For a man who doesn’t think of himself as a restaurateur, Niall Howard still seems to have made a rather successful stab at the business, including four years at the helm of Hakkasan, the Michelin-starred chain of Cantonese restaurants.
Two years on from leaving the group, he is now getting his teeth into his latest venture – a chain of gourmet “build it yourself” pizza shops that was cooked up in California.
“Before Hakkasan I was not in this industry at all – I had four wonderful years there but the travelling was taking its toll,” Howard says en route to Dundee, where Project Pie opened its first outlet in the UK on Valentine’s Day.
“After I left I looked at a number of ideas and was working on an idea to bring wealthy tourist to Edinburgh for gourmet tours. I did a pilot with Japan’s top chef, Yoshihiro Murata, and he loved it. Through that I started a chauffeur company called Edinburgh Executive Carriages to do the tours.”
But a year ago, Glasgow-born Howard was contacted by entrepreneurs John and Susan Canavan, who had lived in California for the past 30 years and had an interesting business venture to run by him. Howard explains: “I’d met Susan through my Hakkasan days and they’re great friends with the chairman of Project Pie, John Barr. They decided to retire from the real estate business they were in and come back to London.”
Barr suggested the Canavans should also bring the Project Pie franchise with them, so they got in touch with Howard to gauge his thoughts.
“I went to meet them a year ago in San Diego, saw the store and thought this would do really well in the UK. So they asked me to consult on the project and look at bringing it to the UK. It escalated from there and I realised I wanted to be part of this so we became equal partners in the franchise.”
As chief executive of the UK and Ireland for Project Pie, Howard was keen to make sure its first outlet was in his native Scotland, even though the Canavans had planned for the business to initially target London.
“I didn’t want to be spending my time flying up and down to London so we agreed to look at Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee,” he says, explaining that a familiarity with the latter city helped him decide to launch the business there. “I did my honours degree in business studies at what is now Abertay University, so I know the city well. There’s a lot of regeneration going on down at the waterfront and there’s a massive student population in the middle of the city. So we thought Dundee was the best bet – time will tell but we’re quite confident.”
The trio have big plans for Project Pie, which has Stateside locations in Las Vegas and San Diego, allowing customers to choose their base and toppings before their custom-built pizza is served up. They have set themselves a target of having 60 stores across the UK and Ireland within five or six years, and Barnton resident Howard is keen for the next site to be in his adopted home city.
“I’m hoping the next one will be in Edinburgh and I’m on the look-out at the very moment for a suitable location for the second store.”
His journey to the food industry has not been a conventional one, having started his career in the oil industry working for Conoco and then Amerada Hess. He then spent ten years with Royal Bank of Scotland.
“My twin sons were born in London and at a very young age developed asthma and eczema,” Howard says.
“A doctor told us that was because of the air quality in Kensington where we were staying. I just happened to see an advert for a job at RBS that said ‘must have banking experience’. I didn’t, but I applied for it, got offered the role and we moved to Edinburgh. They sent me for two years to Citizens in Rhode Island, where my third son was born. When I came back, for a while I was a direct report to Fred Goodwin as director of internal audit and fraud, which is not the sort of job I ever thought I’d end up in.”
Howard was head-hunted by William Grant & Sons to become the distiller’s finance chief, before moving to Standard Life Investments and then Clydesdale-owner National Australia Group. In 2009 he became chief executive of Hakkasan – a role that saw him fly 700,000 miles in four years opening 15 sites around the world, including an 80,000 sq ft restaurant and nightclub complex at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where fellow Scot Calvin Harris is a resident DJ.
“I had a great time and in my final year a magazine listed me among the top ten most influential restaurateurs in the UK, which was quite funny because I’ve never seen myself as one. Because I was from a different background, I always thought of myself as an intruder.”
But Howard, who prides himself as being the Scot who took a Chinese restaurant to Shanghai, laughs as he recounts one memorable occasion at Hakkasan when he was able to prove his industry credentials.
“I got fed up with the head office staff telling me I wasn’t from the industry, so one day in a meeting I asked how many of them had any official hospitality certificates. Not one of them had, but I was able to produce one that I got from a summer working at the Hotel Bellevue in Baden-Baden, Germany, saying I qualified as a demi-chef de rang.”
Job: Chief executive, Project Pie UK and Ireland
Born: Glasgow, 1955
Education: Dundee College of Technology, business studies
Ambition while at school: “To be a reporter – my father edited the Scottish Daily Express and the summer I left school I worked at the Huntly Express.”
Car: Kia Sportage
Music: “I like everything but Pink Floyd is my all-time favourite.”
Can’t live without: “My iPad – I’d be useless without it.”
Favourite place: “San Francisco to visit, but Edinburgh to live in – it has everything.”
What makes you angry? “The modern practice of legal mugging through police cameras, traffic wardens and parking tickets.”
What inspires you? “Good leadership.”