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Caterer and Hotelkeeper 100: Debbie White, Sodexo

06 December 2012
Caterer and Hotelkeeper 100: Debbie White, Sodexo

Overall Ranking: 42 (NEW ENTRY)
Contract caterer ranking: 7 (NEW ENTRY)

Debbie White - Snapshot

Debbie White is chief executive for Sodexo UK and Ireland. She has overall responsibility for the profitability of this international contract caterer's business throughout the UK and Ireland and direct responsibility for health, safety and risk.

This is a giant of a company, operating some heavy duty contracts. In October, for instance, Sodexo won a new five-year, multi-site food and facilities management contract with Talisman Energy, with a combined value in excess of £300m. Another recent win was the £375m European Unilever contract to deliver a range of services at 70 sites across 15 countries. Sodexo Prestige in Scotland reported dramatic growth in its conference and banqueting business, with sales running £1m ahead of last year.

Year-end results to 31 August 2012 revealed that he UK & Ireland division had revenues of €1.5b. This included €207m from the two big sporting events that took place during the year, the Rugby World Cup in October 2011 and the London Olympics in 2012.

These events, in partnership with Mike Burton Group, accounted for most of the 21.3% growth in corporate revenues. For the first time in two years, Sodexo reported positive organic growth in Healthcare and Seniors, which increased 3.5%, a result in particular of the expansion of services provided to North Staffordshire University Hospital. Operating profit was €80m, up 28.2%, at constant rates.

The company as a whole saw consolidated revenues increase 13.6% to €18.2b across the world, including organic growth of 6.5%.

Debbie White - Career Guide

Aidan Connolly was replaced by White as chief executive of Sodexo UK & Ireland in 2004. White, who stepped into the role on 1 January 2012, is no stranger to Sodexo, having joined the company in 2004 as finance director. She became group projects director in Paris in 2007 before crossing the Atlantic to join Sodexo North America as chief financial officer.

Although she said she'd never be an accountant, she graduated with an economics masters degree during the early 1980s recession and ended up as a trainee accountant. She spent 14 years in a number of financial roles, the last of which was a 12-year stint with pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca when she managed the billion-dollar integration of the two companies.

She reckons that the financial training has stood her in good stead, telling Caterer and Hotelkeeper: "The good thing about having a CEO who ‘gets' numbers is that it's not a distraction. You can focus on building the business, working out the strategy and delivering."

White also spent three years as a consultant at PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

Debbie White - What We Think
The percentage of women who break into the board room is way below 10%. To reach the level of chief executive proves that White is more than capable of steering this leviathan of a company through the economic troubles. Not only that, but she's got 25 years of top level corporate experience behind her.

White inherited a profitable and stable company, but obviously she needs to build on her predecessor's achievements. During Connolly's time at Sodexo, the company had seen a steady increase in its profit margins and client retention rate as well as some major contract wins and the acquisition of WS Atkins's asset management business.

White's challenge is to improve on profitability and to move away from being an outsource service provider to being a partner that can take away the non-core work from clients. She told Caterer and Hotelkeeper: "Look at how both public and private sector clients are sourcing; at their expectations in everything from healthy eating to workplace gyms, crèches to cleaning, and security to reception. Increasingly they're expecting one provider to be able to do all of this. That really is where the growth is. We have to improve the breadth of service offers that we share with our clients."

While White hasn't been in the hot seat long enough to take all the credit, the year-end results show that Sodexo UK & Ireland is pulling out of the flat sales seen in the thick of recession, bolstered obviously by the London 2012 opportunity. And as her first year as chief executive draws to a close, the indications are that White will carry the company to the next level.

The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview: Debbie White >>

Debbie White takes chief executive role >>

£300m offshore contract win >>

Sodexo Prestige sales £1m ahead >>

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