By Gavin Gibbon
Paul Evans, CEO of Solutions Leisure Group, has written a book, 'When I Woke Up', which includes some life-changing experiences that might make Hollywood scriptwriters salivate. Here he tells CEO Middle East how the old adage, 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger', definitely applies to him and his business dealings today
Fast-forwarding at great speed through a recorded conversation on my dictaphone with Paul Evans, CEO of Solutions Leisure Group, I can just about make out only a handful of words from the hour-long interview, “bullying”, “suicide”, “death”, “life” and “business”.
Regardless of how he wants to play it down, Evans’s 45 years on this planet have been anything but normal. But, as he tells CEO Middle East, everything that’s happened to him and every decision he has made, has led to his current role as boss of one of Dubai’s most successful F&B and entertainment companies.
He says: “I don’t regret a single road I’ve been down, as painful as they may have been. I’ve been on some very painful journeys. Every one of those roads was there for a purpose and that purpose is to be the 45-year-old that sits here today, knowing what I know, experiencing what I’ve experienced, being able to teach my children and my loved ones and my friends and my colleagues and the people who work for me, not to make the same silly mistakes that I made.”
Solutions Leisure Group, which turned over $150m last year, operates Lock, Stock & Barrel (LSB), Asia Asia, STK, Wavehouse, Karma Kafe, Q43, The Central and District.
Evans’ story is a cyclical one of failure to success, to failure, back to success and repeat. Don’t take my word for it, read his book, When I Woke Up, described as ‘One man’s unbreakable spirit to survive’.
It would be fair to say his life is currently on an upward curve, with two LSBs in Dubai (Barsha Heights and JBR) and a third one pencilled in to open in Downtown next year, along with another in Abu Dhabi. LSB opened in Russia at the start of 2019 and 2020 promises a venue in the centre of London and possibly a further spot in Amsterdam.
His enthusiasm is infectious and it’s easy to see why he made so much money as a college student selling discounted sportswear; how he became top salesman at Northwest Securities Bank and then GE Capital; how he launched the biggest marina development in Hurghada, Egypt; and how he founded his current empire with little more than $20,000 in his pocket.
However, as the laws of gravity state, what goes up must come down. And Evans’ downs have been lower than most. He was horrifically bullied at school, which led to an attempted suicide aged just 14. It seemed like he had overcome this trauma in his formative years, with high-profile career successes defining his life as an adult.
However, it seems that his demons were not quite done with him, and amidst the trappings of an outwardly successful life, they began to resurface, characterised by increasingly frequent and self-destructive behaviour.
As understated as ever, Evans opens the interview by saying: “To sit here and say I’ve had an incredible life I find incredibly difficult because it’s just been my life. I’ve had a few bumps and it’s been an interesting journey. There’s some funny stories, some interesting stories and I think everyone who reads it (the book) can be the judge of whether they consider that to be incredible or not.”
What Evans describes as “bumps”, others may call giant peaks. What he classes as “interesting” you could substitute the word, terrifying. And “funny”? Are you mad?
One event in this rich tapestry of a life, which stands out more than others, is a coma and Evans’ near-death experience while in Egypt, the result of his increasingly unhealthy lifestyle and destructive life choices, as he readily admits.
“I was drinking, I was selfish, I was self-indulgent. I was just not a nice human being and I needed something to knock me out of that path. It gave me something,” he says. His lifestyle eventually led to being hospitalised with pancreatitis, which resulted in a coma. Fortunately, it was not the end, but a beginning.
“Ever since I woke up that day I’ve tried to live my life in the best possible way. I was a father within 18 months of waking up from that coma and I never really wanted children. It’s the greatest gift anyone can ever be given and I absolutely adore and dote on those two boys of mine. They’re destined for incredible things. They’re the reason I survived because they’re going to go off to do ground-breaking stuff.
“It’s given me an empathy and a passion to get involved in some stuff that can help other people because I’ve experienced it. In today’s world we’re running around trying to be men, there’s so many challenges, so many difficulties that we have in today’s society, the pressures, am I a good husband, am I good dad, am I spending enough time with my children, am I working hard enough? It’s just relentless.”
He’s certainly working hard enough and reveals he’s worked, on average, 14-hour days since he woke up from his coma.
And he believes this is one of the secrets to the success of Solutions Leisure Group so far in what is an incredibly crowded marketplace.
The industry as a whole has seen an increase of 20 percent in demand, as more entrepreneurs enter the market. And this is expected to expand further, with analysts at KPMG forecasting the number of food and beverage venues in the UAE to swell to over 19,000 by 2020.
But Evans says: “It’s easy to crawl back in your shell and say it’s quiet and it’s challenging. It’s never been easy here. Who wants it to be easy? I don’t. I like the fact that it’s tough, but then that makes you work harder.
“There’s not a single F&B guy owning a company today who’s going to bed at midnight, waking up at 2 and then spending seven hours on his emails. There’s not one guy.”
Given his tumultuous life so far, it may seem a ridiculous question to ask where Evans sees himself in five years’ time, but that enthusiasm bursts forward again. “I think we’ll probably have 20 Lock Stocks around the globe. As we’ve gone from being Dubai’s leading F&B company, my next plan is to take us onto the world stage and be considered to be one of the leading F&B providers on the planet,” he says.
There’s plenty of time for a sequel, although family and friends will be hoping for a little less drama.