Meet the client – Laurence Isaacson CBE FRSA
Laurence Isaacson is a renowned restauranteur, entrepreneur and philanthropist and was awarded a CBE for services to the restaurant industry and tourism in 1998. He first met Greystone director, Simon Lomas, 24 years ago, when he chose to use a Manchester-based financial services company, rather than one in London where he was living at the time.
When you meet Laurence, he is extremely self-effacing about the many prestigious faces he has met along the way. His first was at Quarry Bank Grammar School, where his fellow classmate was George Harrison, and then Mick Jagger during their time studying at the London School of Economics (LSE).
After graduating, Laurence began work at Unilever specialising in marketing and advertising before going on to open his own advertising agency, The Creative Business, with David Bernstein in 1972.
“David was creative and I was business so it worked well.” he explains.
Their clients included giants such as Nestle, Gillette, General Foods and Shell as well as Unilever. They finally sold the agency in 1983 to Publicis.
Laurence’s involvement in the restaurant business came about purely by accident.
“While at the agency, I was closely involved with client, Neville Abraham, helping him to promote his mail order wine business, Les Amis du Vin.
However, we decided that together we could make more money by opening a restaurant and serving wine, rather than selling it direct. This of course was the arrogance of ignorance and we learnt many lessons along the way, but we’d definitely spotted a gap in the market – there were very few good value French restaurants in London!
We began in 1983 with Cafe des Amis du Vin in Covent Garden, before the area gained the popularity it enjoys today. Our aim was to create a group of high quality and good value restaurants by combining our passion for food and wine with the desire to use best management practice. As the number of restaurants grew, we knew how important it was to market individual restaurants to create a brand identities.”
Laurence also co-founded Home House with Brian Clivaz in 1990, a glamourous private members’ club. In the same year he became a director of the London Tourist Board, a position he held for the following 12 years.
“It was a great time to be in the industry. There was a revolution in food in Great Britain and the Board was promoting London as the gastronomic centre of the world. There happened to be quite a few restaurants near theatres and so they helped combine the food industry with the theatre and special packages were introduced – a real boost to the market.
Neville and I went on to build up a collection of restaurants in the West End known as the Group Chez Gérard and by the time we sold the business in 2003, we were employing around 1,000 people.”
Having built up several successful businesses, Laurence understood the importance of managing his financial assets. He first met Simon through friends from Manchester in 1992.
“Simon struck me as bright and I thought I would give him some money to invest – better I thought to be a bigger fish in Manchester, rather than a small investor in a large London firm.
I’ve continued to build up my portfolio over the years working with other firms in London, but most of my investments are with Simon. We have regular reviews and I appreciate not having to deal with the detail; I much prefer to look at the bigger picture.
Greystone takes the financial weight off my back which allows me to immerse myself in my ventures and enjoy life.”
Laurence has been very interesting to work with over the years”, says Simon “but he has also been a wonderful mentor to me. He suggested that we open our London office in Jermyn Street and has also recommended Greystone to many of his friends and business associates over the years.
Equally well-known for his considerable voluntary work, Laurence’s generosity as a lifelong supporter of the arts and his various charities is well documented and it’s been a pleasure for Greystone to be able to support a number of these.
Laurence’s passion for the theatre was evident when in 1989 he founded the Covent Garden Festival of Opera and Music theatre. With the help of his Royal Patron, Princess Diana, Laurence raised over £7 million pounds to stage an annual festival for the next 12 years.
While serving as a Governor of the RSC for 10 years, Laurence was part of the team that helped raise funds to build the new theatre in Stratford upon Avon, and is currently serving on the board of RSC America. For six years he was also Chairman of the Actors Circle which raised funds to train and develop young RSC actors.
“As well as my entrepreneurial commercial businesses, my philanthropic work is really important to me, primarily in the areas of theatre and health.
I was delighted to be on the board of the Ambassador Theatre Group, the largest company in the UK which commissions plays, creates the productions and presents them in their theatres. It encourages young people to get involved in live theatre and subsidies plays.
I’m also Chairman of World Cancer Research Fund where I’ve been on the board for the last ten years helping to raise money for the charity and promoting primary health life, so the prevention of cancer rather than the treatment of it. After recently having had a kidney transplant, I was made aware of the plight of those seeking a kidney and so I am also an ambassador of Kidney Research UK.”
Laurence’s latest commercial venture sees him teamed up once again with business partner Brian Clivaz. He is co-owner and Chairman of the French restaurant L’Escargot in Soho, which they bought from Marco Pierre White in 2014. They have invested £2 million on the renovation of this legendary venue, which first opened its doors in 1927.
“We have brought L’Escargot back to the basics of excellent French brasserie food at reasonable prices, along with good service in the heart of creative London and it’s doing very well”, says Laurence.
“The interior is very important and we used a designer who could interpret our ideas creating a home that’s very new, but feels old. We offer everything from theatre first night events to private dining in our beautiful, elegant rooms and introduced ‘Upstairs’, a private members’ club.
It gives me great delight to know that such an iconic restaurant is still thriving in the heart of Soho. It’s seen some amazing clientele from Coco Chanel to Princess Diana, as well as much loved actors such as Sir Ian Mckellen and Annie Reid. One develops friendships and gets to know a lot of interesting people. You have to be very discreet, after all our guests just want a normal life.”
So what are his plans for the future?
“I take each day at a time, but delight in the fact that my life has come full circle. In 2014, I was appointed to the council of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). I’d auditioned for a place at RADA in the 70s, but couldn’t afford to take it up as I had already received a scholarship for LSE. It gives me such pleasure that I am able to give back to those who, like me, have ambition to progress their career in the theatre.
So essentially, to sum up, the more successful Simon is at helping me to increase my portfolio, the more I can support my charities; he’s done a pretty good job so far!”
And Laurence’s favourite restaurant? “My local Greek one just around the corner.”