Hands up, any rock stars out there who’ve been torn between fame and fortune and a career in catering. OK, probably none. But it’s not necessarily as daft a dilemma as it sounds. Julian Fris is one man who couldn’t decide between a job at the keyboards and a career in hospitality, and in the end he’s somehow managing to pull off both.
By day, Fris, 43, has the ominous title of head of catering strategy at the BBC, while by night he plays keyboards in a band called Skyline, belting out cover versions of songs at weddings and functions in London. At the moment, he’s rehearsing a Bee Gees tribute called Saturday Night Diva. “It turns over a few bob a year, but I wouldn’t do it full-time, however tempting, because there isn’t quite enough money in it,” he says. “Still, it’s entrepreneurial and it allows me to get out and do something else. I need a foil to a stressful job.”
Fris’s wife describes him as a “starter-finisher”. By that she means he doesn’t take on a project unless he is confident of sorting it out. And when Fris describes what he’s taken on at the BBC, it’s clear he isn’t afraid of a challenge.
As of last year, his main task has been to oversee the transfer of BBC property and facilities management – particularly catering, which is handled by Compass – to the BBC’s property partner, Land Securities Trillium (see panel, below). He’s like an internal consultant who has to oversee everything from cleaning to problems with the buildings. “I’m an anorak,” Fris admits cheerfully, as he strides into the Foyer brasserie at BBC Television Centre.
Fris fills in the background to his job over a coffee. He joined the Beeb in 1997 as property services manager, after a steady career troubleshooting catering problems in the healthcare sector (see panel, below). John Birt was director-general in those days, and the BBC had to buy services internally. “It was a monster,” says Fris. “There was a joke that you could buy a CD cheaper in the high street than from a fellow department.”
This changed when Greg Dyke took over in 1999, and the go-ahead was given for all services, including catering, to be outsourced. The famously traditional BBC wanted an outsider to manage the cultural changes – cue Fris’s promotion. “I was 21 when I came here in 1997 and you can see how I’ve aged,” he jokes. “The BBC keeps reinventing facilities. There’s constant change of how everything fits in.”
One of the main challenges of his job has been to make cost savings. Under the licence fee settlement in 2000, the BBC had to commit to saving £140m over seven years. The catering section declared that it would save £3m by 2006. So far, so good; in the past 18 months, it has saved £1m. Surprisingly, cutting out the biscuits served with tea in meetings has scythed off £250,000.
Most of the saving, however, has been made through cutting hospitality, which costs the BBC more than £3m a year. Although Fris has reduced the use of external caterers by 95%, there will always be a need for them, particularly when filming on location. “There are loads [of caterers] on the books,” says Fris, “but we will tender the location catering and whittle it down to 30-40 over the next six months.”
Fris likes looking at the bigger picture; his job, after all, is to implement the overall vision. The BBC, as he points out, has changed a lot in 20 years. Nowadays, its employees are more likely to be aged under 40 and female than the middle-aged men of yore, and their requirements are different. They want younger, fresher food and environments similar to those on the high street. Fris doesn’t rise to the bait that Television Centre’s location at London’s White City creates a captive audience – there are plans for a shopping centre near by, anyway.
Perhaps with this in mind, he has introduced brands. “Compass won the contract in 2001 because it offered so many brands,” he says. “The Costa outlet, for instance, has replaced an unbranded, miserable, brown-and-beige coffee shop and pushed turnover up from £1,000 a week to £6,000.”
He also points out that prices at Television Centre are generally 10% lower than outside. In the old days there were more people working shifts, so the catering was highly subsidised. That has been eroded, although nil subsidy wouldn’t be considered, says Fris, because, as it’s a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week operation, the prices would get too high.
There are 13 outlets at Television Centre and the breakdown of offers is 60% convenience (or grab-and-go) and 40% restaurants. Fris’s target is to change this ratio to 70:30 because, as the Eurest Lunchtime Report has shown, people now tend to take only a half-hour lunch break. Fris concedes that there’s a happy side-effect to all this: “Compass invests in front of house, not in production and infrastructure. Convenience outlets push everything front of house, so there’s less outlay for us.”
Eventually, the onus will be on local general managers at BBC centres to oversee each building (shell, safety, catering, etc). “They’ll have taken up the baguette,” says Fris. “Long-term, I’ll disappear, and LST will be the focus of managing buildings – the handover is 90% done – and the BBC will look at core business. If I’m still here in five years’ time, something’s failed.”
So, does he never dream about getting into the limelight himself? “I’ve thought about setting up my own business,” he says, “but I’ve got the band, and working here interests me. My key job is influencing people – it’s rewarding when the BBC’s director of finance makes comments about the catering.”
At a glance
Tel: 020 8225 9794
Position: head of catering strategy, BBC Property
There are three key buildings in London – Broadcasting House, White City and Television Centre
Employees on site: 6,000 (plus 2,000 visitors/contractors a day)
Restaurants and cafés: 13
Catering staff: 160
* Night service runs from midnight to 7am – some 500 staff work overnight
* About 15% of staff work at weekends, so there is a lot of vending
Fris up front
Although Julian Fris was always torn between a career in music and a career in hospitality, he has catering in the blood. He grew up in Southampton, where his parents ran coffee shops – “Unfortunately, they sold them before the coffee-bar boom” – and ended up following family tradition.
1983-87: Took a degree in institutional management and started working as a chef.
1987-92: Joined Sutcliffe as area manager and left as principal catering manager. Got first taste of troubleshooting with theHJ Heinz contract, where he made savings of £100,000 a year. Also took Sutcliffe (now Medirest) into the NHS market.
1992-97: Stayed in the NHS sector, working first for Sodexho and then as executive director of sales for Marriott Services (formerly Taylorplan Services). He added £75m in turnover and achieved a margin of more than 5% in healthcare contracts.
1997-99: Property services manager at BBC World Service; reviewed the internal property and facilities arrangements and achieved savings of £750m.
1999-2001: Principal facilities manager at BBC Resources.
2001-02: Head of catering at BBC Property; introduced a catering and hospitality strategy that, within one year, increased turnover by 15% (£1.2m) and cut hospitality expenditure by 30% (£900,000).
2002: Head of catering strategy at the BBC; oversees the ongoing transfer of BBC property and facilities management – particularly catering – to the corporation’s property partner, Land Securities Trillium.
What’s the deal with Land Securities Trillium?
The ageing infrastructure and facilities at the BBC needed investment. In 2001 the BBC signed a property partnership deal for its London and Scotland estates with Land Securities Trillium (LST), worth £440m over 30 years. As part of the deal, LST provides facilities management services, including catering provided by Compass under its Eurest brand. Further investment into the BBC is being negotiated, so the cost of the deal will undoubtedly increase.
What’s being invested in the catering operation?
The total cost of all BBC catering projects in London over the next five years is £5m, but this won’t all come from Compass. Compass “owns the risk and must increase the turnover without exploiting our staff”, says Fris. The subsidy will be reduced over five years and Compass will be making “significant investment” front of house.
What’s the staff uptake?
Staff uptake at Broadcasting House is 60-70%, and more at Television Centre, where in the past three years there has been a 30% increase in turnover yet only a 10% increase in personnel.
How can you measure your achievements?
“Catering turnover at the BBC is nearly £10m gross just for London,” says Fris. “When I started in 1997, it was £7m.”