100 – the top five contract caterers

22 July 2010 100 – the top five contract caterers

Earlier this month,, in association with Bisto, revealed its list of the 100 most influential people in hospitality. In our third article analysing the list, we look at the biggest players in contract catering.
While it is unsurprising that three of the top five contract caterers in the 100 come from Compass Group - it is, after all, the world's largest caterer - the top five have more in common than place of employment.

The Compass trio of Richard Cousins, Ian Sarson and Jason Leek; BaxterStorey duo Alastair Storey and William Baxter; and Robyn and Tim Jones from CH&Co (formerly Charlton House) are all "very driven, understand the marketplace and are very clear about what they can offer the business", according to Jonathan Doughty, managing director of food service consultancy Coverpoint.

"They all understand the subtleties of the market - although they have not all done it in the same way," he adds. "They also understand the competition and, as a result, have carved themselves a piece of the market."


Fergus Chambers, managing director of Cordia, the limited liability catering and facilities management provider for Glasgow City Council and a former Food Service Catey winner, says the make-up of the top five highlights the different routes to the top.

"Either you come up through the ranks like Alastair Storey and Robyn Jones, taking each and every job move to advance your career; or you develop as an industry leader (irrespective of which industry) and eventually move into contract catering. The theory is that to be a manager at this level, you need generic management skills rather than catering-specific skills," he says.

"Whichever route is taken, it is clear that these people are all inspirational true leaders, able to balance the management of large teams, dynamic brands and, in some cases, large groups of shareholders or stakeholders."

Despite the clear differences in the scale and approach of the contract catering operators, all five have made a play in terms of size, according to Doughty.

"Compass, for example, went out to the market and said ‘we are a global player' and pushed that at an extraordinary rate," he says. "Scale is also important for Tim and Robyn at CH&Co - being niche is fine, but you can be a big niche player."


The number one contract caterer in the 100, Richard Cousins, has been lauded by the City for leading the major transformation of Compass Group since taking the helm in March 2006.

At the time he took over, Compass was well and truly on the ropes - it had just sacked three senior executives in a bribery scandal over contracts to feed UN peacekeepers in Liberia; it took the brunt of criticism from the campaign led by Jamie Oliver over the quality of school meals in the UK; while a merger with Granada in 2000 had brought it a number of units and contracts that were not making money. All this led to three profit warnings in 2005 and the departure of its chief executive Mike Bailey.

Cousins decided to take an axe to the business, pulling out of 50 countries where its contracts were low margin and it did not have the scale to compete effectively. Between 2006 and 2007 it sold a number of businesses, including European vending unit Selecta and its SSP and Moto travel concessions, for £3bn.

"Cousins understands opportunity - he is a great calculator," says Doughty. "He takes on information, shares it with the relevant people and then distils from it the things that need to be kept within the business and those things that need to be cut."

The key decision Cousins has made during his time at Compass is to "appoint some very good people and allow them to do the job", according to Doughty.

"There was a lot of murmuring when Elmo (former UK and Ireland chief Ian El-Mokadem) was appointed as he had no food background - our industry is incredibly anal," he says. "But Cousins had the foresight to allow that to happen - he realised that the company needed to take a completely different perspective."

There was similar muttering in industry circles when Jason Leek was promoted to head up Compass's fine dining arm, Restaurant Associates, in 2006. "People were saying ‘Jason who?' as he was an unproven asset," says Doughty. "But he has been exceptional. It's not luck - he was granular in the way he researched the business. He spent a lot of time understanding the business, the market and the offering."

When, in October 2009, Leek broadened his remit, taking control of Eurest Services as well as Restaurant Associates, there was none of the negative feedback. "He has got the respect of his peers and high-end clients," says Doughty. "He must be one hell of a leader to command that respect."


When it comes to leadership, every manager in hospitality should look to Alastair Storey, according to Doughty. "He should be a case study," he says. "I have never heard him shout - he doesn't need to. This evenness is his greatest asset - it allows him to hold together the largest collection of egos in the industry."

Like Storey and William Baxter at BaxterStorey, Robyn and Tim Jones at CH&Co understand the power of the niche, according to Doughty. "Robyn had real balls, so to speak, to go into what is a very male-dominated sector," he says. "She made food the hero and really cares about her people."

CH&Co's employment policies, including giving all staff a birthday card, a Christmas present and an Easter gift and a "Golden Envelope" scheme to thank people who have made an outstanding contribution to the company, have won the Joneses many plaudits.

Indeed, people skills are a key characteristic uniting the top five, according to Chambers. "The contract catering industry is based on people and therefore all of these leaders have to have good interpersonal skills, which include diplomacy, an essential ingredient when dealing with very different client groups," he says. "Innovation may not always come from them but they have to have the confidence in the proposals to be able to take the risky decisions for their business."


1 Richard Cousins on the ‘old Compass', The Sunday Times, December 2007 "The food culture is really strong. But perhaps in the past, the culture that grew up was through the chef rather than the accountant - and that helps explain why Compass was perhaps run with a lot of flair, but not enough discipline."

2William Baxter on BaxterStorey's USP, Foodchain, December 2008 "We have a great drive and passion and we want to grow the business at a rate where we can concentrate on quality and service. Long-term we want to be known as the company that sets the standards within our industry and we're getting there. We love what we do, we are pleased with what we have achieved, but we still have more to do."

3Alastair Storey on staff training, Caterer, May 2008 "There's always a temptation to cut training, but if you're serious about using fresh food in your operation, as we are, you need to keep training all the time. Ultimately, training your staff is what improves your profitability and drives volumes in your business."

4Ian Sarson on coping with the downturn, Caterer, July 2010 "Price has always been a key factor. We want to strive to provide the best, sensible price rather than the lowest price. You can always offer the lowest price by not doing the job and we don't believe in taking short term risks for short term success. What the recession has done for Compass, and more broadly for the industry, is make us look long and hard at the superfluous processes; eliminating waste from the supply chain, labour platform and wherever it occurs."

5Jason Leek on business relationships, FMX, April 2010 "The more a relationship is built on trust, then the more clients will leave you to perform and the less it will cost them."

6 Robyn Jones on contract catering, Caterer, November 2006 "Give a quality meal on a plate and the customers will come back and the bottom line will look after itself. I've had that principle all along, and it has proven itself."

7Tim Jones on adapting to the credit crunch, Caterer, August 2008 "You just have to work harder. People have still got money to spend but you can't afford to be rigid. If the client wants a function and pays £40 a head, not the usual £50, you have to make that work."


Nominees in each of these five categories were judged by panels of industry experts.

To begin with, candidates had to meet these qualifying criteria: the personality should be based mainly in the UK, and their power and influence should be primarily in the UK market.

Shortlisted candidates were awarded marks for each of five criteria, which were averaged out to give an overall ranking in the 100.

First consideration was the scale and scope of the operation headed by the nominees. But size isn't everything, and candidates were next judged on the power and influence they exert in the industry and the respect they command among their peers. We asked whether they were shapers of policy, leaders in their field, or inspiring and nurturing the next generation of movers and shakers.

The judges then examined whether the candidates had a proven record of financial success and whether this was reflected in the eyes of their peers and the outside world.

The candidates' reputation for innovation was next, as the judges examined to what degree they were setting standards others wanted to copy and whether their ideas would remain in fashion.

Longevity was the fifth and final hurdle for the candidates as the panellists considered whether they - and their creations - would stand the test of time.

View the full 100 list for 2010 >>

The top five restaurateurs >>

The top five hoteliers >>

The top five chefs >>

The top five pub executives >>

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