Ten years ago, Dubliner John Nugent, along with his business partner Peter Millican, led the way transforming King’s Cross but, he says, there is much work to do, writes Colin Gannon.
On a warm day, the first thing that you notice about the serene, canal-facing outdoor seating area of this restaurant are the well-kept shrubberies and pristine patches of grass which lie parallel to the streaming water.
Situated inside (and partially outside) of the scaling, multipurpose building known imperially as King’s Place — whose offices include the home of the Guardian newspaper among other large companies — is the Rotunda Restaurant, one of a number of businesses with bases here founded by Dubliner John Nugent and Peter Millican way back in 2008.
The small yet meticulously groomed green garden, Tugent tells me, is not the work of contracted landscapers but of a local charity initiative, one of many philanthropic badges that the business wears proudly.
“We could pay a gardener to come here and do this,” he says, “but we pay [a charity] instead. It funds them and adds to the sense of community.”
King’s Place, of which Nugent is the chief executive, encompasses a number of different strands: corporate catering, conference hosting and events, the restaurant, a cafe in the building.
Although the opulent, almost intimidating building suggests financial fertility, it hasn’t always been rosy. They haven’t always been in such a surefooted position that they can give back to the local community.
The business, after all, was opened just two weeks after the 2008 global financial crash. Managing to survive — or, more accurately, to flourish — a full decade later is a feat in itself. But that’s what Nugent, with the help of Peter Millican, has done.
“It was a baptism of fire, really,” Nugent says of the early days, where they encountered huge challenges, not least a global downturn. “When you’re putting the business plan together, you write it on a sunny day and it’s eternal optimism.”
Placing side-by-side images of King’s Cross then, and King’s Cross now, tells another story, one of regeneration. Back in 2008, King’s Cross was mostly barren industrial land, ugly and unbefitting of new businesses, rotting away on the outskirts of a surging metropolis.
Nugent and Millican, however, took a punt, setting up and basing their business operations here — a prescient early decision which has turned out to be a transformative one.
“I think we have been seen and recognised as the early adopters of King’s Cross and when this building opened here, it was the first new concert hall that had been built in London in over thirty years,” he says.
“All those kind of things make it a more interesting and more complicated project…We have gone full circle now in that we are now fully embedded in the area.”
King’s Place’s retail side — cafe, restaurant — compliments the events side, Nugent explains, the latter of which he has decades of experience in.
Last year, King’s Place — and Green and Fortune, the corporate hospitality side of the business — celebrated its tenth anniversary. The fact this was the year that the company decided to renovate, Nugent admits, was merely a coincidence.
“Ten years in, you need to freshen up. [The anniversary] was a good reason to do [the renovations]. In that time, competition has increased and there are brand new things happening around us,” he says. “But there were also things we wanted to amend, which you learn over time.”
A philanthropic spirit permeates much of King’s Place. Instead of writing big cheques, it prefers facilitating events.
In Nugent’s mind, lending a helping hand to the community at large is only natural, creating opportunities — big or small — where they otherwise may not exist. Social responsibility, he says, is an obligation.
“We feel — and I feel — completely embedded in the area. And what’s really interesting is that there is a real sense of community amongst the businesses and the charities in the area,” he explains.
“And it’s not box-ticking; it’s actually quite real. Having local engagement is important to us. We have an obligation to try and support people and initiatives, and that’s not always financial. It’s giving time, giving experience. We have a sense of place and I want to be a part of it.”
King’s Place regularly hosts charitable events and fundraisers, most recently a St. Patrick’s Day lunch which raised over £20,000 for two charities: The Clink, which deals with rehabilitating ex-offenders (the firm employed the first graduate of the scheme back in 2008) as well as the London Irish Centre.
But, most interestingly, the company is involved in many inner-city initiatives with local councils, helping provide a base for unemployment projects.
“Simple things like the Saturday job scheme: giving young people the opportunity to understand what work is,” he says. “That’s ongoing, which is nice, and you see these wonderful young people come in shy and, two months later, they’re very confident and have learned basic, work-ready skills.”
Nugent heads a charity called Global Generation, whose work — community gardens, outreach work, education — includes the bright greenery outside of the Rotunda Restaurant.
Seemingly omnipresent, he is also a director at King’s Cross Recruit, which, he says, in collaboration with both Camden and Islington councils, “gets local people into local jobs”.
The company even sources some of its staff from this scheme. (“What’s great about local people is that they’re nearby, they’re more engaged,” as he puts it.)
Furthermore, the business partnership in the King’s Cross area — which Nugent co-founded — does much work with schools in the area. It has a homework club, for example, where students, particularly during A-Levels, flood into the building’s vast spaces to avail of study time.
“On a Saturday morning, we give space to a company called Civitas Learning, who do extra lessons for primary school children. We have forty or fifty schoolchildren here every Saturday morning,” he adds. “All of those things combine to give us a bit of a social conscience.”
In addition, a well-respected concert hall, run by the charitable trust King’s Place Music Foundation, is located within King’s Place.
It runs outreach programmes with local schools and its income stem from the firm’s conference income and, of course, ticket sales. “We are absolute partners in it: there is no client-contractor relationship with it, it’s all for the greater good,” Nugent says.
When asked about whether charity work, in the long-run, can prove commercially beneficial, Nugent demurs. He says the company is simply striving to become better “corporate citizens” in their behaviour.
Though towering, the building is intended as a community hub of sorts. If you carry food or drink from an outside establishment in, nobody will question or side-eye you, Nugent promises.
“You know see the local school kids here, who probably don’t have big spaces at home, spread out and make a mess and study,” he says. “That’s okay, we like that. It’s not exclusive.”
He is upbeat about the future of the business, alluding to upscaling and potentially developing more large sites like that in King’s Cross. Even so, the drudgery of Brexit plays on his mind.
“It’s already had some effect [on the business],” he says. “A significant part of our business is business-to-business so, on our commercial conference business, we deal with all of the blue-chip firms. We’ve had a little bit of hesitation; people committing and not committing.”
Crippled by uncertainty, many firms across the UK and Ireland have shown little confidence in investment, in taking risks or leaps. However, Nugent says, there has been a gradual increase in activity in the past few months.
On a day-to-day level, the supplies of staff (over half of his staff are from Europe) and food worry him. The only solace, he says, is that this remains one element of business he truly has no control over. Still, he understands hurdles will emerge further down the road.
“We only sit on about two days of food supply in this country, which probably makes sense. If the ports get blocked up, then what happens?” he says, adding that all the “wonderful European and non-European people” may inevitably just jump ship and move to other European cities.
“London is great, but so is Madrid, so is Paris. It’s important that there’s a sense of security and a sense of welcome.”
Impressively, considering the fleeting nature of modern business, King’s Place has managed to remain rooted in King’s Cross. Another decade down the line, what does Nugent predict?
“We’ll still be here anyway, this is our spiritual home,” he laughs.
“Things will come and go, I’m sure, but this place is part of our DNA. A lot of that has come from being in the area since the beginning — as in the new renaissance of the area. Knowing that, you can make some sort of difference. In some shape or form, we’re going to stay on that path.”