The offices of City law firm Herbert Smith could easily be a location in The Matrix Reloaded. Every surface gives off a high-maintenance sheen. As we wait in the foyer, the atmosphere is austere, until William Baxter bursts in, filling the stillness with his warm Thames Estuary accent.
The executive chairman of BaxterSmith is here to meet his client. Just back from a family holiday in the Scottish Highlands, topped off with a day at the Monaco Grand Prix, he looks full of health.
As a youth, Baxter raced karts competitively, and a love of motor sports has stayed with him. He recently switched his passion from cars to bikes. Soon he’ll be driving up to the Isle of Man for the TT races, on his first motorbike, an R6 Yamaha 600cc, which he bought to mark his 40th birthday.
His competitive streak comes from being dyslexic, he says. As one of four highly academic brothers and sisters who became lawyers and doctors, he felt a bit like the black sheep, and was driven to demonstrate his worth to his parents.
Far from being a deterrent, dyslexia gave Baxter the drive to succeed. He gained three A levels, in zoology, geology and art, and was offered two places at university to study architecture, which he turned down. “Seven years looked like a long time. I bottled out,” he says.
A love of hotels gave him his first experiences of hospitality work at an Oxford Street hotel, but it was the greater salary and free weekends offered by Sutcliffe that lured him into contract catering.
While studying at Westminster College Baxter met his wife, and they married in their second year. The wedding caterer was Sutcliffe, and Baxter had picked up a book of matches and kept it.
After graduating he called the number and, at the grand old age of 23, was managing 17 sites in London’s West End. “Some of the chefs were big lads. They definitely wondered ‘Who is this?'” he says. “How did I deal with it? You have to be a good listener, be firm and be fair. It certainly puts hairs on your chest.”
Leaving Sutcliffe was difficult, because he enjoyed it so much, but life had become predictable. His boss, Don Davenport, gave him a Matchbox Ferrari when he left and said: “You’ll never have a Ferrari working here.”
The change was tough: “I was very unhappy at Baxter & Platts at the beginning, because it was just two men and a dog. I missed the banter. It was also nerve-racking. I’d doubled the mortgage, my wife had given up work, and we were right in the middle of a recession.”
But the recession provided the fledgling company with sales leads from companies looking to reduce their non-core expenses. Baxter & Platts became well established as a quality business offering a fair deal to clients and employees, and turnover grew to £23m.
One year after winning a Catey, and nearly 10 years after resigning from Sutcliffe, the pair sold the business to their former employers. The sale allowed Robert Platts, who was suffering from multiple sclerosis, to remove stress from his life. As sole shareholders, the pair received a cool £8m each. Platts now leads a relaxed life on Guernsey, and Baxter could easily have stayed at home to read his bank statements. But he didn’t fancy the prospect. “With four kids, you’ve got routine driven into your life. The kids, horses and nanny all come before me. If I retired, I’d have ended up being the nanny’s assistant,” he laughs.
BaxterSmith was formed in 2000 with Mike Smith, former managing director of Baxter & Platts. It expects to turn over £25m in 2004 and recently won its most lucrative contract, to cater at Marks & Spencer’s head offices. Baxter clearly gets a kick out of winning business and, at 42, sees no reason to stop. “I enjoy the craic, the camaraderie, and the buzz,” he says.
Up close and personal
Married, with three sons aged 14, 13 and 10, and one daughter aged seven.
Home: near Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire.
Leisure interests: Fishing, motor sports and golf. Baxter has a boat moored at Oban which he takes around the Hebrides.
Favourite films: James Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life and Harvey.
Favourite theatre: Judi Dench in Little Lies.
Favourite music: Genesis, Joan Armatrading, David Bowie, Coldplay, Avril Lavigne.
How i got there
1978 The Selfridge hotel, Oxford Street, London. Pot washer and waiter.
1979-82 Westminster College. HND in hotel and catering institutional management.
1982-87 Sutcliffe Catering. Assistant manager at Blue Circle Industries and civil engineers Davey McKee, London. Area supervisor for 17 West End sites. Area manager for the Thames Valley.
1987 Formed Baxter & Platts.
1997 Sold Baxter & Platts to Granada for £16m. Stayed on as executive chairman for 18 months.
2000 Set up BaxterSmith.
By Contract Catering Writer Ben Walker