Considering Linda Halliday admits to “not being a caterer”, the former human resources manager hasn’t done badly with the business she and her husband set up in 1985. From an attic in Maidenhead, Berkshire, with a staff of two, Halliday Catering Services has grown steadily over the past 15 years, and now has about 90 contracts, 1,000 employees and a healthy turnover of £23m. It has reached the point where it can claim the title of largest independent contract caterer in the UK.
That is, until now. The recent merger with independent newcomer Wilson Storey means the Wilson Storey Halliday Group now wears the crown of the largest independent. And with ambitious growth plans – sales projections of £25m for this year, doubling within the next five years – the group clearly intends to keep it.
For Halliday (left), opportunities for expansion and the changing face of the industry had meant the time was right for change. “A business gets to a certain point where one needs to make a decision about where it’s going,” she says. “I saw three options: carry on, sell, or accelerate growth but bring someone else into the business to help develop it.”
That someone was Alastair Storey. The ex-general manager of Granada had more than 25 years’ experience in the contract catering world and a desire to try something new. Starting his career in 1975 as trainee manager for contract caterer Sutcliffe, he had worked his way up the corporate ladder, becoming Granada’s boss in 1996. Three years later, in January 2000, he left the company to set up his own contract catering business with Granada’s group finance director Keith Wilson.
Wilson Storey was launched last September and quickly secured a joint-venture deal with France-based Groupe Le Duff, owner of La Brioche Dorée pâtisseries. The deal strengthened Wilson Storey’s position in the market. Soon after, talks began with Halliday, and they merged in December 2000.
The Wilson Storey Halliday Group has five directors: Halliday, Storey, Wilson, Tjalke Boersma (managing director of Wilson Storey Retail) and Nigel Anker (previously Halliday Catering Services’ managing director). Halliday and Storey are now joint chief executives of Halliday’s trading company, Wilson is finance director and Anker is its managing director.
The directors decline to discuss the distribution of shares, but Halliday insists that industry rumours of a buyout are unfounded. “We’ve just merged two businesses,” she says. “But what we have done is unique within the marketplace, and that’s why no one understands it. But that’s fine. What’s important for us is that we maintain our independence.”
For Storey, merging with Halliday Catering Services was an obvious choice. The company had a solid reputation and the potential to expand within a changing marketplace. By retaining the company’s ideals, but offering the retail skills Storey could bring, the company expects to make significant gains in the market, while providing a tailor-made, creative service at a competitive price.
“The more I talked to Linda, the more I realised we had the same objectives,” says Storey. “By putting our companies together we could keep our arms around a bigger number of contracts and clients, still provide an intensely personal service, and bring in some retail expertise.
“As a small team, we can work creatively, taking decisions and making them happen. On that basis, if two people are running a £25m business, five could run a £70m business with the same level of personal contact.”
With 20% of the market’s contracts up for review each year, Halliday and Storey are confident they can win £5.5m in contracts annually. And they intend to focus on the high-quality end of the market, with a view to expanding geographically.
“It sounds spectacular,” says Storey, “but if you assume that the UK market comprises about 15,000 contracts, that’s 3,000 opportunities a year. We only aim to get a small proportion of that to grow our business.
“All you need is the right resources with the right discipline. Across our team we now have a wide-ranging mix of styles and skills to bring to the party. As long as we all have the same vision and want to achieve the same things, then clearly five people can manage a lot more than three.”
Halliday is aware of a changing market where clients are more commercially minded and competition from the high street is fierce. Increased demands for high-quality food, a more discerning customer base and changing eating habits means the opportunities in retail are there to be exploited.
“The days of the traditional staff canteen, where people want a hot meal at midday, are gone. Now it’s all about the deli and the coffee bar,” says Halliday. “As a result of the merger, we can now offer retail skills to the client, and from a staff point of view we can develop different areas from those we have traditionally been able to offer.”
Wilson Storey Halliday Group plans to meet the high-street challenge head on. Staff bars and restaurants are to stay open longer and a deli proposal is under development.
“It’s important for our clients to be seen to be giving something of genuine benefit to their staff, something sexy, exciting and creative that they don’t have to pay over the odds for. We must concentrate on getting every customer into our sites, so it’s not so easy for them to stop at Prêt à Manger on the way to work.”
The future looks bright for the group and, with five new contracts already under its belt in January, it is ahead of the game.
Even so, Storey sees no room for complacency. “To be really outstanding and keep raising your game is a big challenge,” he says. “No one has a right to be the best. We work our socks off to be excellent, but there is always someone sharper around the corner. You have to learn from that and think what you need to do to win the next time.”
Halliday Catering Services kept itself geographically tight in south-east England, and only expanded to other areas with its clients. The company became the largest independent after several industry consolidations – including Granada’s takeover of Baxter & Platts in 1997 – took players out of the sector.
Its 95 contracts cover a broad range, from the largest – a £2m contract at Oracle Group in Reading – to the smallest, a chef management location with a turnover of £250,000.
Steadfastly keeping its independence, the company has grown 20% year-on-year since its launch. Using the experience gained from careers with the larger catering corporations, Linda Halliday and her late husband, George, created a personalised, service-driven business with a hands-on management system, staff development programmes and heavy emphasis on communication.
Wilson Storey Halliday Group
Imperial House, Oaklands Park, Wokingham, Berkshire RG41 2FD
Number of contracts: 95
Number of sites: 100
Turnover for 2000: £23m
Predicted turnover for 2001: £25m
Largest contract: £2m turnover
Smallest contract: £250,000 turnover
Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 22-28 February 2001