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I would love to build a movement based on ‘winning not fighting’, With John Vincent, CEO of LEON

I would love to build a movement based on an ancient martial art that I practise called Wing Tsun. It is, fundamentally, and weirdly for a…


I would love to build a movement based on an ancient martial art that I practise called Wing Tsun. It is, fundamentally, and weirdly for a martial art, based on ‘winning not fighting’. It is the philosophical and practical underpinning of how we run Leon. The art originated from the Shaolin Temple in Southern China and was, uniquely, created by women. The martial art, and the practise of winning not fighting, teaches how to live with love not fear or conflict. Fighting rarely creates any positive outcomes and keeps us trapped in a state of negativity and separateness. Industrialised society, consumer advertising, and to some extent modern media keep us in a state of ‘fight or flight’. Our minds and bodies are constantly in a state of low level chronic inflammation. Winning not Fighting, and Wing Tsun, have four ‘doors’ which which one enters as one’s consciousness increases. They teach us to know who we really are, but put that self aside, to stay relaxed and remember our right relationship with our body, each other and nature. It is about living life in flow and not forcing. About positivity and resilience. And about focusing on the present without chasing money, fame or material possessions. It is contrary to how we are conditioned to live life in the West, and even in most of the modern world in the East. But in line with how our minds and bodies are actually built to live.


I had the pleasure to interview John Vincent. John is Co Founder and CEO of London-born Naturally Fast Food brand LEON. John’s mission is to make it easier for everyone to eat and live well. LEON has opened its first US restaurant in Washington DC and hopes to show that fast food can be good food.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Henry and I were working as business consultants at Bain & Company, spending a lot of time on the road and the only options were cold sandwiches or fast food. It wasn’t doing us any good.

I’ve always loved fast food, since I was a kid. I remember lying on my back when I was about eight on the floor of the hall in our house kicking my arms and legs in the air because I was so excited that my Mum had booked my birthday party at McDonalds. But then as I got older I realised the food was making me fall asleep…and wake up a little larger.

I was intrigued by the question: ‘why can’t fast food be good food? I wondered what fast food would be like in heaven. It would certainly be as fun as traditional fast food, but it would taste naturally good, be surprisingly good for you, be affordable, and kind to the planet. And you would feel good after you’d eaten it.

Just as importantly though I wanted to create a company built on positive energy, fun, joy and love. In a nutshell I wanted to create the world’s coolest company to work for.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I was talking to a potential partner who had been extremely senior at McDonalds. He said to me “the turnaround that you see in McDonalds is based on Leon. We went to your restaurant in Carnaby Street and said to ourselves ‘this is what fast food should be like — good fast food’”.

It’s possible that we have made a bigger impact on the wellbeing of the guest and the planet by inspiring others than the direct impact we have made ourselves.

The question is, who will be bigger in forty years’ time, McDonalds or LEON? I know many would have their money on McDonald’s and the chances are they’re right. But my job is to defy those odds.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I love this question. I have made so many mistakes and learnt so much from them that I am thinking of making a few more. And as we try to take the job seriously but not take ourselves seriously we have got quite used to laughing at ourselves.

Early on when we had only had one restaurant — on Carnaby Street — I was working at a desk with a great young colleague and she and I sent an email to everyone on our database. After a few minutes, we started to see that quite a few people were replying. But not with messages for us but with messages to…each other. We had sent the email with all the email addresses visible in the ‘To’ field. Bear in mind that these were all our most regular customers. People started to email sales messages advertising their own services and products and some customers got quite upset with us. It was like sending a rude email to all your clients by mistake. We stood in shock as the train smash took place in slow motion in front of us. We emailed everyone suggesting that it would be a good idea if all the group emails stopped but people couldn’t resist. That evening the sales of the daily sales came in on my phone. They were half of what we had seen the previous day and the previous week. I went to sleep (sort of slept) believing that I had alienated all our guests and killed our business. Henry was on holiday and I tried to work out how I would break the news that I had destroyed everything. As soon as I could, the next morning I rang the manager ‘Fabrice, tell me, what happened, did people just not come because I had done that email? Were people really angry?”. “What email?” he said. ‘The sales were fine yesterday. We had a good day, it’s just that one of the tills hadn’t registered properly.” I can laugh about it now.

