It is 12 years since Atul Pathak became a McDonald’s franchisee and opened his first restaurant in Hanwell. Today, he heads up the Appt Corporation, owning and running a chain of 26 McDonald’s which stretch from Maidenhead and Bracknell, to Finchley and Richmond. Still ambitious, he dedicates a considerable amount of his time and money to community and charity ventures and says he has never forgotten his humble beginnings.
Now 54, Pathak was born in India, the son of a coalminer and a teacher. One of three brothers, his parents instilled the value of a good education and hard work in all their sons. He arrived in the UK after graduating from university in 1984. Working 13 hours a day in a cash-and-carry, he then moved onto a management career in the hotel industry, before going on to buy his own bed and breakfast. In 2003, he became a franchisee of McDonald’s and his success has brought him a raft of accolades, including GG2 Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2011, Asian Lite Business Awards 2012, British Airways Community Champion Awards 2012, Pride of Punjab Award 2013 and National Grid Responsible Business Champion 2015.
Who inspired your success?
My parents made considerable sacrifices to pay the fees for my older brother to go to university. When it was my turn, I felt I should make a contribution, so I started working in a restaurant to earn some money; but in India it wasn’t common for young people to work your way through your studies and I got quite a ribbing from my work colleagues. I studied economics, English and geography and after the first year, I was able to pay my own way, so my parents no longer had to continue to make those sacrifices for me. That made me feel liberated, independent and pretty convinced I thought I had what it would take to be a success.
Why did you come to England?
I had got married at 19 and was working in a five-star hotel in India, but my ambition was always to work for myself and become an entrepreneur. We came to the UK because I could see that there was a real opportunity for hard work to be properly rewarded and that I could start, build and grow a business. I didn’t know precisely what that would be, but I did know that I could do it. When we arrived we lived with an aunt for about two weeks, before being able to rent a room in Heston for £30 a week.
What was your first job?
My very first job here was at a cash-and-carry in Southall. I was not that well built and the owner laughed at me because he didn’t think I could hack the job of offloading all the deliveries – including an endless supply of sacks of potatoes. I offered to work free for a week and, within four days, he not only took me on but paid me from day one. I worked a 13-hour shift for £10 a day.
By complete chance – or maybe it was providence – a few years later, I bought the McDonald’s a couple of doors away from that same cash-and-carry and my first boss and I still get together for a coffee and a good chat.
You also worked in hotel management?
Yes, I took a job as an assistant manager at a four-star hotel in the Cromwell Road and it wasn’t long before I ended up as the operations director for a group of 12 hotels. That meant a seven-day week, which I had no problem with, but I still wasn’t my own boss.
What prompted you to start your own business?
One day I realised I had had enough of working for other people so we bought a small B&B in London. Those first two years were quite a challenge as my salary dropped and we had to cut down on luxuries; plus I went from having a very busy job working across a large number of hotels to a much simpler life of managing a small B&B. But at least I was my own boss.
How did the McDonald’s franchise come about?
It was obvious to me that McDonald’s was very different to lots of other big companies. Its employees were really motivated and the premises were always spotlessly clean. When I analysed its business model, I could see there were lots of benefits over and above what I was doing at that time. At McDonald’s, customers walk through the golden arches and pay you there and then; you don’t have to chase them for money. All you have to do is to make sure you look after them really well.
I applied to be a franchisee, McDonald’s gets thousands of applications every year and only one or two people get through. It is said you have a better chance of winning the X Factor than being chosen, but I was very fortunate to get through. I did nine months of training and in 2003 I opened my first restaurant in Hanwell and quickly after that a second one in Southall.
Did you think you would be so successful?
I knew that if I worked hard, there would be some sort of reward for all that effort, but looking back I honestly didn’t think we would be quite so successful. Obviously, the Gods – and my parents – must have been looking after me.
What important business lessons you have learned?
First and foremost you have to look after your customers. Last year my business served nearly 15 million customers so we are only ever as good as how well we treat our customers. Cutting corners doesn’t work and we never do that.
My business can only be as good as my employees. I always say McDonald’s isn’t a burger business, it’s actually a people business and with over 2,000 employees, they’re easily my biggest asset. I am really proud of all of them.
Name a career highlight
There are quite a few, but one in particular stands out and is really very special to me. At every restaurant there’s a thank you message from me to my staff for choosing to work with me, which also says they can contact me directly. One day, a member of staff came to tell me his father had recently died. He was pretty distraught, he obviously felt that his world had been turned upside down and he was worried about who he would turn to for fatherly advice. We both cried at his loss. After a while of consoling him, he turned to me and said he now saw me as his father. I felt really touched and honoured to have made a positive difference to someone’s life in his hour of need.
Who are your heroes?
I have two, both of whom have conflicting ideologies but have been with me since I was young. Bhagat Singh was a young freedom fighter who was hanged for violence against the Raj. I admire him not just for his fight to win freedom for India but for his real passion. Gandhi on the other hand, took a non-violent approach. As I got older, I started to see the value in his long-term vision, especially in today’s world where strife is all around us. If only the world adhered to his teachings, it would be a far better place.
You have a reputation as a philanthropist, tell me more
All businesses have a responsibility to give something back to their local community. I’ve established the Atul Pathak Community Awards, which offer a financial contribution and a year-long partnership to six or seven local charities every year and we have quite a few initiatives in the communities around our restaurants. We also sponsor several local football teams and work with lots of young people in schools through the London Education Business Partnership. We also do quite a lot to support our local environment by organising community clean-ups and litter picking.
What do you do on your time off
I love cricket and we have a wide circle of friends, but the three things that are most important to me are my family, my employees and what we all do together to improve the communities in which we work.
Have your son and daughter followed you into business?
My son is a graduate from the London School of Economics and worked for a big corporate before opening his own business. My daughter went to Oxford University, then to Imperial College and is now a doctor. I am really proud of both of them.
What has life taught you?
It’s important never to forget where you came from. I had very, very humble beginnings and I’ve never forgotten that. Humility is very important to me as a core value. And if I can make a small difference, whether to one of my employees or to someone in our local communities, that’s what gives me the greatest satisfaction.
What do you order from McDonald’s?
I like to try different things, but the first thing I always order is a cappuccino because we have great coffee. A Big Mac is a real favourite and the fries are the best in the world.
And finally, what are your future ambitions?
I definitely don’t intend to rest on my laurels as I can see that the more successful we are in business, the more we can give back by helping our local communities. I once read that “the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving more”. I like that sentiment.