The chief executive officer of Compass Group UK & Ireland, Don Davenport, laughs as he recalls his teenage nights in the seedy London Docklands in the early 1960s. "It was a pretty unsavoury place to go," he says. "There'd always be a bunch of kids hanging around who wanted to ‘look after' your car.
"One time, my mate had the idea of taking his dog down in the car to keep these kids away. ‘Look after your car, mister?' He said, ‘Nah, it's all right, I've got the dog.' And they pointed out, ‘But it can't put out fires as well, can it?'" It's East End humour," he adds, by way of explanation.
Today, in charge of a business that employs 110,000 staff at 9,700 sites, with annual sales of £2.7b, those nights spent among the assorted villains and tearaways of the Prospect of Whitby pub in Wapping are a distant memory.
Like his Compass colleague, chief executive Mike Bailey, Davenport grew up in Essex and London's East End, and started out as a chef. By 1960, young Davenport was helping out in the kitchens of the Mayfair hotel and the Trocadero restaurant in central London. "In those days, you'd just go up to the back door of the kitchen and ask if they needed any help," he says.
He describes the 1960s as an exciting time when people became millionaires from nowhere, a world of coffee bars, rock'n'roll and… Cliff Richard. "Not much has changed, then," he jokes.
But when it comes to contract catering, Davenport has lived through huge changes. Unusually, he has never strayed outside the sector since Trust House Hotels gave him the incentive, on completing his management training, to become an area manager in 1961. "The normal thing was to go into hotel catering because it was sex and rock'n'roll," he says. "In 1961, the hotel and catering industry didn't really recognise contract catering. It was born out of wartime factory canteens, which were horrendous. But the advantage was that people living under rationing could have a decent meal each day."
Davenport has never regretted his decision to enter the sector at the age of 20. He did not enjoy sitting through meetings about television rentals when part of Granada, and declares: "I can't think of another business where you get the opportunity, at a very early age, to run 15 or so contracts and deal with high-level people in such a variety of professional environments.
"Compass is a dedicated catering company, and with the sale of Travelodge and Little Chef, it's returned to its core business. We've got a lot of good things lined up for the future. Marks & Spencer's Simply Food stores and Pay as You Dine in the Ministry of Defence will be exciting areas of growth in 2003."
Next week, catering at the new Compass HQ
How I got there
1954-59: At Buckhurst Hill Grammar School in Essex, Davenport was the only boy to choose domestic science instead of metalwork. The other boys gave him a hard time - but he got plenty of female attention.
1959-61: At the age of 15, he trained as a chef at Waltham Forest Technical College in east London.
1961: Began a two-year management course with Trust House. Area manager at 22, then advanced to become regional director of the South-west for Trust House Forte's contract catering division, Gardner Merchant.
1979: Joined Sutcliffe Catering as managing director for the South, becoming group MD in 1990.
1991: Harvard Business School, advanced management course.
1993: Following Granada's acquisition of Sutcliffe in 1993, became chief executive to the newly created Granada Services to Business division.
1996: Became group managing director for Granada Hospitality.
1998: Chief executive of Granada Restaurants with responsibility for Little Chef and Travelodge.
2000: Chief executive officer of the UK & Ireland division of Compass.
Up close and personal
Married, one daughter aged 27
Home: Virginia Water, Surrey
Leisure interests: golf
Favourite film: The Italian Job
Favourite TV: Rick Stein, Gary Rhodes, Have I Got News For You
Favourite music: Rolling Stones, Status Quo, opera