He's the Yorkshire entrepreneur who made his break in ice cream before running Little Chef. In a rare interview, and following a heart attack, Lawrence Wosskow spoke to Ian Briggs.
Job title: Chairman, Out of Town Restaurant Group
Date of birth: July 5, 1963
First job: Junior management trainee at Marks & Spencer
Family: Childhood sweetheart and wife of 27 years Julie; daughter Hannah, 15; son Toby, 14
Car: Bentley GTC
Favourite film: Any James Bond film
Last holiday: In my Sunseeker power boat from Ibiza to Greece last summer
THE FRAMED autographed photographs and tickets from momentous sporting events, which hang from the walls of Lawrence Wosskow's modest office, reflect some of the most memorable occasions in his life.
From heavyweight boxing contests between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, to thrilling football matches across the globe, the collection gives an insight into Wosskow's determination to experience
the greatest theatre elite athletes can offer.
But one sporting spectacle stands out in his memory.
Wosskow had travelled to Germany in June 2006 to watch England's football team take on Portugal in the World Cup quarter-final.
"I didn't feel very well during the game," he recalls. "I got chest pains and then I walked away from the game with more chest pains. I thought it was indigestion."
Wosskow took a flight back to Heathrow following England's defeat but, still in discomfort, decided to take himself to hospital. On arrival, however, he was told there had been a serious car crash so he was made to wait several hours for treatment.
"When I was seen, I was told it had been 10 hours since I had suffered a heart attack. I'm the luckiest man alive."
The incident has made Wosskow – a self-confessed workaholic – reassess the priorities in his life.
"As soon as I had the attack, I thought I've got to change my lifestyle. It's definitely matured me as a figure. I'm a more caring and thoughtful person than I was before.
"There isn't one hour that goes by when I don't think about what happened. If I could learn from my mistakes, it's not to race around as much as I did."
Sheffield-born Wosskow is now living with his family in Isleworth, near Orlando, Florida, in a mansion neighbouring golf superstar Tiger Woods. Wosskow says he is playing golf most days, on a course which borders his property, and is steadily improving his handicap.
The golf course is a rather sedate environment for the 44-year-old.
As well as the sporting mementos gathered at his office, in Dore, Sheffield, which is soon to be vacated, photographs from Wosskow's travels sit alongside them.
He has crossed Costa Rica without using engine power (a feat which raised 50,000 for charity), and been a previous winner of the Gumball Rally, an event which sees 120 cars try to cover 3,000 miles across 16 countries in eight days.
It's this adventurous spirit which Wosskow has taken into the business world.
At the time of the heart attack, which Wosskow puts down to stress, he was joint owner of roadside restaurant chain Little Chef, with business partner Simon Heath.
The pair had acquired 240 Little Chefs, made up of 65 freehold and 175 leasehold properties, for 48m, with backing from Anglo-Irish Bank, through their company, The People's Restaurant Group (PRG), in 2005.
PRG bought the chain from Travelodge Holdings, a company financed by private equity firm Permira."I said I'm going to put 15m of my money into it," recalls Wosskow. "So my first thought was how do I get some back?"
Wosskow did this by selling and leasing back the freehold sites for 61m to Israeli property group Arazim Investments.
"I owned a lot of the properties, so it was my profit. At the time I did that deal, the business was doing really well.
"I then had a heart attack, and from that moment the doctors said not to go back to work for a year. What was a good business just died."
Despite efforts to turn around things by rebranding Little Chef and opening Coffee Tempo outlets, a similar concept to Costa Coffee, at sites, trading declined.
By last December, and with Wosskow still hands off, Little Chef was placed in administration and sold to RCapital. Administrators failed to find buyers for 41 Little Chef restaurants with the loss of almost 600 jobs.
Wosskow says: "I still think the people that were running it and looking at it said, 'Do we buy a business that has got all these debts and got good outlets or do we put it in administration, get rid of some of these outlets, some debts and buy it then'. And that's what happened."
Wosskow maintains he had nothing to do with the problems experienced at Little Chef as he was recuperating and much of his involvement had been on the property side of the business. But he doesn't regret having the collapse of an iconic national brand on his CV.
