Adam Street: James Minter
James Minter turned an unused London building into an entrepreneurs club with a difference. He tells us how
Think of members clubs for business people and mental images of cigar-chomping men, pinstripes bulging from vast quantities of cucumber sandwiches and Earl Grey, sitting in vast, oak-panelled tea rooms usually spring to mind.
James Minter, owner of Adam Street, a club for entrepreneurs, appears to understand this perception. That’s why he’s gone about creating something a little different for his members compared with, for example, the Institute of Directors.
“The IoD is quite stuffy and you’ve got to wear a suit and tie there,” says Minter, who is sitting in his contemporarily designed bar situated beneath the London streets. “Also their membership has grown hugely, which is great for them, but they are catering for a certain audience, and no-one (at the time Adam Street Club started) was properly looking after entrepreneurs.”
Minter joined the Navy when he was 18, leaving to go to Durham University, only to return to the seas before realising that he wanted a change in career. He saw potential in the offices and sprawling underground vaults owned by his family in Adam Street, situated off the Strand in London.
“My father had these four buildings which he wasn’t doing much with,” he explains. “It was 1999 and the start of the dot com boom meant that serviced offices were much sought after.
“So we set up serviced offices upstairs and then thought about what to do downstairs. I didn’t want a nightclub, because you only really make money on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, between 11 and 2. I wanted to know how much money I could make from the whole building throughout the day.”
Minter felt that London needed a place for entrepreneurs to meet to both work and play. The club certainly reflects that – the serviced offices and meeting rooms are contrasted by the bar, restaurant, library and dance floor.
The club has hosted comedy and live music nights and appears, judging by the occupants of the bar’s sagging leather chairs, to be popular among tieless young business brains keen on casual networking.
“There were all these entrepreneurs and venture capitalists having all these exciting, buzzy meetings all over London and I thought ‘Why isn’t there one club for entrepreneurs here?’ It was perfect to do it here (at Adam Street), because we had offices upstairs that were full of entrepreneurs and we are right in the centre of London,” says Minter.
“Entrepreneurs are not lonely people, but they are often isolated. They need another entrepreneur to know what they are talking about. So the idea was to provide a support structure that allowed them to do all of that.”
The club hold regular events for its members, with figures as diverse as Jacqueline Gold and Matthew Pinsent holding seminars on their differing successes. Minter has clearly won an enviable reputation for Adam Street in its first five years of operation.
“It’s all about giving support services for entrepreneurs and freelancers,” he insists. “One of these education and it’s always very interesting to listen to people and see how they’ve done it. We specialise in two types of people – entrepreneurs and people who you can categorise as achievers.
“We also do comedy nights and music, so the club adds value not just on a work level, but a social level.”
Completely gutting and fitting the entire premises was a huge undertaking for Minter, who managed the whole process himself despite having no experience in setting up or running a business. Luckily, with the asset of the properties, he was able to borrow heavily from the banks. The re-invention of Adam Street cost £750,000.
“The whole refurbishment was incredibly complicated as I’d never done anything like that before,” Minter admits. “You’ve got to get your brain around an enormously diverse range of things, such as licensing law, planning and where to put the toilets.
“Although you would think your restaurant, bar and kitchen work together well, you need totally different things for each space and the people involved don’t talk or understand each other at all.
“I had to manage all the builders myself, as I was project managing the whole thing. In hindsight, it was a bit of a mistake doing it all myself, as I was in from 8am to 8pm every day.”
Other problems arose once the club was open. Minter was faced with the dilemma of wanting to attract people to the club, but at the same time having a membership system that remained exclusive.
“The only bit we could sell is the restaurant,” he explains. “As the rest is a private members club, you can’t PR something that’s closed to the public.
“Private members clubs are very tricky to promote, but by pushing the restaurant, that meant people started learning about the club and its membership. We also did a big word of mouth campaign through entrepreneur networks.”
Minter also found it initially hard to retain staff who became disillusioned by quiet periods during the week that hit their service charge-supplemented pay. But with the right team in place, member prices that mirror other London clubs such as Groucho and Century and a growing reputation among the business community, Adam Street has seen its membership swell to 1500.
Minter feels that running a stand-alone restaurant, compared with his variety of offerings, is incredibly challenging and estimates that three quarters of new eateries fail within the first two years.
“You’ve got such huge overheads,” he says. “If you compare it with a bar, in a bar you’ve got a whole lot of stock that can sit on the shelves and will eventually get drunk. You’ve got some bar staff which you can hire and fire depending on how busy you are. “In a restaurant, you have to buy new stock every day, you don’t know how many people will show up and you need different kinds of staff to make it work.
“It’s much sought after – you’ve got a load of chefs who think they can do it and people with a stack of cash to pile into a restaurant – it’s a skewed market.
“You’ve got to get the right property, the right rent, the right chef and get the right crowd in – and even then your margins aren’t huge.
“If you look at the Woolsey (a London restaurant), they made a £200,000 profit on a turnover of £7.7 million. It’s only their second year of trading, so there will be a lot of set-up costs. They’ve done phenomenally well, but look at the profit. It’s hard market.
“I think there are certain sectors which work well, such as gastro pubs. They don’t cost very much to do up and if you are the only gastro pub in your area, you will clean up.”
Although Minter bemoans the vast array of taxes and employment regulations, which he feels make it hard to sack under-performing staff who have served over a year, he insists the UK, and London in particular, is an excellent place to do business.
So what would be his advice to a budding entrepreneur?
“It’s all about information,” he says. “You’ve got to know what you’re doing and what everyone else is doing. You’ve got to understand your market, people who can connect you to things and how to promote the business.
“The imagination side of it is a very small part of being an entrepreneur, it’s all about making it happen with the practicalities.
“But that initial idea has to be right, so that you can just forget about it and get on with making it work”