Foodservice legend Don Davenport dies aged 77

26 August 2021 by
Foodservice legend Don Davenport dies aged 77

Don Davenport, former managing director of Sutcliffe Catering, chief executive of Compass Group's UK & Ireland division and Catey winner, has died aged 77.

Born in London in August 1943, Davenport was the only boy at Buckhurst Hill Grammar School to choose domestic science instead of metalwork. At the age of 15, he trained as a chef at Waltham Forest Technical College in east London and by 1960, he was helping in the kitchens of the May Fair hotel and the Trocadero in central London.

"In those days, you'd just go up to the back door of the kitchen and ask if they needed any help," he told The Caterer in an interview in 2003.

After starting a two-year management course with Trusthouse Forte in 1961, he switched to its contract catering division, Gardner Merchant, where he became an area manager at the age of 22 and then regional director for the south-west. He met his wife Anne there in 1963 and they were married in London in 1966.

While at Gardner Merchant he oversaw the company's Ford Motor Company contract, with around 3,000 catering staff feeding 74,000 people, at which time Geoffrey Harrison started working under him. He described him as "inspirational" to work for and "a remarkable man".

"He was one of these people that quietly led by example," he said. "He had an uncanny knack of guiding you by subtle means. He didn't say ‘I'd like you to do this now'; he'd pose a question and while you were searching for the answer, you'd realise you were doing exactly what he wanted you to do."

While there he was also Bob Cotton's first boss: "He was obviously someone who was going places, to have been a general manager running the Ford contract, which was the biggest contract in Gardner Merchant at the time," said Cotton.

"He was obviously a high achiever, even at that age, but also fun to work with and very methodical. A professional contract caterer.

"Contract foodservice is a very specific type of hospitality. It's not like hotels or restaurants, because you have clients and customers who buy your food every day, so you've got two bosses who are not always aligned. It's a real skill to understand the needs of a client but also satisfy the needs of your day-to-day customers and Don particularly understood that. He was a consummate professional… A lot of people owe their careers to him."

In 1979, Davenport joined P&O's Sutcliffe Catering division as managing director for the south, rising to group managing director in 1990. "It all joined up when he arrived and he transformed the business. Sutcliffe became a market leader under him," said Mike Oldfield, who worked with him for more than 30 years, starting at Sutcliffe where he was an area manager. He said Davenport was a "top notch businessman" who was ahead of his time.

"He was into training before people were really talking about training. He was into quality before people started to talk about quality management. On the back of that we won huge contracts in the City and he made a business that was worth probably at most £50m-£60m into a business that eventually sold to Compass for hundreds of millions," he said.

"I can remember him saying ‘promise is a very strong word; if you promise to do something then deliver it'. That was what he was like – if he promised somebody something, he would deliver."

Sutcliffe was also where a young William Baxter worked for him as an area manager, and Davenport became his mentor.

Baxter said: "I would have only been 23. Bearing in mind that he was the managing director in a large company and I was a very young manager, it was amazing to have that kind of contact at such a high level. He was inspirational, a lot of fun and a tough taskmaster. He always put the customer first.

"He was a good teacher, a good motivator and very much a people person, very approachable. He would often have a beer with us at the end of a long day. Not many MDs would do that."

He added: "There are a lot of people in the industry that came up via Don and Sutcliffe Catering in those years and it's produced a lot of entrepreneurs, which speaks for itself."

One of those people included Bartlett Mitchell executive chair Wendy Bartlett, who joined Sutcliffe in 1980 and stayed with the business for 20 years. "He was ahead of his time, in terms of females in the business and what they could add to an organisation," she said.

"He was a great supporter of mine at Sutcliffe, Compass and when we started Bartlett Mitchell. Don empowered entrepreneurial behaviours."

After Granada bought Sutcliffe in 1993, Davenport became chief executive of the new Granada Services to Business division, following which Granada's 1996 acquisition of Forte brought Davenport the new role of group managing director of Granada Hospitality.

Davenport won the Catey Foodservice Caterer of the Year Award in 1997 for driving the most dynamic growth areas at Granada – namely contract catering and roadside dining. He was behind key foodservice acquisitions such as Baxter & Platts, CCG's business and industry division, Bromwich Catering and Shaw Catering.

In 1998 he became chief executive of Granada Restaurants, where he oversaw a £1.9b operation covering contract catering, hotels, motorway service area and roadside restaurants and brands including Little Chef and Travelodge.

Davenport became chief executive officer for Compass's UK and Ireland division in July 2000 after it merged with Granada and presided over more than 20 brands, ranging from business and industry giant Eurest to Roux Fine Dining and the Medirest and Scholarest health and education specialists. He also looked after the UK division of five global brands, including Selecta Vending, airport and railway specialist Select Service Partner and Moto motorway service areas.

Having spent nearly all his working life in the foodservice sector, he told The Caterer shortly before retiring: "I can't think of another business where you get the opportunity at a very early age to run 15 or so contracts and deal with high-level people in such a variety of professional environments."

He retired on 30 September 2005 and stood down from his other roles as chairman of People 1st and Hospitality Action that same year, after which he was able to spend more time on his hobbies such as cricket, trains and boats. He and Anne had boats on the Thames and in Salcombe and went on many cruise holidays during their retirement together. He also made regular trips to the Isle of Wight Real Ale Festival and continued to be involved in the industry as a non-executive director for Harrison Catering.

"He brought so much to the table. My son and daughter are now joint managing directors and he was a great mentor for them," said Harrison.

"There are a lot of people whose careers have developed under his management. A lot of people have got a great deal to thank him for."

Davenport passed away from pneumonia on 17 August and is survived by his wife Anne and daughter Claire.

"Don was an avid champion of people development and gave tremendous support to People 1st in the years that he chaired the sector skills council board," said People 1st international executive director Jane Rexworthy.

"His dedication to driving the agenda for skills led us to achieve strong industry backing and made a real difference to skills provision in hospitality and tourism."

Hospitality Action chief executive Mark Lewis described him as "a legend of the UK foodservice industry".

He added: "Colleagues who were at the charity when he was chairman remember him as a warm, friendly and supportive man. Under Don's stewardship, Compass Group became a major financial backer of the charity, and for a period even housed the HA team at its offices in High Holborn and then Tower 42. We send our condolences to Don's family, as they remember a life well lived."

Robin Mills, managing director of Compass Group UK & Ireland, said: "I'm very sorry to hear of Don's passing. He was a strong advocate of the industry and the people who worked in it. He invested his own time in representing people at all levels and backgrounds and creating opportunities for them. He was a real contributor to the growth of our sector."

Nick Vadis, culinary director of Compass Group UK & Ireland, added: "Don was a great advocate for our culinary team and he always seemed at home in the kitchens. He was committed to offering opportunities and gave chefs a platform, through development in the workplace and culinary competitions – laying the foundations for our celebration of chefs, which still runs through our business today. A true people person, with a larger than life personality, he always showed kindness and generosity to others. He will be missed and my thoughts are with his family."

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