Bonus story: when we built the restaurant we really screwed up our extraction ventilation and kept having to delay. One of our rather rotund builders got stuck in the piping while trying to fix it. That day the security company fixed the CCTV cameras and the team concluded that we were not opening a restaurant at all but instead we were just filming a comedy reality TV show, and that is what the cameras were for.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think we are different because we care so much and do things that allow us to look in the mirror and sleep well at night. As a result, people at LEON are encouraged to look out for opportunities to express love and do something special.

One example that typifies many things that LEON people do is when in our Bankside restaurant near the Tate Modern on the Thames the manager Charlie heard a loud bang. It was the sound of a tyre bursting on someone’s Bugaboo — a baby’s stroller. The mother needed the stroller in order to get her and her other children home, so Charlie located a bicycle repair shop, ran there and back and fixed the tyre. There are many stories like this at Leon from the care we take over our food to the way we treat each other and our guests.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Obviously, our greatest project right now is launching LEON in the US. Our first restaurant opened Washington D.C. and that is exciting to us. We started LEON to help more people eat well and live well and that principle still guides everything we do. How exciting to be able to do that in the US where fast food was born, and where the fast food revolution is just beginning.


What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

One of the greatest pleasures I have in my business is seeing the hundreds of mostly-young people we employ develop and shape their future.

I am sure that every CEO has their own wisdoms and experience, and I wouldn’t wish to preach to them, but my experience is that people thrive when you give them great responsibility and opportunities, treat them with genuine love, and then get out of the way. You’d be amazed how much they’ll amaze you.

What advice would you give to other CEOs about the best way to manage a large team?

In terms of your direct reports, work out for each person who can be delegated to, who needs to be coached and who needs to be directed. And create a meritocracy where people are judged and rewarded fairly. Remember the quote that goes something like “for the best leaders, the team will say ‘we did it ourselves’”

For the other thousand people, tell them what their job is (‘look after the guest at all costs’) and give them maximum freedom, responsibility and trust to do that.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I worked at Bain & Company I met Jimmy Allen. Jimmy is a senior partner there and a leading expert in growth strategy. He wrote a book called Founder’s Mentality which is a great summary of his thinking. He and I meet as often as we can and he’s been a wonderful sounding board and inspiration. Founder’s Mentality is what it says on the tin — the frame of mind that a business takes on in its early days. A clear and bold mission, a dislike of bureaucracy, a focus on cash, and an obsession with freeing up the ‘front line’ to be able to delight the guest. Jimmy has helped me return to my Founder’s Mentality many times over the past 14 years. Each time we hit a challenging time we return to our mission of making it easier for everyone to eat and live well and remember the clear image of what ‘fast food would be like in heaven’ and I’ll forever be grateful to him for his advice, support and love.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I hope LEON’s success means more goodness — helping more people of all ages eat well and live well and help them have a joyous relationship with food. I believe we have been part of inspiring a lot of change in how people eat in the UK. And because we do what we do in LEON we were asked in 2012 to develop a School Food Plan for the UK government, which resulted in free school lunches for everyone in the first three years of school, new regulations about the quality of the food and practical cooking on the curriculum for the first time.

We have been leaders in creating fast food that is kind to the planet. In the UK and also in our first restaurant in D.C. all our power is renewable, all our fish sustainable, our coffee fair trade and organic, we fund the planting of new trees in the rainforests, led the removal of plastic straws and cutlery, use biodegradable cups, and are all the time increasing the number of plant-based dishes on our menu.

But just as important is the joy we try to bring to every guest who eats with us.

What are your “5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Care about people. Deeply. That way you’ll always put them first. When I took over responsibility for the operations (running the restaurants) in 2011 I focused most of my time looking after the wellbeing of the restaurant managers (we call them ‘Mums and Dads’). Yes, it was in part because I knew that if I looked after them they would look after their team and their guests, but it was also because I sincerely care for them like they are my own family.

