Sheffield entrepreneurs following in family foosteps

The old saying 'like father, like son' (or, indeed, daughter) certainly seems to hold true in the business world with studies showing that children born into entrepreneurial families are twice as likely to run a business themselves.

Here, in celebration of Father’s Day, we meet two Sheffield based young entrepreneurs who have followed their dad’s footsteps into self-employment.

Tom Lawson, head chef and partner at Rafters Restaurant, and his dad Brian Lawson, owner at management consultancy Lawson Thinking.

Owners Tom Lawson and Alistair Myers at Rafters, Nether Green

Aged just 14 Tom Lawson came home from school with some homework to write down his target for where he wanted to be in ten years’ time. Tom didn’t hesitate to say “I want to own a top restaurant”. However, probably unlike most of his classmates, Tom went on to do just that, buying well known Sheffield restaurant Rafters with his business partner Alistair Myers in 2014.

Tom followed a classic route into restaurant ownership, having graduated top of his class at catering college, winning numerous accolades along the way including the prestigious Roux Scholarship and then working in the kitchens at various top end pubs and restaurants in the region. However the desire to be his own boss remained and Tom jumped at the chance to take over the lease at Rafters despite his dad’s initial reservations.

“Originally we were considering buying a pub somewhere in Sheffield,” said Tom. “However then Rafters cropped up and we really saw massive potential here. It had a reputation for great service already but we wanted to improve the food, invest in the kitchen and offer some innovative menu choices.” Tom certainly got the advice he needed in the early stages of planning the business, as dad Brian runs Lawson Thinking, one of the region’s most forward thinking management consultancies, helping businesses of all types with strategy, problem solving and executive coaching.

“Dad did lots of work with Alistair and myself looking at getting the structure right, working out our key aims and helping us nip issues in the bud, work that a lot of restaurant owners simply don’t prioritise but it’s so important to have those discussions,” said Tom.

“Initially he didn’t like the idea of Rafters because there was no car park but actually that’s not a bad thing at all as people then come here in a taxi, spend money on wine with us and have a much better evening all round!” jokes Tom.

Brian, whose own business is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month, was keen to work with the young duo, whose energy and passion for food he found inspiring. In fact working with young entrepreneurs gave Brian the push to rebrand his own business and truly embrace new technology and social media. “Younger people running businesses are naturals at making new networks. For example the boys have really embraced Trip Advisor instead of fearing it and there’s also a new online booking service as apparently people don’t like picking up the phone anymore.”

“They’ve often grown up in a world of absolute choice – things like being able to instantly shop online for example. So they’re great at offering people a really personalised service and recognising that you’ve got to offer more than just good food – customers want the things they love, exactly when they demand them.”

Indeed Rafters consistently appears as Sheffield’s number one restaurant on review site Trip Advisor, a reputation that Tom is keen to grow. “The aim for us is to get Sheffield its Michelin Star back. A city this size should really have a Michelin starred restaurant and currently there isn’t one. It’s going to take a fair bit of work yet but we’ve got the team in place now to achieve it.”

Owners Tom Lawson and Alistair Myers at Rafters, Nether Green

Meanwhile Brian’s business Lawson Thinking is also going from strength to strength, with Brian travelling all over Europe to deliver his lively seminars to business leaders. Lawson Thinking has developed a strong speciality in advising public sector children’s services teams, which builds on Brian’s former career as a social worker.

* Amelia Tordoff, owner at fashion boutique Love the Lot, and her dad Fraser Thompson, managing director at Northern Electrical Engineering.

Amelia Tordoff is busy designing an aquatic themed window display at her stylish Ecclesall Road boutique. “This is a typical situation for me,” she laughs whilst hanging strings of sparkling turquoise necklaces on some giant seashells, “As a business owner you find yourself doing everything from ordering stock to sweeping the floor to balancing the books, but it’s really important in this business to make a good first impression with the displays.”

Love the Lot certainly does make a good impression with its glamorous interior and racks of fashionable clothing from niche European designers. Amelia started the business in 2014 having always had a strong interest in fashion. “I originally started a small online shop with the same name,” says Amelia. “But then the chance to rent this shop in a prime spot on Ecclesall Road came up and within a few weeks it was mine. I’ve always had a good eye for unusual designs and I saw a chance to bring in some new European designers in that hadn’t been available in Sheffield.”

Prior to starting her retail business, Amelia had worked with her dad Fraser in a very different environment, the family business of electrical engineering. Northern Electrical Engineering was started in Sheffield by Amelia’s grandfather in 1964. A world away from fashionable frocks, it designs and builds electrical control equipment supplying essential back up power for buildings such as airports and hospitals. “It is a totally different environment,” concedes Amelia. “However I worked there for five years and I picked up business skills such as book keeping, team management and the vital importance of cash flow. The business has been going a long time and has some really loyal repeat customers. I recognised the value of looking after those people, something I try to do here also.”

Having worked at Northern Electrical Engineering since he was in his early twenties, Fraser has certainly seen a huge change in the way businesses are run. However he believes that business fundamentals remain the same despite the more recent influences of new technology and social media. “Look after cash flow and look after loyal customers would be my top tips, however I’m always keen for new people to come in to the business to make changes,” he says. “When Amelia worked with me she introduced a new system for invoicing which has been great however some customers, even huge corporations, offer 90 day payment terms which makes it incredibly hard for smaller businesses to survive. It can be 6 months before you see any payments.”

Fraser, who took over the running of the family business after his dad died suddenly aged 60, says he had no worries when Amelia said she was starting her own business. “I knew she had a good idea and her natural eye for style would win through,” he said. “But all businesses are a risk and you do worry about the financial side of it. Like any retail business Amelia invests a lot of money in stock and has to hope it pays off each season, that’s a big challenge, but so far she seems to bet getting it right.”