The expansion of CH&Co in recent years created an unwieldy portfolio of 22 brands. Janie Manzoori-Stamford finds out how the burgeoning company has streamlined its business in order to become more efficient
“Historically, I was of the view that five, 10, 20 brands – who cares? As long as we can manage it and as long as the client is happy, why don’t we just carry on?” says Bill Toner, chief executive of the ever-expanding CH&Co Group, on the decision to rebrand vast swathes of the business. “But it was really coming from the team. It had become a little bit confusing.”
Toner returned to the world of foodservice when he joined Host in 2011 following five years of gardening leave after departing from Aramark. Since then he has been collecting catering companies through a series of mergers and acquisitions that helped to grow CH&Co to £300m in annual turnover and the number of separate brands in its portfolio to, at the last count, 22.
Some of these, such as the Brookwood Partnership and Chester Boyd, operated in standalone fields (independent education and livery halls, respectively), but for others there was overlap, particularly those operating in business and industry (B&I), meaning the likes of Charlton House, Harbour & Jones and Lusso could conceivably end up vying for the same contracts.
And so last month the company announced that it was streamlining its brand identities according to sector so as to sit more neatly beneath the CH&Co umbrella.
But such an enterprise involves a lot more than knocking up some new matching business cards. The number of stakeholders involved is vast and includes clients and staff, as well as some whose own names will be lost from the letterheads. So how did CH&Co go through this major rebranding exercise while not only bringing everyone along for the ride, but getting them all fired up in the process?
The restructure of the brands saw the plethora of operating entities become defined by their sector. So Catermasters, Charlton House, Host, Harbour & Jones and Lusso now sit neatly together under the CH&Co Workplaces moniker.
Ampersand clients such as Kew Gardens, Royal Historic Palaces and ZSL London Zoo will now receive invoices from CH&Co Destinations, while BMA House and the Law Society will fall under CH&Co Venues. And Concerto Group, the company’s most recent acquisition, is rebranding as CH&Co Events, though its 16 sub-brands, including Ultimate Experience and Eventwise, will remain unchanged.
Where things get a little more complex, for now, is the company’s diverse education business. CH&Co Education will encompass both further and higher education, while the Brookwood Partnership will become CH&Co Independent Education later in the year.
However, state education brands Principals and ABsolutely were both deemed to have strong positions within their geographical marketplaces with no overlap, and as such, the brand names have remained but have an added endorsement: Principals by CH&Co and ABsolutely by CH&Co.
“It gives us the opportunity to soften the change in these sectors over a period of time. We like Principals by CH&Co, but it will become CH&Co at some point,” says Toner. “It could be a year, two years, or maybe five. We’re not putting a schedule on it though because, like what has happened now, the business has a way of telling you when you need to do something. When they want to become CH&Co, they’ll tell us.”
The decision to use CH&Co as the common brand name perhaps seems like an obvious one now that it has been announced. After all, it has been the name of the parent company since Charlton House was restructured into five specialist divisions in 2010 by co-founders Robyn and Tim Jones. And it remained the business name after CH&Co and the Toner-led HCM Group (Host Catermasters Group) merged in 2015.
But such a massive decision still required careful consideration, which is why brand consultancy the Clearing was brought in to examine every aspect of the multifaceted catering company.
“They interviewed everybody from the board downwards and they interviewedclients. They did a huge body of work and it was fascinating,” explains Toner. “The agency guided us through the whole process. They came back and said, ‘well, you are CH&Co. This is recognised in the business and it comes with a royal warrant. The brand integrity is there, but you’re not using it. Why?’”
What’s in a name
The direction the business needed to take was immediately clear after that revelation, but the work didn’t stop there. The rebranding exercise was a big commitment for the business – both operationally and financially – and Toner admits to feeling nervous. How would the company’s clients feel about the change?
“I started talking to clients very early on,” he says. “I remember going into Buckingham Palace, where Ampersand’s contract had just been extended for another five years. I was wondering how they were going to take this.”
Toner says he shared the ins and outs of the work CH&Co and the Clearing had been doing, where their investigations were leading, and that the brand Ampersand would have to disappear as a result. The client was nonplussed. “He said, ‘well, we only refer to you as Ampersand because you tell us you are Ampersand. If you’re saying the team is the same but you’ve rebranded as CH&Co then that’s what we’ll call you,’” Toner explains.
