David Ford, chief executive of Gardner Merchant (GM), is in charge of 49,000 UK staff. He is also responsible for three children aged four, five and six, and he insists it is for this reason that he gets up - or is woken up - at 6.15am every morning.
Since his appointment last September, Ford's role has centred on planning a strategy for the future, one that will ride the much-heralded next recession. It will include more fixed-price contracts, boosting the company's presence in the healthcare sector, more facilities management, and movement towards an overall corporate image in keeping with the image of the clients themselves.
Relaxing in his office, 45-year-old Ford recalls that his early days in the job were full of "meetings and more meetings" from morning to night. His mornings now begin at 8.30am when he arrives at Gardner Merchant's central London office, the Merchant Centre, having travelled by train from Ickwell in Bedfordshire. Total journey time is about one-and-a-quarter hours, depending on whether he takes a taxi from King's Cross to the Merchant Centre or walks, "which I do when the weather's nice".
He always has breakfast, usually fresh grapefruit and decaffeinated tea. "I may get up early, but I don't get into the office that early," says Ford. "I'm against skipping meals because it may encourage our clients to do the same."
Human resources benefits
A former human resources director, Ford recognises the benefits he has brought from this sector - but is quick to point out that these form only half the picture. "It's dangerous to assume that someone from an HR background is interested only in the HR aspect of the business," he says. "If you spend a long time in HR you believe that recruitment of the right people and training and development of people is important, and that certainly is true in my case. But I don't think I was a very conventional HR specialist.
"I was always interested in the strategy of the business. I think the key thing is being in a company that I was philosophically attuned to. We manage more than 50,000 people, the vast majority of whom work in groups of five or under. So the real issue is efficient people management."
So just how important are the people? Ford winces as he considers his response. "I believe that talking about a people company is a tired and worn-out cliché. But when I joined GM I saw that in action. People were really given the right to fail, not like a lot of companies where you get promoted until you get to the job that you can't do and then you get fired. In GM, people try something and if it doesn't work, they are rehoused where their skills are found to have value."
In the five years since the management buyout from Forte led to the establishment of the contract caterer there's been a sea change in strategy, one which Ford is now charged with taking forward.
"Ten years ago we would've been described as a caterer, full stop," says Ford. "Now we could be described as a caterer and support service provider and in 10 years' time there's a good chance we will be described as a multi-service provider."
This is the closest Ford gets to a description of total facilities management. "Ask 10 people and you'll get 10 definitions." But it's clear that expanding services is his view of what the client wants. One example of this is at the Pilkington Glass contract in Scotland where bilingual receptionists were required. GM helped in finding them, and these receptionists are now training the managers to speak French.
Being a multi-service provider is also an aim identified by Paris-based parent company Sodexho Alliance. "They saw that opportunity some time ago, and target local people to extend the range of services they provide, supported by a central team," says Ford. "This is critical in healthcare. If you can't provide services, you don't get on the tender list, because tenders don't go out as purely catering any more."
Ford emphasises that the company today is no longer solely about catering. As well as providing services across the board it's also about integrating GM into the corporate image of the client. "Some clients have told us that catering today should reflect their fashion and their image. When you walk into a reception area the feeling you get progresses into the catering hall, or into the private dining rooms. The whole thing is a reflection of what they want to be as a company, and that's very important."
To do this the company has now produced a set of corporate standards, with guaranteed service levels, from food standards through the number of times the chef of each outlet will work with executive chef Gary Rhodes to the number of times each unit is visited by senior people within the organisation. Ford claims this initiative means that losses to the competition have been practically nil.
But doesn't more corporate control mean less individuality for clients? Ford thinks that if everything goes according to plan it should have the opposite effect. "If you reduce some of the planning elements you can actually increase the time you have to spend on site to listen to the specific needs of the client and to answer their questions," he claims.
Ford lunches in Michelin-starred City Rhodes about twice a week. He also likes modern cuisine, such as the US-style Christopher's in Covent Garden, where he'll have a burger or a Caesar salad. He is not, he says, a "sandwich-in-the-office man". When not in central London, Ford often lunches at one of the company's units, meeting key people and discussing ways to take GM forward.
An obvious area for development is in healthcare, a challenge made easier by the acquisition of Marriott Management Services last October, plus an involvement in Private Finance Initiative where, although deals have yet to be closed, GM is set to be the lead supplier in at least two contracts.
Even so, Ford realises that progress in this area could be slow, a situation which could be exacerbated when compulsory competitive tendering is abandoned. "If you resolutely force people to tender who don't want to tender then you get all sorts of issues relating to not having level playing fields - I think the NHS is an example of this. You cannot force yourself on an industry that doesn't want you."
Despite the increasing globalisation of the contract catering world, Ford insists that the future does not necessarily lie in acquisitions. "If I am to be market leader I want to be market leader by being the best, not by buying every company and 200 contracts and trying to shoehorn them into my culture," he says. "Any further acquisitions would be strategic ones - ones which bring us into new areas."
More controversially, the future could lie in hotels. GM already does the staff feeding for Gleneagles and banqueting for the Café Royal and the Cumberland Hotel in London. Despite industry doubts, Ford is convinced that there is a niche here, particularly in the three-star market, where the contract caterer takes care of the entire feeding process, leaving the hotelier to concentrate on selling rooms. GM's biggest problem in breaking into this market is to change the image that contract catering carries, a challenge Ford is aware of, but nonetheless pragmatic about. "It's up to people like me to change the Cinderella association. You have to do that by proving you have the right product at the right price."
A typical day for Ford might end at about 6pm, with evening functions twice a week. Staying late for its own sake is not something he approves of. "I used to judge people on how long they spent in the office," he admits. "I've been through the process of being in the office until 8.45pm looking for someone to talk to. But I've left that nonsense behind now. I'm more interested in the quality of work people produce, rather than how many minutes they are sitting behind a desk."
The journey home is spent reading either documents Ford hasn't had time to look at in the office or some personal reading. The last book he read was The Blue Afternoon by William Boyd. If there's time, Ford enjoys a game of golf, playing off a handicap of nine, or spending time in Portugal where he has a holiday home.
Ford considers himself lucky to be in a job where the boundaries between business and pleasure are blurred. "You could spend your whole time going from event to event," he jokes. His favourite event of the season is the Chelsea Flower Show.
Ford occasionally goes to the USA, where in the early 1990s he headed the GM operation. He believes that although there is more choice and more confidence in the US operation, the management in the UK is just as good. "The experience improved my perception of the British manager because I saw nothing in the USA that made me feel that British management was inferior."
When not attending an evening function, Ford generally spends the evening with his wife Kay. His idea of a perfect evening is enjoying a glass of white wine and a bowl of chilli while watching a film. He's always in bed by 10.30pm, hoping that the children may sleep a little beyond 6.15am, just for once.