It's a long way from working as a cement mixer in Manhattan to building a hospitality business running over 20 restaurants, pubs and bars in London, Leeds and Bristol. Kerstin Kühn meets the man behind the Inc Group, US entrepreneur Frank Dowling.
Situated on the River Thames in south-east London, Greenwich is a peaceful part of the capital - a World Heritage site steeped in maritime history. Most famous for its historic landmarks, such as the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, and home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Meridian Line, it is one of London's most popular tourist attractions.
The borough is also well known for its many historical pubs, among them the Trafalgar Tavern, Admiral Hardy, Spread Eagle and Coach and Horses. But what most people don't know is that all of these pubs are run by one operator, a hospitality company that has, over the past seven years, quietly taken over Greenwich.
The Inc Group, formerly known as Greenwich Inc, started out small, with a seven-seat wine bar in the heart of Greenwich known as Bar du Musée. It slowly expanded its portfolio across the borough and beyond and now operates 23 restaurants, pubs and bars across London - including at the O2 Arena - Leeds and Bristol, with an annual turnover of £20m. At its helm is US entrepreneur Frank Dowling.
Caterer met Dowling at the Inc Group's latest outlet, Union Square at the O2 Arena. Previously Raan, which was owned by Roast owner Iqbal Wahhab's Glorious Group and taken over by the Inc Group following that company's collapse in 2007, it relaunched this summer after a four-month refurbishment.
Set over two floors and divided into a downstairs bar and upstairs restaurant, Union Square pays homage to the American West. Interiors feature wooden floors and antique leather armchairs, next to a large collection of Western paintings, a series of native American bronze sculptures and a collection of early 20th century taxidermy. While the interiors might not be to everyone's taste, Dowling sees the 500-seat Union Square as the jewel in his five-strong restaurant collection at the O2.
"I'm really proud of this," he beams. "It's the perfect place for this venue."
Born in Virginia, Dowling moved to New York City aged five and grew up on the quietly residential Staten Island. He moved to Manhattan aged 17 and lived the American dream - working his way up from a cement mixer to a high-flyer in the construction business - and made the move across the pond in 1997 aged 28 to work on a property development project in Canary Wharf. But how did a construction mogul from the Big Apple end up as one of the biggest hospitality operators in London?
"Before the DLR was in operation I used to walk through a tunnel to get to Canary Wharf and I met this old man who had an antique store in Greenwich," Dowling recalls. "I love antiques, so started hanging out in his shop and also at his wine bar, which was really old and run down."
The rest is, as they say, history, and after acquiring the dilapidated Bar du Musée along with the proprietor's Grade II-listed 50-room home - where he now lives with his three dogs - "for next to nothing", Dowling entered the world of hospitality.
Over the following years he added sites such as the Trafalgar Tavern and Admiral Hardy (both in 2002) as well as the Greenwich Park Bar & Grill (2005) and the Coach and Horses (2006) to his portfolio, gradually evolving his business into one of the largest hospitality groups in south London.
In 2007, Greenwich Inc made arguably its biggest move, into the former Millennium Dome which was being relaunched as the O2 Arena. The company changed its name to Inc Group "to reflect our move beyond Greenwich" and took on three outlets within the AEG-owned site.
"We were the first operator in the O2. I signed up without even looking at the sites - it made complete sense to me," Dowling says. The group now runs five outlets and the 108 events space at the O2 and is the biggest hospitality operator at the venue.
It's no surprise the O2 was an appealing site for Dowling, who's an avid rock 'n' roll fan. The Loft above his American Bar & Grill regularly hosts concert after-parties and he often invites friends to watch the shows in his VIP box.
Dowling is a straight-talking New Yorker with a serious no-nonsense attitude. But he isn't a man in search of the limelight. He's not interested in awards or front covers, neither are his business decisions influenced by what's currently hot. He is, in the best old-fashioned way, influenced by his customers and says the only way to success is to know your market, in his case, the mid-market.
"I'm not trying to be like Caprice Holdings - what they do is a whole different ballgame. They're selling a lifestyle and there'll always be obnoxious money going around in the West End," he says.
"I know my market. It's all about simplicity - offering something that's simple but good. My chef here at Union Square comes from a Michelin-starred background but he's using his fine-dining experience, not to create something overly fancy, but instead is applying it to create a simple, well-executed menu."
Outside Greenwich and the O2, the Inc Group runs five Elbow Room venues in Westbourne Grove, Islington and Shoreditch in London, as well as Bristol and Leeds. It bought the Elbow Room pool lounge and bar chain for an undisclosed fee last winter and Dowling says the acquisition presented an a great opportunity.
"The Elbow Room was a great brand but it was run down and needed to be done up again," he says. "It was an amazing opportunity for me to get sites across London, in Leeds and Bristol. You can't just decide you want to open a site in another city - this way I got it handed to me."
Earlier this year, the Inc Group launched cocktail bar the Attic at the Pan Peninsula building in London's Docklands. Set on the 48th floor of the 780-key apartment building, which also includes a cinema and a health club, the Attic is a 100-seat bar offering 360-degree views over the capital and neighbouring Canary Wharf. In December, the company will also launch a 300-seat restaurant, including a bar and outside terrace, at the building, bringing the Inc Group's portfolio to 24 sites.
"The expansion was never premeditated - you can't plan what we achieved," Dowling says. "Business is all about relationships and that's how I've grown my business. Most of our sites in Greenwich we took over from landlords who didn't want them any more because they were run down and in need of upgrading. My background is in property so I know how to turn around the fortunes of sites like that."
He makes it clear that he is very much wedded to his work. "Throughout my career I have always been the first to get into the office in the morning and the last to leave in the evening. It's the secret to success."
But Dowling insists that the success of the Inc Group isn't all his doing. "This business isn't about me. It's about the people who run it. The chefs in the kitchen are way more important than me," he says.
He concludes that running a business is all about finding the right people. "You don't dream about becoming a bar or restaurant manager, it's an industry you fall into. As an operator your role is to find born leaders," he says. "I keep my managers in my pockets. Out of the 400 people I employ I know at least 300 by name. And the rest I probably just haven't met yet."
INC GROUP'S OUTLETS