If Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas had grabbed the odd coffee and sandwich while waiting to give evidence at the High Court recently, they would have tasted the wares of contract caterer Wilson Storey Halliday.
The UK’s biggest independent caterer now has 130 contracts, including the Royal Courts of Justice, a £1.2m City bank contract, and a £2m deal with the Oracle Group in Reading, Berkshire
Sitting behind her ordinary desk in her ordinary office, Linda Halliday, the company’s HR director and one of three shareholders, lights a second cigarette. Things might have been very different, she says. In her teenage years, she nearly went into the hotel sector, but a holiday job as a chambermaid put her off.
“I was treated almost as a second-class citizen by the guests,” she says of the job at a Yorkshire hotel. The idea of an HND in the field of hotels and catering was ditched and she opted for business studies instead. She was given a work placement with Granada Motorway Services as a personnel officer at a new service station in Exeter, and her career in human resources and catering began.
“I think it was a subconscious decision to take the HR route because I wanted to influence people’s perception of workers in the service industry,” she says. “I personally wouldn’t treat a kitchen porter any differently to a top client.”
The mid-1980s were another pivotal time for Halliday. Her husband started his own business and she gave birth to their first child, all in the space of two years. Husband George had invested his redundancy package of £20,000 from Compass into the new venture. After an ill-fated spell at Seagram Retail (“I seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time dismissing people”), Halliday joined her husband to build up the company on sparse resources.
“We had a good 10 years of reasonable success,” she says. “George was well known as a good operator and I was the people person. I knew that if all else failed, I could go out and get a proper job.”
In 1995, when George died suddenly of a heart attack on a squash court, most people thought Halliday would sell the business – but they were wrong. “I’m very strong-willed and if someone tells me I’m not able to do something, I will prove them wrong,” she insists. “To me, that was the challenge.”
For a business that started life in a Maidenhead attic with £20,000 and a staff of two, Wilson Storey Halliday has grown out of all recognition. Its turnover rose from £26.3m in 2001 to £45m in 2002. The merger with Berkshire-based rival Houston & Church, made official last month, added £7m in annual sales and 24 contracts.
Managing the business turned out to be easier than bringing up two young children, says Halliday. Fifteen years on, she spends Saturday afternoons on the touchline of a lacrosse field, cheering her daughter on.
The rules of lacrosse continue to elude her, but Halliday is clearly a woman who has used considerable strength and determination to overcome her difficulties. “There are fewer women the further up you get, but I don’t think the hospitality industry discriminates against women at all,” she says.
Halliday believes big strides have been made in promoting contract catering as a career choice. “If universities and schools are looking at career options, ‘sexy’ careers in finance or information technology don’t look so attractive today. Maybe we can turn the economic gloom to our advantage.”
So what kind of turnover does she predict for the year ahead? As she brings the interview briskly to a close, Halliday makes it clear she is not in the business of fortune-telling.
Up close and personal
Married to second husband Nigel Ankar, son 12, daughter 15
Shopping, interior design, gardening, holidays, eating out
Kids Out and Hospitality Assured charities
People I admire
Richard Branson, Nelson Mandela
“I don’t keep quiet long enough to watch TV”
The Harry Potter films
Robbie Williams, Motown, soul
How I got there
1980-82: Granada Motorway Services – personnel officer at Exeter services.
1982-86: Compass – started as recruitment manager, promoted to regional personnel and training manager.
1986-87: Seagram Retail – HR manager for retail off-licence chain employing 3,000 staff.
1987: Became human resources director, Halliday Catering Services.
2000: Company merged with Wilson Storey to form WSH Group.
2003: Merger with Houston & Church to form Wilson Storey Halliday.