2. Don’t over plan. If you are launching a space rocket, planning is cool. For most other things, I think a good CEO is clear on which mountain she or he would like the organisation to climb, and encourages teams to try, fail, learn and adjust. When we were developing the 2017 plan we produced such a detailed plan with loads of intricate timetables, check lists full of false accuracy. It wasn’t a great year. In 2018 we chose three big priorities and gave people freedom to get them done in the way they find works. #belikewater.

3. Innovation ain’t necessarily a good thing. Trying new creative things that don’t bet the farm is really important. New dishes, new marketing ideas, new ways of training. But choose more strategic bets more carefully and only if you have tested them first. Early on we bought three restaurants from an ailing sandwich chain. We paid too much, but more importantly we were experimenting with a smaller format of restaurant. We didn’t have a model that worked in these smaller formats. We had to close one and it took us a long time to get the others profitable. There are very few real ‘we mustn’t miss out on this opportunity’ opportunities.

4. The neighbour’s grass really isn’t greener. When you are running a business, you see all the problems. It is easy to look at other people’s businesses and think they are easier and more profitable. From the inside they probably are not. They have their own challenges and problems. Many businesses I thought were more attractive than ours have stalled or even failed. And hey, if someone else is successful, be sincerely happy for them. When we were writing the business plan for LEON a friend lent us a room above a shop. We shared it with two other people who were writing a plan for a door lock business that you could unlock without a key. One day we looked at their plan and were amazed by how profitable and successful they were going to be. ‘Wow’ we thought ‘we may love what we are doing but if we were doing this for money we would do what they are doing’. As it turns out I have not seen many locks on many domestic doors that are keyless, so I am assuming that not everything has gone to plan. (I hope they pivoted into online gaming or something).

5. Find time to switch off without resorting to alcohol. The pressure on a CEO, sometimes self-imposed, can be dramatic. Get enough sleep, don’t take your phone to bed (your husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend is much fitter) and do some exercise — probably in the morning as it will make you a better CEO all day and if you leave it till the evening you probably won’t do it. Schedule the exercise as you would any other important meeting.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to build a movement based on an ancient martial art that I practise called Wing Tsun. It is, fundamentally, and weirdly for a martial art, based on ‘winning not fighting’. It is the philosophical and practical underpinning of how we run Leon. The art originated from the Shaolin Temple in Southern China and was, uniquely, created by women.

The martial art, and the practise of winning not fighting, teaches how to live with love not fear or conflict. Fighting rarely creates any positive outcomes and keeps us trapped in a state of negativity and separateness. Industrialised society, consumer advertising, and to some extent modern media keep us in a state of ‘fight or flight’. Our minds and bodies are constantly in a state of low level chronic inflammation.

Winning not Fighting, and Wing Tsun, have four ‘doors’ which which one enters as one’s consciousness increases. They teach us to know who we really are, but put that self aside, to stay relaxed and remember our right relationship with our body, each other and nature. It is about living life in flow and not forcing. About positivity and resilience. And about focusing on the present without chasing money, fame or material possessions.

It is contrary to how we are conditioned to live life in the West, and even in most of the modern world in the East. But in line with how our minds and bodies are actually built to live.

12. Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

‘Do what you say you are going to do’.

Relationships and organisations are based on trust. Not on rules and regulations. I have discovered in deals or in managing people that if you do what you say you are going to do, it creates a very special form of integrity. When we recently took on an investment in Leon, our new investor kept all his promises that he made throughout the process. And so did I. I can’t stress enough how this cemented our relationship.

13. Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Ooh yes please. Herb Kelleher the man who built Southwest Airlines — based on freedom, responsibility…and love. Not sure he is on social media though..good luck! Free Leon for a year if you succeed!

14. How can our readers follow you on social media?

@johnV_LEON https://twitter.com/JohnV_LEON

@johnV_LEON https://www.instagram.com/johnv_leon/

Originally published at medium.com

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