CGA’s 2017 Special Award goes to a man who could have written the rules for entrepreneurship and investment in the sector.

Together with Steve Wilkins, John Connell formed a partnership that launched and sold influential London bar chains including Smith & Jones, Thomas & Carter and Lewis & Clarke. In doing so he honed what is perhaps his greatest skill—a knack for finding the right site and a deep understanding of London’s leisure property.

In the late 1990s he founded Imbiba with Simon Wheeler, the investment business specialising in the incubation of bar and restaurant start-ups. He has been chairman of more than a dozen of its investments since then, including one of its most notable successes: bar and restaurant group Drake & Morgan, in which Imbiba invested £3m in 2008, and which sold for £30m in 2013. Over those five years, Imbiba proved itself a hands-on partner to visionary founder Jillian MacLean, in fields like financial control, marketing and tech as well as property.

Connell’s quest for more success continues with investment in a host of growing brands, most of them incorporating his trademark ampersand—like Darwin & Wallace, Camm & Hooper, Wright & Bell, Casper & Cole and Albion & East. At all of them, he has contributed an unparalleled focus on the fundamentals of good hospitality, a hard work ethic and above all an eye for good property and good people—invariably dynamic entrepreneurs like himself. Few would bet against those concepts following the path set by Drake & Morgan.

As CGA’s Peter Martin put it in his citation: “John Connell has backed and encouraged a whole generation of ambitious entrepreneurs—and especially women entrepreneurs—to launch their own businesses. He’s a deserving winner of this year’s Special Award.” In typically modest style, Connell himself said of his achievements: “In the words of Winston Churchill, the trait of this industry is to keep buggering on—to never give up.”