The Caterer

Geoffrey Harrison – My Life in Hospitality

02 September 2010 by
Geoffrey Harrison – My Life in Hospitality

Geoffrey Harrison is the managing director of Harrison Catering.

Geoffrey Harrison began his hospitality career as a chef after leaving college in 1961, prompted by his mother who had been a cook some years before. "We always had more interesting food at home than my mates did. They ribbed me when I did a domestic science course at school, but that stopped when I made them Scotch pancakes," he says.

Harrison's first foray into contract catering was with Bateman Catering before he moved to Gardner Merchant (now Sodexo), where he spent six years as catering manager at Ford's Dagenham plant.

His next role was as district manager for the City of London, looking after 15 clients with different requirements. "Where cost control was vital at Ford, standards were key in the City."

Harrison joined Sutcliffe Catering Group in 1980 after managing director Don Davenport offered him the role of sales manager for the Home Counties. He took on the job of general manager of the schools division three years later.

When Sutcliffe acquired Fairfield Catering, he was appointed its managing director before merging the two businesses to create a single company.

However, when in 1993 Sutcliffe was bought by Granada, which ultimately merged with Compass Group in 2000, Harrison decided it was time to go it alone. "Primarily, their view at the time was to maximise share price, but I couldn't see a long-term strategy," he says. "I like to have a plan that goes beyond a year."

Despite starting from scratch when he was nearing the age of 50, Harrison says he was lucky enough to be able to count on the full support of his wife, Lorraine. He says: "I had a good job - and the lifestyle that goes with it - and when you go out on your own you have to cut back on everything that you enjoy. You need to do that together."

Three months after moving into offices, Harrison Catering was awarded its first contract. "It was a big leap for us, and we've grown steadily ever since."

HIGHS… Harrison Catering winning its first contract at Ninestiles School in Birmingham gave Harrison very good reason to celebrate. "There were definitely one or two Champagne corks flying that day," he says. But he admits that different periods of his career have generated different highs.

"What gives me great satisfaction now, for example, is visiting a junior school and seeing a person who started as a catering assistant now running a team of six, serving 600 meals a day. Developing a person gives me enormous satisfaction."

Harrison's business success was celebrated when he won the Catey for Food Service Caterer in 2010, an accolade he describes as totally unexpected.

"You think, ‘Maybe, maybe, maybe,' but it was still a massive moment when they called my name." It was made all the more special for Harrison by the presence of his children, Claire and Gareth, both Harrison Catering directors, and his supportive wife, who he says was also a winner that night.

LOWS… Harrison experienced his most disheartening moments when he was sales manager at Sutcliffe Catering. While he says the role was an amazing opportunity to see the catering industry from a different perspective, it made the disappointment of not winning a contract even greater.

"You're never the same after you've worked in sales, because it forces you to look at things from the other side of the counter. But when you've worked your socks off and think you've got it all right and the client says ‘No thanks' - that's hard.

"There's no prize for second place, but you pick yourself up and go for the next one with the same degree of enthusiasm," he explains.

Harrison was also disappointed when Granada bought Sutcliffe, because it was such a massive cultural change for the group. "They've been amazingly successful, but that change gave me the opportunity to do something different. It gave me the impetus to set up on my own."

Family Married, two children (both directors in the business)
Age 64
Favourite holiday Barbados
Drives Mercedes CL63 ANG (it's a fast car)
Motto Do what you say you're going to do


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