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The Caterer

Is outsider knowledge better?

24 January 2007
Is outsider knowledge better?

I can't understand why there should be such negative reaction to a successful "City" man being installed at the helm of a division in a large contract caterer such as Compass. To me, the appointment of Jason Leek as managing director of its new fine-dining arm is natural progression and makes sense given the scope of the business and its diversity (Caterer, 26 October, page 6).

In fact, to refer to Compass as a contract caterer is flawed when you consider its vast turnover in non-food services and bundled soft facilities management. It shouldn't surprise anyone to see skills from other industries and professions being integrated with the organic ones that have been honed from a career in food.

Quick decisions

The CEO is a captain of the ship who steers its course. In the modern world of communications this involves making quick decisions using all the data at his fingertips. This data must be presented and supported by specialist teams, to whom the CEO may turn if in-depth specialist supporting information is required.

The onus is on the senior team to see the big picture and to ensure that the infrastructure has a blend of skill sets and adequate resources to deliver given objectives. Neither the CEO nor his senior team needs to have more than a cursory understanding of how these resources achieve their goals. There's a widening dividing line between the running of a successful business and operational management - that's why they employ operational staff to "deliver the promise". To the senior team, shareholder value, return on investment and the balance sheet are critical.

The Compass senior team still benefit from the significant experience and ability of members such as Ian Sarson and Nigel Dunlop, who have emerged through the industry. It's how trump cards such as these are played that counts. There are far fewer now in the giants than 10 years ago. That's because the world of business has changed demonstrably in that time and most have opted to stay solo and build strong independent businesses - for instance, Geoffrey Harrison, Alastair Storey and Robyn Jones.

As long as today's senior manager is proficient in business management, with associated business acumen, why should they need to comprehend the intricacies of preparing a cordon bleu menu? In fact, ignorance may well be bliss when considering the difficulties that managers from food service origins have encountered when attempting to integrate non-core support services into their strategy for growth.

Entrepreneurs

The pioneers and their successors in contract catering, such as Don Davenport, Garry Hawkes and Sterling Gallagher, who were responsible for moving industrial catering from the "gravy and soup mix" to the food service experts we have today, were true entrepreneurs. They were leaders before they were managers. They understood the truism of being only as good as your last meal and while building their empires they stayed, in the main, food-focused. It could be said that their problems began when they moved away from food and began to compete with the facilities management giants without the blend of skills and management experience required.

The large contractors still address the development of craft skills and culinary excellence, but the need is significantly less in the modern era of the food server rather than the food producer, particularly where a diminishing skill base coupled with commercial considerations is driving an increasingly retail-orientated food service offer comparable to that found in the high street.

With a highly defined product the challenge now for the likes of Compass and Sodexho is market sector penetration and communication of what's on offer. It makes sense, therefore, for someone from the target sector itself, who understands its nuances and dynamics, to be responsible for achieving this.

Their gift to the senior team is their knowledge and experience of other business management. They support the collective to deliver the strategies to compete with the global FM players rather than "becoming" their food offer.

Contact

Tim Cookson, chairman, The Litmus Partnership, Alfa House, 7 Doman Road, Camberley, Surrey GU15 3DN

timcookson@litmuspartnership.co.uk

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