How I built a business that runs itself

by Planning, Recruitment, Self-managing business

What can a restaurateur tell a dentist about building a business that runs itself? Everything, actually, especially our friend Pete Fraser, 57, who is the most laidback businessman we’ve ever met. Pete has done it; he spends one day a week in each of his acclaimed Cornish restaurants, and he has some extraordinary insights for you.

Pete, how are your businesses doing?

Harbour Lights’ turnover and profit has quadrupled since 2005. Fraser’s Fish and Chips is 18 months old and will be the model we duplicate. I’ve never enjoyed my businesses more, but they don’t own me. I’m free to enjoy life and take time off. Financially, things get better every year. I could always make more, but I’m happy. To me maximising profit has never been my primary raison d’etre, more important to me has been to build a business that I can be justifiably proud of, with good profit being only one of many facets I judge myself on.

What does your typical week look like?

I spend Mondays at Harbour Lights and Tuesdays at Fraser’s Fish and Chips. Wednesdays are my thinking day, and my most productive. I turn off emails and phones and find somewhere inspirational to work. I love doing this and I feel excited climbing into bed on Tuesday nights knowing I will have a day of uninterrupted thinking the next day. I spend Thursdays working on finance. I rely on my own personal knowledge of finance and this needs constant work because it’s a seasonal business and we still get cash flow issues, which is just pathetic. But once I have boosted my financial acumen (I have given myself six months) Thursdays will be like Wednesdays — another ideas day. My weekends start on Thursday evening. Pushing myself to do all I need to do in four days means that I have little tolerance for engaging in niff naff tasks.

Why did you want a self-managed business?

I have four children and had such a happy childhood myself that a key thing for me was not to become a slave to my business. I would have regarded myself as a complete failure if I hadn’t been free for my family. So right from the early days I wanted to work out ways of getting the business to run itself. I was a military naval aviator for 19 years and I bought Harbour Lights with my best mate from the Royal Navy. The partnership ended in 2005 — which was healthy for our business and our friendship — and I was free to drive the business in the direction that I really wanted. Best mates aren’t necessarily the best business partners.

Tell us about how you got going

Like many dental practice owners I was new to business. I had no idea what I was doing. I aspired to be the best and was permanently researching the USA hospitality industry, reading a good quality business/self development book at least once a week, scouring the internet and getting on the phone. I made friends that way, including a Chicago pizza restaurateur who was years ahead of me. The most important books have been The E-Myth Revisted by Michael Gerber — particularly relevant to dentists — and Traction by Gino Wickman. These are both very easy to read and the former is written more in a story format, and throughout reading the story light bulbs were turning on in my head.

What bits of Gerber and Wickman helped you?

Don’t be a technician in your own business, work on the business not in it. This is simple yet difficult. It made me realise that I needed to boost my profitability, because then I could employ people to do the jobs I had previously done. Linked to this is the question do you actually want a self-managing business? This was easy for me but I know some people derive pleasure from being workaholics and/or control freaks, so maybe my particular route is not for them. I have always wanted to recruit people cleverer than me who also have the confidence to tell me very clearly when they think I am wrong. I had a real ‘wow’ moment a couple of years ago during a staff appraisal when I realised two of my team were having a conversation about psychology that went way over my head. Some bosses could feel threatened by that, I rejoiced.

Wickham gives you a blueprint for how to build the processes that drive your business. One of the first things is doing a very honest analysis of your team. Do you have the right people on the bus, and are they in the right seat? Until I absorbed this, my business was a bit woolly. Now everyone knows what we want because we only employ people who are aligned with our core values, which are constantly referred to in all our decision making. Team members even appraise their managers this way, and they love it. Our core values are: big smiles, we care, we have a can do attitude, we do what we say, and our lights are on (be present).

Wickham also defines two key roles in a successful traction process: the visionary and the integrator. In the beginning I did both, which was frustrating for both me and my team. Now, as the visionary I have the time and freedom to go off and think of ways to advance the business. I pass my ideas onto our very capable integrator. She is very honest with me and has a good handle of our team’s capacity to take on new projects. Of every 10 ideas of mine, five may immediately get scrapped, three might be thought worthy of more research and development and two might be golden nuggets that need to get introduced into our business as soon as possible. The integrator drives the good ideas through to completion. She actually gets pleasure from doing this, whereas I would hate it. I score one out of 10 for follow through because it’s not where my unique abilities are.

If there’s one piece of advice you could give?

Find out what you’re good at and what you enjoy doing, then engineer your working week to maximise time working with this unique ability of yours. That way you’ll always leap out of bed each morning with a big smile on your face because you are off to do what you enjoy doing most. A new business idea for me is a consultancy for hospitality business owners, because I find it very sad how often people get tired and lose their mojo for what in the past gave them pleasure.

Break down the ingredients for a self-managing business

Separate the visionary and the integrator. Create a standard week for yourself and stop rushing around like a madman spinning plates. Honestly appraise your team: should they be on the bus, are they in the right seat? Systemise your business as much as possible (sounds boring but makes your life so much easier). If you truly want to build a secure sustainable business, always think about your ‘triple bottom line’ (check it out on Wikipedia): as well as financial goals think about how your business can benefit your local community and the environment. In 2009 we took cod off the menu for a week and got a gushing half page in the Sunday Times. We weren’t anti-cod, we just realised Brits weren’t very brave when it comes to trying other fish. One last thing: I’ve learnt that if arrogance is an unwelcome part of your character then you have to lose it pretty damn quick. In a self-managing business your team will do far better quality work if they don’t think their boss is a complete bozo. Good luck!

Harbour Lights won Independent Fish and Chip Restaurant of the Year 2017 at the National Fish and Chip Awards. Fraser’s Fish and Chips was shortlisted for the FreeFrom Eating Out Award 2017 for its gluten-free meals.

Pete Fraser

“I would have regarded myself as a complete failure if I hadn’t been free for my family”

Pete Fraser, restaurant owner

Author: Zac Fine