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Sodexo's Jane Bristow on a mixed future for school catering

09 February 2009 by
Sodexo's Jane Bristow on a mixed future for school catering

She understands the problem of obesity, dismisses fears over nutrient standards and even supports the work of the School Food Trust. Chris Druce meets Jane Bristow, an unusual kind of managing director for Sodexo's education division.

Jane Bristow, the recently installed managing director of Sodexo Education, heads one of the largest school dinner providers in the UK. And with September bringing the next milestone along the journey set in motion by school meals campaigner Jamie Oliver in 2005 - namely, nutrient-based food standards in England's secondary schools - Bristow has plenty on her plate.

Given the importance of her position and Sodexo's influential role in school meals reform, Bristow, who heads a business with an annual turnover of €139m (£131m), is simply not what I'm expecting when we meet at the company's Edgware Road office in London.

Having borrowed a sparsely furnished room in the building - her main base is at Sodexo's regional office in Swindon - Bristow is affable, funny and, refreshingly, not an abuser of corporate speak during our interview, which features the occasional whirr of a hard drive somewhere in the room as its soundtrack.

In her role almost a year now, having taken over from Michelle Hanson in March 2008 after a "cabinet reshuffle" at Sodexo saw her predecessor become commercial director, Bristow is mother to two boys, Jamie and Alex, and married to a secondary-school teacher.

Bristow lives in Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire, and having chatted to her for a good few minutes, it comes as no surprise when she admits she used to be part of her sons' primary school parents' association.

Aged 13 and 14 now, they are both at the same high school, where Bristow has so far avoided PTA entanglements but, no doubt to her sons' horror, she admits that it's been a real struggle not to submit an entry to the school's design-a-new-canteen competition.

Perhaps the fact that Bristow's background is in pubs and restaurants, with 23 years at Whitbread, and that she's only a relatively recent convert to contract catering explains why she isn't typical of managers in the sector.

A Marks & Spencer weekend worker while at university, the closest thing to a family link to hospitality before Bristow joined the industry was her grandfather's role as a drayman for a brewery in Manchester. She had originally intended to build a career in retail.

But applying for a host of graduate positions while at university, she put herself forward by mistake for a job at a little-known, to her, company called Whitbread, because the job title on the application form had retail in it. In fact, the brewer was looking at introducing retail disciplines to its pub estate. Initially not wild about the role, Bristow became increasingly interested as the selection process advanced and she learnt more about it.

"I still wasn't sure until I turned up for a two-day selection event and realised I was the only woman there. That got me going, and I thought, why should I be intimidated by all these men? That's when I decided I'd really go for it."

And so, before she knew it, she found herself living-in at a Whitbread pub in Romford, Essex, followed by a boozer in Luton, Bedfordshire, where the landlord's large Alsatian caused her more worries than the punters. "I think a lot of the guys I was working with found it quite hard going, as they'd never had a woman in their part of the business before. As for me, I was young and arrogant, so I was fine."

Area management followed, and Bristow eventually found herself running the leisure giant's food supply chain, which included Whitbread Logistics (outsourced to Kuehne & Nagel last year). Most recently she was in charge of the company's voucher business, which she recommended they sell - which they did - to Virgin.

"It was a completely amicable split. There'd been such massive change during the time I'd been at the group, and I wanted to move on. When I joined they owned Thresher and still had a brewery in Luton, and I can remember looking down at the production line there where a worker was drinking a half-pint of beer. Can you imagine something like that these days?"

Between the job and raising a family Bristow had had little time off during her stint at Whitbread, so, on leaving, she decided to treat herself and spent several months on the slopes skiing - inadvertently mirroring the downhill path of school meal uptake since Oliver introduced the Turkey Twizzler to a wider public.

Having built up contacts from across the industry during her career, she was made aware on her return of the opportunity to join Sodexo. Having impressed at interview stage, she took on the job of managing the caterer's 140-strong independent schools business from September 2006, reporting to Hanson.

"I saw common strands linking my previous roles with the job at Sodexo, which, as a multi-site business with empathy for the customer and a focus on food and service, was attractive to me," says Bristow.

Although Bristow is fully behind the Government's push for healthy meals, she concedes that the negative publicity generated by Jamie's School Dinners was not helpful to the industry.

"As an outsider looking in at the time, I noticed that it made a lot of people retreat due to the fierce criticism, and in some ways that was quite sad. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, occasionally I wish those with the opinions would pay consideration to other people's views as well.

"Yes, the obesity angle gives us all challenges. None of us wants to see an obese child, as we all want to live in the best social environment we can, and in that respect I can't see how it couldn't be top of my priorities as a school caterer."