"I made a lot of money out of Little Chef," he admits. "If I'd been there, it would have been sold in September. I would have put it up for sale and said I need someone who can invest more than I can.
"It could have been 10m, 5m 1m or 1, but I wouldn't have put it in administration."
Despite doctors orders, Wosskow is now back in business.
In August, he acquired the Rotherham-based Out of Town Restaurant Group (OTRG), the group he founded with Heath in 1998.
Wosskow, who began his career at Marks & Spencer, believes it's a canny piece of business as he effectively bought the same size of company he sold for 25m in 2002, for a fraction of that figure.
The original OTRG was established after Wosskow sold Freespirit, a retail business focusing on outdoor clothing, to The Outdoor Group.
During his tenure of Freespirit, and through his Bradwell's Ice Cream business, Wosskow had noticed a number of redundant retail units and kiosks at shopping centres, including the Trafford Centre, Bluewater and Meadowhall.
Wosskow took over the running of a small number of ice-cream kiosks at the Trafford Centre, and trading at the site "went barmy and they took double what I had thought they would".
But Wosskow knew he needed extra backing for further growth, so he went looking for it at Bluewater.
"The guys backing it (Bluewater) were Australian and they didn't understand the retail sector," he recalls. "I helped them learn the sector. I thought then that it was pay-back time.
"These guys said they had opportunities at Bluewater. They had 14 different units. I said we'd take the lot."
Wosskow introduced a range of brands, including Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, and acquired companies including Life & Sole Restaurants, former Newcastle United chairman Sir John Hall's Courtlands, and Food Court Management.
He also says a close relationship with former Meadowhall owner Eddie Healey helped push the business forward.
Wosskow says: "He (Healey) said, 'I'm selling Meadowhall and you're going to have all the catering'. I said, 'The catering's worth a fortune. How am I going to afford it?' But he just said, 'You're not going to give me any money'.
"All of a sudden, I've got 150 outlets, 3,000 staff and a 30m turnover."
Welcome Break made an approach for the business but the deal fell through. But the offer had made Wosskow hungry to sell. In 2002, OTRG was sold to Penta Group Venture Capital for 25m.
Wosskow is critical of how OTRG was run once he sold it. He says office costs went up by 1.5m and the new owners opened a number of loss-making units.
"Unfortunately, a business that was a great business was now not in a good condition."
As OTRG went into administration last April, Wosskow knew he had to act. He says his initial offer to turn round the ailing business was shunned but the administrators accepted a 4.4m offer after they had tidied it up.
"They closed down all the rubbish and got rid of all the excess and sold me the business I founded."
Following Wosskow's heart attack and his move to the US, the daily running of OTRG has been left to managing director James Burdall, although Wosskow speaks to him once
Although Wosskow is no longer in business with Heath, he bears no grudge, referring to him as a "good guy" and says that that their relationship is still strong.
A final wall decoration in the office also catches the eye. It is a press clipping, taken from the Yorkshire Post in 1993, about a younger-looking Wosskow and his Bradwell's business.
Wosskow, who also helped to develop The Pelican Group, which ran Cafe Rouge and other restaurants, says he has no plans to sell Bradwell's as it holds special memories as an early venture which grew from 90,000 turnover to 2m today.
He puts his success, which also includes running Loseley Ice Cream, down to hard work.
"I got 10 O-levels and two
A-levels; I'm not particularly bright. I went at everything the best I could, whether it was business, pleasure or sports.
"I've made some great contacts, like Eddie Healey, who gave me a break when I deserved a break.
"I went down to the Bluewater shopping centre every week for 100 weeks to help out some Australian people. They then gave me 14 units.
"The better off you are to people, the more it comes back for you.
"I still think as long as I'm healthy there's a lot more chapters to come out. I said I'd never go back to work then I bought Out of Town. But what
a serious heart attack does is make you review. I think between now and the next four years, before the kids go to university in the States, is my time for them.
"But I know I have the wherewithal and skills to go to the next level in business."