sexism.

But the more women were promoted into senior positions, the more that misogyny would be diluted, Willingham believed. Allowing for flexibility and understanding people’s individual needs could also go a long way in stamping out sexism.

“I’ve got an extremely amazing team of women that report into me, amazing women around me, and continue to hire amazing women,” she said.

When Willingham was in her 20s, she did not have female peers, let alone female bosses – but now she had lots of “really great” female peers in the industry. “More and more, we are absolutely diluting that old school sexism,” she added.

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