The Big Interview: ‘I was always nervous about talking about personal things’

By Gary Lloyd

- Last updated on GMT

Revealing the pressures at the top: UKHospitality CEO Kate Nicholls
Revealing the pressures at the top: UKHospitality CEO Kate Nicholls

Related tags Kate nicholls ukhospitality Legislation Government Finance

Kate Nicholls is one of the most recognisable people in the industry and is still leading from the front when it comes to lobbying Government in her position as CEO of UKHospitalty.

Having worked in the sector for almost 30 years, which makes Nicholls “feel really old”, she has been key in influencing UK leaders in favour of the pub and hospitality trade while one of her personal successes was in ‘saving the prawn cocktail crisp’.

Nicholls explains: “When I left university, I worked as a researcher in the European Parliament and the House of Commons simultaneously, at a time when the European government, in particular, was looking at harmonising food legislation and they would have banned isinglass (fish bladders used to clear haze in beer) and caramel in beer – they would have banned a whole load of food additives.

“I always say the biggest success in my career was saving the prawn cocktail crisp because [the European government] would have banned it – and they would have banned us from calling chocolate chocolate in the UK.”

So how did Nicholls save the prawn cocktail crisp?

“I successfully lobbied the European Commission and Council of Ministers, who are in charge of the legislation, to avoid them banning a whole load of additives,” she reveals.

“It was going to be [classed as] a food additive, so it’s flavourings, colourings, sweeteners, all of those kind of things back in the ’90s when they were talking about ‘do you ban the orange additive in Kiora or food colouring’, for example?

“We just had a different set of tastes in the UK and flavoured crisps were one of them.”

Aside from her early successes, Nicholls adds a definite career highlight would be creating a single voice for hospitality that is UKHospitality in its bid to get the sector recognised on Downing Street alongside other major sectors.

“Before UKH was created, you would have financial services, retail, manufacturing, those kind of sectors would go down with the CBI and the FSB and meet in business councils,” Nicholls says. “To get hospitality, which is the third largest employer and the fourth largest industrial sector recognised, we needed to create that one single voice.”

Kate Nicholls 2022 image

She says the lowest point of her career was the challenges the sector faced during Covid. “It was a very brutal period of time when we started talking about Covid on 28 January 2020, which was before anybody else was really talking about it,” Nicholls states.

“I was talking to the Government and we could see what was going to happen and there was a very bleak period of time when it was clear the Government was going to close us down but there wasn’t any detail of support and I knew there were about 3m people working in the industry who were relying upon me to do a good job to try to save the jobs in the industry.

“We couldn’t see a way through and couldn’t see the end but, equally, Covid would also be quite high point of my career because of the success we were able to have in working to get the package of support for hospitality and getting things such as VAT cuts, grants and business rates. It’s never enough but we know we made a significant difference to get something that was necessary to get the industry through that.

“I think £39bn of support was what the Government ended up giving us during Covid to be able to get the industry through by not losing masses of jobs and masses of business. Although it was the bleakest of times, we managed to secure some of what was needed.”

It's a big challenge

After her prawn cocktail victory, Nicholls was recruited by Whitbread to advise the boards of Whitbread’s companies on changes in legislation as the UK was going into a new Labour government. At the time, Whitbread was a brewer, a pub operator, a pub leasing company, it also had David Lloyd, leisure, hotels, restaurants, "the whole shebang" as Nicholls puts it.

Following on from that, work in public affairs and political campaigning led to a position as strategic affairs director at the ALMR (Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers) and then a move upwards to chief executive.

She led the merger of the ALMR with the BHA (British Hospitality Association) to create UKHospitality in 2018.

Of course, balancing family life with work comes with difficulties. Nicholls explains: “I’m hugely fortunate to have a very supportive husband who helps to pick up the slack and, over the course of the past five years that UKHospitality has been very busy, he’s helped to be the bedrock upon which the family can rely and that makes it easier for me to be able to juggle work and family.

“It is a big challenge, particularly in our sector where there are a lot of evening work events. I could be out five nights a week and there’s also breakfast meetings. Your family do need you around but they have been fantastic supports to enable me to be the figurehead and have that space to be the voice of the sector.”

She cites “juggling of time” as a major pressure in her work. “There are never enough hours in the day to be able to do everything and therefore you know, I have to remind myself that I need to take a break and need to take a pause and decompress because otherwise I’m no good to anybody if I keep running full tilt at all of these events and activities.

“I made a rule that when my children were younger – they’ve left home now – I would never be out for breakfast and late at night, I would always do one end of the day, which also helped keep me sane and avoid very long days. I still keep to that.

“The other challenge you have, which will be common to lots of people who are leading hospitality businesses, is that you need to create that headspace because hospitality is very immediate, full-on and you need to be incredibly responsive in the moment and have to make snap decisions.”

