The next chapter 6 December 2019 Lexington managing director Julia Edmonds on taking the helm at the boutique caterer and her people plans for the future
In this week's issue... The next chapter Lexington managing director Julia Edmonds on taking the helm at the boutique caterer and her people plans for the future
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01 January 2000
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"If someone asked me for the golden rule when starting up in this business," says Chris Barnard, "my very first piece of advice to them would be, ‘Don't get obsessed with the numbers.' We have at last realised that budgets and projections are just that."

His wife Becky agrees: "For a large part of the year I haven't seen the wood for the trees from an accounting point of view. All our efforts - well, mine in particular - have gone into trying to make budget for the bank rather than getting on with running the business itself."

Becky freely admits that she has been "a bit of a control freak" with the figures. "I think that's why I have been the most worried. Chris takes it all much more in his stride."

In spite of the intervention and advice from a local Business Link consultant, she has come through the year with her scepticism about marketing intact. "Promotions and advertising just haven't worked for us." She cites a 9,000-leaflet drop which produced just two bookings. "Numbers don't seem to shift upwards whatever we do," she says. "We are not like a car seller who can knock on as many doors as he has to before he shifts his 20 cars - his destiny is in his own hands. I feel that still we have no control at all on who comes in through that front door."

The couple are currently paying about £250 a month in local advertising - almost exactly the difference between their loss and break-even points - and so there is now a real temptation to cut out this form of promotion entirely. "We will still aim at the early retireds and business people," says Chris. That, coupled with more aggressive promotion to the Avins Bridge regulars - "playing to their strengths", in effect - will, they believe, make more sense.

So what has kept them going? "Our family and customers," says Becky. "Our belief that we have got a good product, and that we'll get there," says Chris.

And knowing what they know now, would they have bought the Avins Bridge?

"Definitely," says Chris. But Becky is not so sure: "We certainly had no idea of what we were letting ourselves in for when we bought it." And one feels that she has done the lion's share of the worrying. "We expected the long hours, and we knew what the work was like," she says. "But I have found the fact that we haven't had the customers we thought we would have, and the seeming lack of control that we have had over that situation, very draining emotionally."

Highs and lows over the past year? "I think my personal low was when I discovered that I couldn't pay January's VAT from cash-flow," recalls Becky. "The bank would have increased our overdraft - but then how would we pay it back? In the end, Chris's father gave us about £2,000."

A recent high - the couple now plan to go ahead with work on the four bedrooms - thanks again to a £20,000 loan from Chris's father. "He's great. He's almost got a blind faith in what we are trying to do here, and that has really buoyed us up at times.

"Looking back, we see getting a year under our belts in this market is actually an achievement in itself," says Chris. "You can read in Caterer about businesses that fail after six months, and in spite of tough trading we are still here and still true to our initial concept. A lot of people, friends included, didn't think we could make it - and it's fingers up to those early customers who told us we wouldn't last six weeks!

"At the end of the day, we thought the dream, saw the Avins Bridge, and bought the dream. And we could still sell out, recoup our money, and pay everyone back," says Chris.

But they won't. Battle-weary they may be, but not battle-shy. With the bed-and-breakfast business now on the cards there's a new challenge to tap into, a new market to work on. They have survived a year, and learned some lessons. Odds-on year two will be better.

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