If a philistine like me attempted to book a last-minute table at say, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, I imagine the reservationist might chortle down the phone at my hopeless endeavour:
“The restaurant is full, and will be forever, imbecilé.”
However, were I Alex Cheatle, chief executive at Ten Group – or one of his 700 strong team – it wouldn’t be an issue. “Mais bien sur, Monsieur...”
Ten Group provides a concierge service to 60m high net worth individuals through its subscription programme and corporate client partnerships.
Financial institutions such as Coutts or Investec, as well as myriad card providers and luxury brands, offer Ten’s service to their clients, who in turn become Ten members.
The firm’s lifestyle managers can get you a reservation anywhere in the world, or book tickets for sold out shows. They can organise skiing in Sweden or a maid in Munich; a helicopter to work or a celebrity serenade.
In short, if you’ve got the money, Ten Group can sort anything you desire that you couldn’t yourself – within reason, naturally.
“Back in the day people would say: ‘get me a table at the Ivy’. We’d phone up, and the Ivy would say they were busy. Now we know who to call – whether it’s the head reservationist or the restaurant manager – they know us, they know what our members are like. So when a member of the public phones a top restaurant, they’re busy. When we call them, they’re never busy.”
“Back in the day” was in 1998, when Cheatle and his co-founder, Andrew Long, now chief executive of Ten in Asia, founded the firm. Born in a spare room in Marylebone out of antipathy to the dotcom boom, rather than using technology to “sell, sell, sell”, Cheatle swam against the tide, instead deciding to use tech to better serve people, and improve their lives.
Its subscription model – not taking a cut on anything it organises – is key to Ten’s success, says Cheatle.
“We don’t want to make money off our suppliers. Because the moment you make money off your suppliers, that’s who you’re working for. Look at Facebook with advertising. They don’t care about accurate news, they want clickbait. And we don’t want to be on anybody’s side apart from our members. So we have to have a subscription revenue stream.”
It seems to have paid off. Where other firms of the dotcom era – some $1.755 trillion worth – collapsed into oblivion, Ten Group, which stayed in private hands, is going from strength to strength, growing at around 40 per cent per year.
We don’t want to make money off our suppliers. Because the moment you make money off your suppliers, that’s who you’re working for.
Some of the growth comes from the burgeoning global middle class – the mass affluent, who grow ever more wealthy as the opening of capital markets lifts billions out of poverty. But much has been a matter of time, the result simply of Ten getting better at plying its trade.
Time is money
“Why were mobile phones only used by a tiny proportion of people in 1990, but by 2000 they were used by everybody?” asks Cheatle. “It’s because they were lighter, you got better coverage, they got more cost-effective. Basically, the service got better.
“It’s a bit like that with our concierge service. People say: ‘why do I need a concierge service?’ And 15 years ago when we didn’t know what we were doing, that was a fair question. We’d save them a bit of time but we wouldn’t add much value. Today, it’s because you will have a better holiday. You will be able to eat in the places you want to eat in. You will be able to get face-value tickets for the event you want to see. And so it ends up being a bit like: ‘I’m crazy not to use this.”
The lengths the firm will go to provide an exceptional service border on obsequious. With offices on every continent and resident staff fluent in innumerable tongues, members can experience a foreign city with local knowledge at their disposable.
“Our members love the fact that we’ve got people all over the world,” says Cheatle. “So when one of our member goes to Tokyo, restaurants will be booked by a local Japanese lifestyle managers who speak fluent English. That’s super important – the top restaurants in Tokyo do not take bookings from Europeans, because some of them show up late. And in Japan that is completely unacceptable. We’ve had a situation where we had a last-minute cancellation, so we sent our staff along to eat in that restaurant rather than leave an empty table.”
The £40m question
After close to two decades of refining its service, Ten Group will float on the junior market this Wednesday.
“We didn’t want to sell the business to do a trade sale, because we are loving the journey we are on,” says Cheatle. “And we didn’t want to sell to private equity because they tend to want to hold you for three years and sell you on. We don’t have a three-year vision for our business, we have a 10-year vision for our business, and we want to execute that.”
Cheatle wants to ensure that, as the firm grows, so the level of service grows with it. Part of that includes investing heavily in technology.
Alongside the lifestyle managers, Ten’s offering is tech-focused. Over the last couple of years, the firm has invested some £20m into perfecting its platform, which members can use to book Ten’s services.
Quite clearly, with 60m members, the infrastructure required trumps that even of some online banks. And like any modern business, data is at the heart of what Ten does. Although there’s a difference with how they handle it, Cheatle insists.
“Most companies want to capture your data and exploit it so they make more money. We offer our members the chance to tell us more about themselves so we can serve them better. The only reason we want to know what food you like, what bands you like, how you like to travel, is so we can deliver a better service to you. It’s a value exchange.”
Born in an era of shaky public listings, Ten has been patient to master its trade. Pre-listing has garnered significant interest, Cheatle says. Many of Ten’s members want to own a chunk of a company whose services they use.
We don’t have a three-year vision for our business, we have a 10-year vision for our business, and we want to execute that.
Patience is a virtue, it would seem.
“I think we spent a long time learning our trade before we rolled out,” he says. “We wanted to roll out a success model. I remember years ago with Pret a Manger, they only had a handful of sandwich shops for years while they figured out how to get good at sandwiches – and then bang! And we’re at that ‘bang!’ stage of our growth today.
“I think in 10 years time we will be where mobile phones were by 2000. We will have won the argument about whether successful people who live their lives in a smart way use a concierge service.
“And the answer will be yes – they use a Ten concierge service.”
Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.