On whether there was anything that surprised about taking on the role of a CEO, she says the biggest aspect is the weight placed on one’s shoulders and however much support you have – and Nicholls says she is “incredibly fortunate” to have brilliant people both at work and at home – it’s still quite a lonely place, and that creates pressure as the final decision maker.

She adds: “You are out there in the spotlight and I hadn’t really appreciated how much that would be the case and how much would rest personally on me.”

Ed bedington Kate Nicholls Paddy McGuinness Publican Awards 2022
Outstanding Industry Contribution award: Kate Nicholls with MA editor Ed Bedington (left) and 2022 Publican Awards host Paddy McGuinness

However, she feels she wouldn’t have done anything differently in her career.

Nicholls states: “If I’d done anything differently, I wouldn’t have been in this position or to be able to successfully take the organisation through the merger and establish it as the voice for the industry.

“The only thing that I might have done differently is when Nick Bish stepped down from the ALMR, I didn’t get the chief executive position and part of that was about the fact that I was slightly closed off, I guess I didn’t open up to people and was always a bit nervous about revealing anything that might be seen as a weakness or talking more openly about personal things.

“I wish I’d realised a little bit earlier that it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing and you could bring your authentic self to work and you wouldn’t be judged for it. If I opened up a little bit earlier and had learned that lesson, I might have been a better leader earlier in my career.

“I’ve never had a problem in being centre of attention but I did have a period where up until about the when I had the experience of going for the CEO and not getting it, I realised knockbacks really help you develop as a person and it was quite a salutary lesson to learn that people in the industry I’ve known and worked with for about 10 years actually didn’t know me as a person and that I hadn’t talked about family, friends or personal challenges.”

But there’s no regrets for Nicholls. She says: “The past is a distant country and although I’m not always looking to the future, I live in the moment and try to make the most of every opportunity, so no regrets… you just have to let things go.”

Equally, she uses skills from her personal life to help with her work.

“I read a lot,” Nicholls begins. “I will get through two to three books a week but it’s what I do to relax and 90% of them will be fiction.

“It means I can absorb a lot of information very quickly and assimilate it, and then work out what I want to do with it, which is really helpful.

“And because it’s a lot of fiction, it also gives me a lot of insight into different characters, characterisation and motivation so that helps me from a leadership perspective.

“Literature and the arts are overlooked and I think being able to take a step back, think about what people are doing and how they’re presenting. I genuinely put that down to my love of reading and my English degree.

“And the other thing I do is a yoga, which again helps you to stay centred, stay calm, take a deep breath and then work it through.”

Problems can seem insurmountable

Nicholls stresses smaller pubcos should join a trade association because not only are they champions of campaigns, they are also a defence policy and insurance policy shield.

She says: “We’re there to say the things you can’t say yourself as an organisation on some of those challenging issues, whether that’s price of product, wage rates and the impact of that, that’s what the trade association is there for.

“But also we provide advice, guidance, helplines, assured quality advice that is primary authority backed. We sit on a lot of insight and intelligence that as a smaller organisation you wouldn’t be able to afford to buy, but we provide it to our members free of charge and then the most important thing we work on is peer-to-peer networking.

“So, as a small business in particular, you come up against a lot of problems that seem insurmountable and can seem very lonely but most of those problems will have been faced by somebody else in the industry and so to be part of a network that you can reach out either to me, who’ll answer a question, or my team, or to somebody in our broader network who can help.”

Kate Nicholls, Chief Executive, UKHospitality square shape image

Three key ingredients a good leader should have are active listening, really effective communication and clear decision making skills, the trade association boss states.

She continues: “If you’re a leader, people want to know what they’re following and they need to know that clear vision. We’re the lodestar so we’ll point the direction of where we’re going. We’ll set out a clear direction of travel and then work through the steps as to how we get there and I think good leaders to give their teams certainty and clarity what their objectives are.
If the goal is to get from one site to five sites to 15 sites, how does what you’re doing as an individual serving that customer relate to the objectives that the organisation is moving towards?

“Good leaders are able to do that with the vision and the strategy, to put it into context and to make it real for the person and then to make they address the concerns and needs of those individuals within the team who are critical to their delivery. So it’s being able to play on that sort of multi level.

“I think good leaders probably are chameleons; they’re able to blend and fit with the audiences they’re dealing with and be able to communicate at all those levels but listening is critical to be able to make sure you’re picking up what people are concerned about, what they need and reassuring them.

“I’m obviously in a slightly different position to a lot of the operational side because you know what I do is listen to a range of stakeholders and try to look for the win win.

“That’s not really very different to a commercial deal but I’m trying to listen to what multiple stakeholders are telling me they want and need from both sides, in terms of political, operational and commercial, and try to find that sweet spot where it delivers for as many of them as I possibly can do.”

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