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Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview: Charles Beer, Crown Group

Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview: Charles Beer, Crown Group

For an organisation with as many business arms as catering and events company Crown Group, branding is a central issue. Managing partner Charles Beer tells Janie Manzoori-Stamford how the many cogs in the business are kept turning

When did you join Crown Group?
In 2000 as operations director for its event catering company, which at the time was called Crown Society. I was made managing director after the first year, which I did until around 2006 when the chairman [Russell Morgan] asked me to become chief executive, and then ultimately managing partner of the group. That change was to reflect the fact that I was no longer an employee because I had equity in the business.

Day-to-day, the move made no difference, but the effect on long-term thinking was huge. I don't foresee me being anywhere else. Professionally I think about the business, not about what I will be doing in five or 10 years.

What is the structure of the business?
We then have Crown Group Management, which is what it says - a management company, which all our group functions like finance, HR and sales work for. Then there are the likes of Kudos, Seasoned Events and Piggotts, which are all separate companies in their own right. And then there are brands, such as the Perfect Wedding Company and Venue Reservations, which are not companies, but central sales services within the group. Each of the separate companies has its own team and managing director, while most of the brands fall under central marketing, under Jackie Harding.

How do they work with each other? By design, all of our businesses have a symbiotic relationship of some description, but none is reliant exclusively on group business. So Piggotts, for example, does marquees, 
branding, flags, Christmas lighting and 
creative displays, and 98% of its business has 
nothing to do with the group. Around 50% of the Event Hire Company's business is supplying products to the group.

They must all be able to stand alone, but they will also benefit from varying levels of business from each other. And they trade at normal prices with each other; there are no discounts because each company is responsible for its own profit and loss.

What are the challenges of operating under 
so many different brands? The challenges are making sure people who don't know Crown Group understand all those services, the full range and the products we can offer. We don't want to confuse people. We try to make sure the identity of each brand is specific enough that they're identifiable about what they do.

The positives are they absolutely generate income for each other. If Piggotts is putting a marquee up for a dinner, someone will ask the organiser if they have a caterer, and vice versa. There are occasions where we can offer a one-stop shop. At Henley we look after Leander Rowing Club and we project-manage the whole thing - catering, furniture, marquee, staffing, branding, flags. Apart from selling it, we actually supply the whole deal.

In 2007 Crown Group was rebranded as Oriel Group, and then nine months later it went back to Crown Group. What went on there? We had Crown Group, Crown Venue Catering and Crown Society, and then we had Piggotts and other businesses that had no reference 
to Crown. We decided to try and make it clearer. Then we got a lot of feedback from 
longstanding clients who told us it was a shame that we'd lost our Crown identity. We'd had a soft launch and realised we'd probably made a mistake, so we reverted to Crown Group, but there were no longer any trading identities referencing Crown.

Oriel was a senior management decision. We wanted to do something different that wasn't product-specific. We had a design company involved, and liked how it looked and sounded. We're not ashamed to say we made a mistake. That's fine. It's about how you deal with it.

There appears to have been quite a lot of rebranding over the years. Crown Venue Catering became Kudos Hospitality and later Kudos, Crown Society became Seasoned Events. Wasn't there a risk of confusing 
clients and customers? There's always a risk. What we were trying to do was make it simpler. We could have gone the other way and had Crown Staffing, Crown Marquees, Crown everything. But then each company and identity needed to be very clear. It's worked. People who trade with Seasoned don't get confused and think it's the same company as Kudos because it's not.

If you go back 10 years, we had more brands than we do now because we've tried to simplify it. From the outside we do look complicated sometimes, but we're not actually. When the opportunities have arisen, where the branding fits, we've tried to make them more user-friendly as a collection of brands.

There is a debate we have sometimes to make it all one thing, but we don't want to be a faceless giant. The MDs that run their businesses are very different and it's reflected in the type of business they operate.

The management decisions to rebrand are 
the sort that some might associate with businesses with an entrepreneurial spirit 
at their core, but how do you balance gut instinct and long-term strategy?

You absolutely have to have a long-term business strategy, be it for one year, five years or 
10 years. It can have as much detail as you want. But the entrepreneurial spirit means you quite often adjust your strategy. That gut feeling - no matter what research, analysis and planning you've done - will be the ultimate driver for a business decision.

