Hav­ing the time of his life

5pm.co.uk is one of Scot­land’s few dot.com suc­cess sto­ries and now co-founder Ron­nie Somerville is plan­ning to of­fer dis­cern­ing din­ers a whole lot more, says Colin Card­well

The Herald Business - - 5pm.co.uk -

THE SOLI­TARY MALE stand­ing on the edge of Glas­gow’s Mer­chant Square can af­ford to look pleased, al­beit in slighlty be­mused way as the city cen­tre venue buzzes with the ex­cite­ment of ladies who do din­ner hav­ing makeovers from Lancôme’s BAFTA make up artists, com­par­ing neck­laces and bracelets from Orkney-based jew­eller Or­tak and en­joy­ing head and neck mas­sages cour­tesy of Glas­gow spa Re­vive.

The man smil­ing is Ron­nie Somerville be­cause the hive of ac­tiv­ity is en­tirely down to the power of his com­pany’s data­base and the high-liv­ing propen­si­ties of its clien­tele.

The com­pany in ques­tion is 5pm.co.uk, one of the few high-profile dot.coms to make it through the mil­len­nial in­vest­ment crash and come out the other side stronger. Known un­til now as a web­site that helps lovers of fine liv­ing find ta­bles at chic restau­rants, the com­pany is now ex­ploit­ing its data­base to move into event man­age­ment.

It is a new tack for the firm that re­tail­ers are en­thu­si­as­ti­cally em­brac­ing. Of the Mer­chant Square at­ten­dees, Re­vive has used 5pm.co.uk al­most ex­clu­sively to tar­get cus­tomers, while oth­ers tak­ing ad­van­tage of the site to launch new prod­ucts to a se­lected client base in­clud­ing Prada and House of Fraser.

Event man­age­ment is part of a se­ries of de­vel­op­ments that that has vin­di­cated coowner Somerville’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to steer the on­line restau­rant book­ing com­pany through the stormy wa­ters of the dot.com mad­ness of the 1990s and set a course to make 5pm.co.uk an in­ter na­tional player, us­ing the power of his data­base to cre­ate a strat­egy of tar­geted mar­ket­ing. In this case it was a char­ity event, aimed at a fe­male au­di­ence and most of them, says Somerville, are sell­ing out.

The com­pany has just spent nine months re­design­ing its web­site, one that will de­liver

a sig­nif­i­cant new phase of in­ter­ac­tiv­ity. Somerville, with ad­mirable can­dour, ad­mits that it had been time for some hon­est reap­praisal and that the front end had been “a bit of a dog’s din­ner”.

How­ever, he’s clearly ex­cited about what the next ver­sion has to of­fer. Among the cus­tomer ser­vices is the fa­cil­ity to use the 5pm site to cre­ate your own group or com­mu­nity, email them to sug­gest a choice of which restau­rant to at­tend and when and make your ar­range­ments via the group con­sen­sus. “I don't think there’s any­one else in the world do­ing some­thing like this re­quest form.”

Somerville should know a bit about re­build­ing en­gines: back in the days that forged his ex­pe­ri­ence in cater­ing and food dis­tri­bu­tion he for­got to check the oil in the com­pany’s Mercedes van, which blew up, with dis­as­trous fi­na­cial con­se­quences.

It was a les­son in bal­ance sheet pru­dence that served Somerville well as the fledg­ling 5pm.co.uk, launched with busi­ness part­ner David

Maguire and for­mer In­ver­gor­don chief Charles Shaw in 2000 to take ad­van­tage of the dead pe­riod in the early evening when restau­rant cov­ers are no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to fill.

The firm suc­ceeded when the lights were go­ing out at hun­dreds of other dot.com com­pa­nies. Sur­vival, he says, was largely due to treat­ing 5pm as a real busi­ness and not a just a dot.com, “bat­ten­ing down the hatches” and re­sist­ing the temp­ta­tion to spend money they didn’t have on mar­ket­ing and ad­ver­tis­ing. “We had a straight rev­enue model,” he says us­ing a phrase that would have per­plexed most back-of-a-fag-packet en­trepreneurs of the pe­riod.