The response was exactly what anyone in Toner’s position would want to hear. And he heard a variation of it from pretty much every client he went to see – even those that he thought might be a little more resistant to the change.
“No matter who I spoke to, they got it,” he says. “If you explain the journey they can see that it’s not personal or emotional from a management point of view; that it’s been thought through properly. I’ve been more than pleasantly surprised by every client I’ve spoken to that said, ‘yeah, that makes sense’.”
And the very nature of contract catering begs the question, why wouldn’t they? Foodservice firms very rarely operate under their own name, instead delivering a ‘white label’ service that is branded according to client needs. The contractor’s name is not chief among client priorities.
Toner explains: “Client concerns are always about whether they’re going to stop dealing with the people they’re used to seeing, are their costs going to go through the roof, and will service get distracted. If you’re not changing any of those things, then it’s kind of business as usual.”
Of course, getting the clients on-side was only half the battle. For the rebranding exercise to succeed it needed buy-in from CH&Co’s most valuable asset: its people.
Toner has overseen seven M&A deals in six years: OJ’s/Juice for Life and Couture (2012), Catermasters (2014), CH&Co (2015), the Brookwood Partnership (2016), and Harbour & Jones and Concerto Group (2017). Each one came with key personnel, including company founders. These were people who had spent years pouring their hearts and souls into building up their respective brands, and the idea of their legacies being lost might not be appreciated.
When the rebranding plans were revealed to senior management at a CH&Co conference in March, Toner asked attendees: “Can you imagine going through this process and you’ve got Patrick Harbour sitting on the team? Here we are launching this whole new initiative and Harbour & Jones will disappear? I thought at one point he could punch me in the face.”
But the line drew a laugh, says Toner, even from Harbour, who maintains that while the rebrand is not without its pain, everyone knew that something had to be done.
“It’s always a bit difficult when you’re going to be changing names, but actually you’ve got to look forward and you’ve got to have clarity,” he says. “What we’ve come up with will be clear to the market. Our staff understand it and hopefully it means we can start getting out there and picking up more business because we have a clear focus as to what the business is now.
“We needed to be able to say to the market, ourselves, our suppliers, this is who we are, this is what we stand for and let’s move forward.”
It’s a compelling argument – and it’s one that has won over the staff. The remaining reaction to gauge belongs to the marketplace, and ultimately time will tell how customers respond to the rebrand, which should be complete by the end of the year.
So how much does a major rebranding exercise like this cost? Toner offers a wry laugh. “It’s a lot of money,” he says. “But you’ve got to go through the process; there’s no shortcut. I went from being surly, to bored, to excited, to ‘shit – this is what we need to do’.”
CH&Co’s new portfolio
• CH&Co Workplaces
• CH&Co Destinations
• CH&Co Venues
• CH&Co Events
• CH&Co Education
• CH&Co Livery
• CH&Co Healthcare
• Brookwood Partnership (to be rebranded CH&Co Independent Education later in the year)
• ABsolutely by CH&Co
• Principals by CH&Co
Bill Toner took the helm of CH&Co Group three years ago this month. He came on board as part of the company’s merger with HCM Group, which formed a major new player on the UK foodservice scene, with a combined turnover approaching £200m.
Today CH&Co’s turnoversits at £300m, thanks to further mergers with the Brookwood Partnership, Harbour & Jones and Concerto Group, as well as strong organic growth. It operates 750 sites across the UK and Ireland and employs 6,200 people.
For the first six months of 2017, the company reported new and retained business worth £58m, with new sales representing almost half (46%) of the total. And 2018 appears to have kicked off with an even bigger bang.
“Give or take a million, we’ve had about £80m of contract wins in Q1. So that’s a good start to the year,” says Toner. “Workplace, commercial, some education ones. It’s been across the board.”
The company’s partnership with chef Mark Sargeant, announced at the tail end of last year, is also bearing fruit. In addition to supporting the caterer’s commitment to food innovation and training, Sargeant and CH&Co have launched new restaurant Sargeant’s Mess at the Tower of London, on the site that was previously the company’s Perkin Reveller.
“We’re also putting a Sargeant’s Deli in there, which I’m sure will compete effectively with Benugo,” adds Toner.