The day you start ignoring that would be a worrying day for your strategy. It's instinct, which comes from experience, and we've a lot of experience in our organisation. You need to listen to that.

People have asked me on occasion why I'm going for a contract if it's something we might not have specialised in before. But we will have looked at it as a team and decided that we can add some value and actually we quite fancy it, we reckon we can do it. That might change strategy. You categorise opportunities, but you don't necessarily dismiss ones you might have turned down historically. You still look at each one on its own merit.

How far ahead does Crown Group look in terms of future growth plans? In detail, between one and five years. Past that, it's what the chairman and I, along with our senior management team, think we should be looking at. I've got a reasonably good idea of what we'll be doing in 10 years' time, but it's open to change. It allows us to be nimble.

We didn't set out to do mobile catering last year, but we're in the process this year of 
buying and converting two Citroen H vans and a tuk tuk to serve hotdogs, burritos and 
churros and a coffee offer, because street food is all the rage at the moment. It's important we have something to offer our clients that reflects what's on trend.

What is the management structure like? Russell splits his time between the UK and Portugal roughly 50/50 and we speak every day. It can be a five-minute chat or it might be an hour. Driving the business is Jackie, me and the relevant MDs.

Russell doesn't sit remotely and once a month make a phone call. He's got more 
experience than any of us. He started the business 40 years ago and we seek out his input when we make the big decisions and talk about our strategy because it's valuable and we'd be silly not to.

Tell me about Crown Group's use of technology and the use of O2 Priority Moments to drive business to your commercial ventures. We just renewed a contract with O2 for our phones and one of the things they afforded us was location alert, which is very appropriate for Kaleido in Manchester. It's a destination restaurant in a highly populated area on the fifth and sixth floor of the National Football Museum, which is one of the challenges, and right by the Manchester Arena. It's an obvious marketing tool for Kaleido. It's absolutely helping drive business through there, especially when there is an event on at the arena.

One of the brightest feathers in Crown Group's cap is two-Michelin-starred Midsummer House and the company's relationship with Daniel Clifford. How did that begin? The Crown Group bought the restaurant roughly 16 or 17 years ago. Daniel was brought in 15 years ago as the head chef; a year 
later he became chef patron, and soon after that he was a business partner in the group.

We don't get involved in the Midsummer House experience. We're the behind-the-scenes business partner, and everything about the restaurant is Daniel. We still do the tax returns through the central finance team; if he wants HR advice or anything to do with health and safety - what I would call the 'grey' services - it's available. It doesn't influence what he does.

How do the restaurant and the catering arms support each other? He's creative director for Kudos. He accommodates and we send our key chefs from Kudos for what we internally call the Michelin masterclass. They'll spend 72 hours working with Daniel at Midsummer. We don't expect them to come back as Michelin-starred chefs, but you can see the influences and touches it has around the business.

He also gets involved in certain projects and events if we think it's relevant and if it's what the client wants. He will advise on purchasing trends. It's a good relationship.

He's got some extraordinary cutting-edge cooking techniques at Midsummer - as you'd expect - and Kudos has the chance to understand how they work. We are able to use what he does to the benefit and skills of our chefs. It's amazing. I did the class six or seven years ago and I spent the whole time in awe of what they do.

What will the next 12 months look like for Crown Group? We're not thinking about rebranding things any time soon! We don't take these decisions lightly, even though it might look like it - we don't. We are very focused on our core business at the moment. There will be some very exciting developments in terms of our retail business next year, but there's no major strategy change from where we are at the moment.

Crown Group Snapshot

Annual turnover: £37m

Employees: 350 full time

Number of sites: about 40 across the UK

Companies: Kudos, Seasoned Events, Midsummer House, Kudos Cafés, Jobs 2 Go, The Event Hire Companyh, Kudos Deleivered, Kaleido, Piggotss Flags and Banners, Piggotts Marquees, Piggotts Christmas Lighting, Piggotts Creative Display, At Home

Brands: - Venue Reservations, Hospitality Solutions, VIP Attention, Ominforce, The Perfect Wedding Company, Feed

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