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 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