Backing up her words with actions, Sodexo became an early supporter of the School Food Trust's healthy food standards, adopting the secondary school rules two years ahead of deadline and taking a financial hit for its troubles, as the long, hard task of converting children's palates from chips with everything to healthier alternatives was undertaken.

Bristow also dismisses the warnings from industry voices that the nutrient-based standards will exacerbate the ongoing decline in the secondary school meals market when they become mandatory this autumn. With national meal uptake at secondary schools at a historically low 37.2%, many have argued that the very viability of the service is under threat, as older children will simply vote with their feet and head for the local chippy when the new restrictions come in.

Coming through

"Our primary school children [who have had food standards in place since 2006] are getting older and coming through the system," she says. "With the current year-seven [first year of secondary school] intake we're really starting to see this. The healthy-meals culture is working its way through.

"However, as a mum, I would add that it's not without challenges, as children's propensity to go through periods where they don't like anything isn't factored into the standards. My eldest kid eats everything at the moment, while his brother thinks cheese panini is nice."

Despite this advocacy, Bristow says that there remain a number of measures that would help boost take-up of healthy meals. These include encouraging children to stay on site introducing electronic card systems for payment and more creative timetabling to avoid lunch-break bottlenecks.

Bristow is also acutely aware of the constraints of council school meals contracts, and believes that commercial opportunities are being missed. "I see interesting business models being used in other parts of the group and would love to try them out with local authorities, but I understand how it is, and how hard it is to change the will of government."

When good deals go bad

It isn't clear whether this lack of flexibility in local government tendering led to the shock announcement last December that Sodexo was pulling the plug on its £6m Milton Keynes deal, which had only begun in April 2008.

Bristow herself is diplomatic when asked why the caterer is quitting, saying only that: "We made it clear we couldn't deliver a standard of service that wouldn't impact on our reputation."

The council, in a statement at the time, was somewhat blunter, suggesting that Sodexo hadn't met its end of the bargain and failed to match its own tender specification, which led to a fall in meal take-up and a demand for more cash. Bristow, however, has obviously decided to pick her battles, and does not comment further.

However, when the recent loss of Sodexo's Gloucestershire school meals contract to the comparatively tiny Edwards & Ward after nine years is raised, the issue is still raw, and Bristow says: "I do wish we hadn't lost it - but we couldn't agree terms, and I'm a pragmatist. But I don't like losing any contract."

Regardless, the managing director remains confident the division will enjoy a good year despite these minor set-backs and the general economic gloom enveloping the country. And why not, with Sodexo's full-year results, published last November, revealing that the UK education business had emerged from a rough patch and delivered its first year-on-year growth in four years, up 3.3%?

The company's first-quarter results last month were notable also in showing declines in core business and industry sectors in many regions but growth for education internationally, including 2.7% organic growth in the UK and Ireland.

"Education is a strong market for the group," says Bristow. "Our scale has helped us manage inflationary pressures such as food prices, and, with times tough, there's no doubt there are opportunities out there, with many [schools and councils] looking to outsourcing to offer better value."

Jane Bristow's career to date

  • March 2008 Managing director of education, UK and Ireland, at Sodexo
  • September 2006 Joins Sodexo, running the independent schools and universities business
  • 2004-06 Managing director, leisure vouchers, Whitbread
  • 2000-04 Logistics director, Whitbread
  • 1994-2000 Regional director, Beefeater
  • 1992-94 Managing director, Berni Inns

School food facts

â- Outsourcing in education grew by 20% to 5,313 sites in 2007, according to the British Hospitality Association.

â- There was a 2.3% rise, to 43.6%, in primary school meal uptake year-on-year to July 2008, according to the School Food Trust.

â- In the same period there was a 0.5% fall in secondary school uptake, to 37.2%.

â- There are about 2,300 schools in England.

Sodexo UK & Ireland Education - the numbers

â- 140 independent schools catered for by Sodexo

â- 100 secondary schools

â- 500 primary schools

â- 40 further and higher education sites

â- Second to Compass Group in the education market

â- £131m (€139m) education sector turnover for the year to 31 August 2008

Recent Sodexo school contract wins

â- Merton House, Chester (independent)

â- Reading School (independent)

â- Richmond school meals, London

â- Q3 Academy School, Birmingham

â- St Paul's School for Girls, Birmingham

â- Wimbledon Girls High School, London

â- Coleg Gwent, Crossleys, Gwent

â- Girls Day School Trust, Streatham, London

â- Clapham High School, London

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