Every night at 6pm, 62-year-old Lieutenant Commander Derek Pulford can be seen jogging around Regent’s Park, a spare moment in a hectic timetable as operations manager at London’s Victory Services Club (VSC).
Founded in 1907, the club is an oasis of food and accommodation for some 40,000 worldwide members, both current and former service personnel.
Later, Pulford wanders through the myriad halls of the VSC, checking on staff and customers, planning new aspects to a five-year modernisation programme.
Pulford didn’t join the VSC staff until his 60th birthday (after being an executive councillor of the charity for eight years), with the remit of dragging its catering operations into the 1990s.
The club’s mainly elderly clientele with their liking for the status quo means this has not always been easy. For example, a major refurbishment of the VSC’s buttery restaurant from padded vinyl seats and a labyrinth of pathways to a modern “20-minute” seating arrangement caused a great deal of fuss.
Pulford explains: “Many people didn’t realise the old design was unhygienic and couldn’t be cleaned properly, so I had to explain it to them. Anyway, I enjoy talking to people.”
With just two-and-a-half years before retirement, he admits that modernisation remains “a tough task”. But his career has been marked by determination – a classic tale of rising through the ranks.
Originally from Birkenhead, he claims: “I fell into catering by accident because I really didn’t know what else I wanted to do.” He worked in a variety of restaurants and hotels from the age of 14 before volunteering for the Navy in 1950, joining as an assistant crewman.
Working his way up the ladder, he collected four O levels en route and then received a commission. He later taught and designed courses at the Navy’s supply schools. By the time he left the Navy at 50, he had become Lieutenant Commander and was responsible for maintaining the Navy’s catering standards across the UK.
Several years and two jobs later (neither of which he found satisfying), Pulford found himself heading the catering operations at the VSC.
The tasks were many and included urgent and detailed re-training of staff in hygiene standards and stock control. Pulford introduced new meal schemes and menus, rearranged kitchens, reception rooms and stock control systems, and began modernising the restaurants. He has a budget of £600,000 based on a £1m catering turnover.
These moves tie in with other attempts to modernise the VSC. The building is due for a facelift and subscription prices will soon be rising from £10 to £12 for the club’s members – though the price of £17.50 per room will remain constant.
The VSC now hosts up to seven receptions per day, rock bands use its main hall to hold media launches and staff are, in Pulford’s eyes, able to produce food to the same quality as any five-star hotel in London and for often less than £10 per head in each of the restaurants.
“We have been unquestionably successful,” he says. “We have improved the buttery, our ensuite bedrooms are always booked and staff now follow an integrated approach.”
Despite being a moderniser, he still rails against the attitudes of modern day staff (who are paid £120 plus all live-in costs). He says: “There just seem to be too many people who really don’t want to do the job – they very much regard it as smacking of subservience.”
This mix of traditionalist and moderniser has produced results that speak for themselves.