At a time when the hospitality industry was licking its wounds during the height of the global pandemic in 2021, Ross Ledingham was mapping out a strategy that led him to create six hugely popular venues in Brisbane in just two years.
Ledingham, who as founder and head of Potentia Solutions Leisure was named winner of the 2023 Brisbane Young Entrepreneur Award - Hospitality & Tourism, doesn’t consider his plans at the time to have been courageous.
Just two years earlier, the UK-born Ledingham relocated to Brisbane with his Australian wife Christine after spending 20 years creating hospitality venues for major hotels in London and the Middle East.
Although COVID temporarily held the entrepreneur back for a year or so, Ledingham considered Brisbane’s hospitality scene as ripe with opportunity, even as others remained on the sidelines.
“I’d call it an opportunistic move rather than brave because markets that are in a rough patch generally provide more space to move,” Ledingham tells Business News Australia.
“In the Middle East during the GFC we had a bit of a bump and that’s when we made the right move there.
“Brisbane was the right place and the right time to go aggressively when everyone else was wondering whether they should or they shouldn’t.”
From an outsider’s view, there is no denying the foresight of the hospitality entrepreneur who, along with Christine, has established six high-profile venues since 2021.
The journey started with Argentinian barbecue venue Evita in The Valley, and was followed by Lina Rooftop, Soko Rooftop, Carmen Tequileria, Mina Italian and Claw BBQ, with a new yet unnamed venue also set to open next year at Brisbane’s $3.6 billion Queen’s Wharf Development.
Potentia Solutions Leisure has since sold Evita and Mina following a strategic corporate decision, but Ledingham says the Evita concept remains on his wish-list of future openings for the group.
Today, Potentia Solutions Leisure hosts an average of more than 17,000 people a week across its Brisbane venues, supporting 47 full-time employees and more than 600 casuals and contractors.
It’s been a massive two years of growth for the hospitality entrepreneur who started in London working with Michelin Star chefs and the likes of Alain Ducasse before seizing on an opportunity in Qatar.
It was there that he co-founded his own consultancy to develop brands for hotel chains such as Marriott and Starwood, and bring international brands into the Middle East before creating his own brands and venues.
“The concepts I have in Brisbane today are iterations of these brands and venues,” Ledingham says.
“I love hospitality; I live and breathe it. I’m still in my venues cooking, which is where I started in hospitality, or putting together a new menu with my chefs while working on sustainability and zero waste.”
But for Ledingham, the success of Potentia rests with its all-embracing approach to hospitality that goes beyond the food and drink offering.
“People are not only looking for great food or great prices; there has to be a lifestyle element to everything we do. The venues that are successful look at every single bit of the guest experience.
“At Lina, for example, we have ‘no touch’ door handles and for some people these are things that they remember. At Soko, lemongrass scent wafts through the ventilation system. These types of sensory experiences take you above the mainstream experience and make a real difference.”
When conceptualising a new venue, Ledingham begins with the location before delving into the opportunities it offers.
“At Lina, for example, we envisaged a beach club concept, so I worked in collaboration with the developer to put a pool on the roof making it the first office tower in the southern hemisphere to have one.”
The developer agreed, conditional on the pool being available between 6am and 11am Monday to Friday for the building’s office tenants.
Soko Rooftop, with its Amazonian influence, delivers a decadent rooftop restaurant experience that provides a sophisticated, exotic dining event through an elevated style.
Mina Italian brings a lively and authentic slice of Italy to the riverside end of Bulimba's Oxford Street, while Claw BBQ, with a capacity of up to 1,000 guests, is one of the largest all-American barbecue and crab shacks in Australia.
While Potentia’s plans for Queen’s Wharf remain under wraps, Ledingham says the location has been key to the concept he has created for the site which is due to open early next year.
“Queen’s Wharf is a fantastic project and we have designed something there that you would expect of a Las Vegas lounge and bar concept. It’s a very exciting project for us.”
While Ledingham sets a dizzying pace to keep abreast of every facet of his venues, he concedes staffing remains one of the challenges for the hospitality industry. However, he also sees it as an opportunity for training the next generation of hospitality entrepreneurs.
“A lot of people left the industry during COVID and perhaps what we saw as retention 10 years ago is not what we are seeing now,” he says.
“If they leave happy and in a good space, then that is good retention, but if you lose someone in a couple of weeks because of another reason, that isn’t.”
Ledingham understands that many people who enter hospitality share his vision to one day own their own venue. It’s part of the reason he offers incentives to loyal staff in the form of shareholdings of individual venues.
“For me it is more about giving an opportunity to someone who has proven themselves and been loyal for 12 to 18 months to be a part of the right project when it comes along.
“It’s not about the money but rather to make sure that if they do leave us or sell out, then they have every single piece of knowledge to set themselves up in the future.
“My vision isn’t just to sell Potentia Solutions Leisure to a bigger corporation or a conglomerate; it is to see the people who work for me go on to do the same thing again and again – to instill the same confidence and the same love for the concept in their staff that I do.”
But getting people with the right experience remains a key issue, so for senior positions Potentia has started sponsoring talent from overseas, among them the new general manager of Lina who has come from Gordon Ramsay Group.
“We’ve actually set up a sponsorship company that provides flexibility for staff that we sponsor to move around within the organisation across their two-year sponsorship,” Ledingham says.
“It provides scope for them to feel as though they’re working towards something, namely permanent residency.”
Carbon zero is also part of the vision for Potentia venues, and each of them is working to achieve this in their own way.
“At Soko, for example, we have teamed up with One Tree Planted and basically $1 from every Akuma Jungle cocktail sold goes to plant a tree.
“Lina has partnered with EcoSpirits, which basically means that instead of using hundreds of thousands of bottles we bring in five-litre refillable kegs that we decant.
“Claw has a partnership with Ballistic Beer where for every Reef Pale we sell, a portion goes towards projects for the Great Barrier Reef.
“We also recycle oil for biodiesel, have zero plastics and we don’t use glass or plastic bottled water, just filtered water elements. We are also testing something with Soko at the moment to see if we can cut down on products going to waste and being diverted to recycling.”
As for growth, Ledingham is taking a steady approach despite ambitions to push his brand concepts further into Queensland and interstate. Expansion still means hands-on company ownership, although Ledingham concedes that Claw is the only concept that he would consider franchising.
“I’m not interested in a certain number of locations or a certain revenue figure,” Ledingham says.
“For me, the passion is to continue developing and growing the concepts we have now.
“I don’t want to get too big, too quickly. I still want to have that personal connection because I still want it to feel like it’s a family business.
“I definitely want to see growth, but I do it for the love and not the bank balance. I still want to have that connection with my guests, my staff and my management teams to ensure that everyone is growing and developing.”
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