To­day, 5pm.co.uk has some 1,000 restau­rants avail­able for on­line book­ing. It still has a Scot­tish bias but has built a strong pre­senece across the main metropoli­tan ar­eas of the UK. Per­haps most im­por­tantly it has a hugely valu­able data­base of dis­cern­ing din­ers of more than 250,000.

“Our USP is our data­base,” Somerville con­curs. “And with en­hanced ca­pa­bil­ity we can now seg­ment it much more ef­fec­tively.”

Un­sur­pris­ingly, oth­ers have eyed up the model, with the Glas­gow Res­tau­ra­teurs As­so­ci­a­tion launch­ing a real-time on­line book­ing ser­vice in a bid to at­tract new cus­tomers, though the as­so­ci­a­tion says it is not in­tended to be a di­rect com­peti­tor.

Com­pe­ti­tion is, of course, in­evitable and 5pm is ac­tively work­ing on tak­ing the con­cept over­seas as a be­spoke prod­uct that can be plugged in any­where.

“As long as peo­ple have a data­base of restau­rants and ac­cess to the in­ter­net we can do busi­ness with them,” says Somerville. “With this new site we will ba­si­cally be able to sell world­wide clients a lifestyle prod­uct in a box.”

He is also im­pressed with the de­gree of brand loy­alty the com­pany en­joys. “There are peo­ple who never use any­thing else but 5pm.co.uk to book a restau­rant”. And the joy is, the par­tic­i­pat­ing restau­rants will be self se­lect­ing .

One sus­pects the eateries on 5pm’s list are not com­plain­ing, in an in­dus­try where the mer­est blip in the tem­per­a­ture of a fad or fash­ion can turn in­vestors’ money into toast with sear­ing speed.

It’s a risk sit­u­a­tion that co-founder of Glas­gow restau­rants Cantina del Rey, Stazione, Lux and Salsa, Somerville is acutely aware of. Hap­pier now to act as the con­duit rather than the caterer he ex­presses mild re­gret than amid the eclec­tic range of of­fer­ings in Scot­land, there is a dearth of good mid­dleeastern and North African restau­rants.

Other early for­ages into tem­pes­tu­ous world of the food and bev­er­age busi­ness in­cluded a spell im­port­ing Mex­i­can beer and tequila (and in­vent­ing a handy lit­tle tequila slam­ming de­vice, which for many peo­ple prob­a­bly seemed like a great idea at the time).

This was all a dra­matic de­vi­a­tion from his cho­sen ca­reer of medicine which was cut short af­ter he failed the anatomy exam, a short­com­ing which he cheer­fully ad­mits was rea­son­ably fun­da­men­tal.

Nei­ther did a sub­se­quent eco­nomics and phi­los­o­phy de­gree sig­nif­i­cantly in­form his later ca­reer. Was study­ing eco­nomics use­ful at all? “What do you think?” he grins. Then, af­ter a pause – “Ac­tu­ally, i f i t taught me any­thing it was about the eco­nomics at the mar­gin, and that’s where we op­er­ate.”

He is also keen on main­tain­ing a tight fo­cus and while en­thused about the pote­tial for the lifestyle side of the busi­ness is adamant that restau­rants are still the core busi­ness.

The com­pany now em­ploys some 50 peo­ple. It’s a tight team with a ro­bust mix of skill-sets and and ex­pe­ri­ence and man­age­ment meets reg­u­larly (in a restau­rant, nat­u­rally) to throw ideas into the pot. That non-of­fice based approach seems to suit Somerville, who has now had to con­struct his role in 5pm.co.uk around a life which in­cludes a young fam­ily and pas­sion for wind­surf­ing on Tiree.

He takes noth­ing for granted, re­call­ing the is­land’s ca­pac­ity to put the brakes on 5pm’s global spin. Broad­band in­stal­la­tion, the lifeblood of the en­ter­prise, was de­layed at the very door of his He­bridean cot­tage by a squinty tele­phone pole. That’s eco­nomics at the mar­gin.

Our USP is our data­base and with en­hanced ca­pa­bil­ity we can now seg­ment it much more ef­fec­tively

Cheers: 5pm co-founders Charles Shaw (left) and Ron­nie Somerville still be­lieve their best strat­egy dis­cus­sions take place in a restau­rant wth ex­cel­lent food and a fine wine

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