Talking Money: Sarah Willingham

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CMC Invest

08 March 2024

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Sarah Willingham is a serial entrepreneur and investor, who led the international expansion of Pizza Express and Planet Hollywood in her 20s, before buying Bombay Bicycle Club and turning it into the UK’s largest chain of Indian restaurants. She was an investor on Dragons Den - sitting alongside Peter Jones and Deborah Meaden - and recently co-founded Aim-listed hospitality group, Nightcap. Here, she explains her attitude to money and why she believes the hospitality sector offers good growth opportunities.

How would you describe your relationship with money? Would you say you're a spender, saver or both?

I'm not a saver but I am an investor. And yes, I'm definitely a spender. I think I have a really healthy relationship with money. Whether it comes to saving, investing or borrowing, it's not something that I'm scared of. I've always seen the importance of money in terms of growth and progress – but also how damaging it can be when it's scarce.

How important is investing to growing your wealth?

People always look at entrepreneurs and think we're really big risk takers. Actually, we're not. Everything is very calculated and I certainly always look at my downside protection. Part of my considerations will be financial, but I also consider the impact on my time and family. ‘What is the worst thing that can happen here and can I handle it?’ If the answer is I can’t handle it, I walk away. If it’s yes, then I’ll go for it.

What’s your biggest money mistake?

That’s a tricky one. I tend to look back and see everything as a learning experience. Of course, I’ve invested in businesses that haven't been successful. But, do I classify them as a mistake? Probably not. It’s what you expect when you have a portfolio of investments – you're not going to get everything right.

Do you invest through an ISA, pension or both?

Yes, both. I pay the maximum that I can into a pension because of the tax relief, and into ISAs because of the tax-free element.

My husband and I manage our pension investments and oversee them, but also work with someone else to implement them. Our pensions and ISAs tend to be invested in lower-risk funds. Because these are our personal savings, we’re more focused on protecting our money rather than wanting it to grow significantly or taking a risk on it.

I also invest in businesses through EIS and SEIS because they have amazing tax benefits. These are higher-risk schemes, though, and are for my business portfolio.

Do you believe hospitality is a sector with long-term growth potential?

Absolutely. The Covid-19 pandemic proved to the world what people in hospitality have been saying for decades – we really can't survive without it. We need social interaction. It is a huge part of our DNA to be social and enjoy hospitality venues.

At Nightcap, we focus on giving people a great night out. We’ve just acquired a new business called The Piano Works in central London, where you can enjoy live music while you eat or drink. I think time has proven there's always growth in hospitality.

What’s the best money advice you’ve received?

My mum always used to say to me, ‘look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves’. I think that's very true, both in your personal life and also in business. If you’ve got your eye on the detail, the rest will fall into place.

It’s really important for me to bring my four children up with a healthy and respectful relationship with money. I started working at the age of 11. I didn’t get any pocket money, so I had to work for it. I've got two kids that are old enough to have a job and they both work in hospitality as waiters.

We took our children travelling for three years, starting when they were aged between 5 and 10 in 2016. We had a fantastic time and we also used the trip as a way to teach them about the value of money. We had a daily spending budget and our children learned to stick to it. This meant that if they chose cheaper accommodation, we’d have more money to spend on food and experiences.

It’s really important to me that the kids understand money and have a healthy relationship with it. Money shouldn't be frightening, but you have to understand it.

Find out more about Sarah Willingham and read more about Nightcap PLC here.