The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Debbie White

The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Debbie White

Debbie White took over as chief executive of Sodexo UK and Ireland following Aidan Connolly's surprise departure last year. After four years spent working for the food service and facilities management firm Stateside, she tells Janie Manzoori-Stamford how her financial background gives her time to focus on company strategy

How have you found your first few months in the role?
Very busy. I've been learning what's changed since I was last here in the UK, five years ago. The mix of business is enormously different. It is now 50% food and 50% other services, and also a 50-50 mix of public and private sector clients. Sodexo is now profitable and stable. Phil Jansen was brought in eight years ago to get the UK on a profitable growth trajectory and we're now ready to take the business forward.

My challenge is to move away from being an outsource service provider to being a partner that can take away the non-core work from our clients. The business has been at £1b for some time but we need to expand on that.

Both you and your predecessor Aidan Connolly came from a finance capacity. What benefits can that background give you?
I always said I'd never be an accountant but I graduated in the early 1980s when we had one of the deepest recessions and ended up as a trainee accountant. I spent 14 years in many different financial roles, the last of which was with pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca when I managed the billion dollar integration of the two companies.

But I never saw myself as a bean counter. I had trained for that but I really wanted to do something broader. I spent four years as a consultant before I joined Sodexo as finance director in the UK and Ireland.

The good thing about having a CEO who "gets" numbers is that it's not a distraction. You can focus on building the business, working out the strategy and delivering. Having a good numerical grasp is a very good advantage for a CEO. You can spend a lot of time understanding numbers if you struggle with them.

Did you ever consider a return to pharmaceuticals?
The industry we're in is a people-based business and quite frankly that's one of the reasons I'm still in the sector. Helping people realise and deliver their potential while at the same time realising the client's and the company's goals is hugely satisfying. As CEO, I take my responsibility for our employees seriously. If anything was going to keep me awake at night, it wouldn't be the numbers but the responsibility for everything that we have to do each day.

How would you describe the Sodexo of today?
Food is our core. It's where we came from and it will always remain a very important part of Sodexo, not just in the UK, but globally. But food is a defined market. It's very difficult to expand rapidly because it is workforce and population driven.

We set ourselves on a trajectory five years ago of bringing other services to our clients, who were encouraging us to go down that track. It was met with a lot of cynicism and it was probably seen as a very brave thing to do, but it has absolutely played out.

Look at how both public and private sector clients are sourcing; at their expectations in everything from healthy eating to workplace gyms, crèches to cleaning, and security to reception. Increasingly they're expecting one provider to be able to do all of this. That really is where the growth is.

Trends tend to be cyclical. Do you think the trend towards bundled services will wane?
I don't think so. My observation is, and I'm not an expert, that increasingly both public and private sector organisations have tightened their definition of their core and widened their definition of things that can be done by other people. I don't see them going back on that. How they bundle and what they bundle varies sector by sector and client by client but the general principle of tightening your core and being expert at your business has changed significantly in 20 years.

Do you think that Sodexo's early embrace of the bundled services market is what sets it apart from its rivals?
There are a number of things. It probably starts with our heritage, by which I mean our value statement to improve the quality of daily life. The other thing that's part of our heritage is the fact that while we are a public listed company, we are just under 40% owned by the founding family.

This allows us to take a longer-term perspective. While other competitors have retreated from some emerging markets and narrowed their area of focus in the last few years, Sodexo hasn't. It maintained its investment. We bought the largest catering company in Brazil last year, we bought a company in India two years ago and we've continued to invest in China. Sodexo didn't retract because the executive of the group believed in the future potential of those emerging markets. Having the majority family shareholder means there isn't quite so much pressure on us as for others.

What is the strategy going forward?
We have to improve the breadth of service offers that we share with our clients. It's been an evolution not a revolution in Sodexo over the past six years and we have an awful lot further to go with that. In the last 12 to 18 months, we've added a whole new range of services to our capability set, such as integrated pathology services, a joint venture with LabCo. We've won one contract and we're in the process of bidding for others. I'm not sure any of our competitors do that currently.

I don't see any significant change in strategy, or divergence away from group strategy, but I do want to focus on how we embed it deeper in the organisation. It's incredibly important as a leader to be clear in your expectations, that you energise your organisation and help people prioritise what they do.

With 36,000 people, it would be great if each and every one of them could articulate what we're trying to do and how we're going to get there. I'm not inferring that we haven't been very clear but the message bears repeating.

Last year, Sodexo bought asset management firm Atkins. Any plans for further acquisitions?
I am definitely open to looking at further acquisitions and not just in the other service space, but potentially in the food space. We are very clear in our strategy that we will grow organically and add selectively as needed.

How much business has Sodexo won and retained in the last 12 months?
Our goal this year is to retain 95% of our business and we're on track to do that. Over the past few years the trend in the UK has been improving and we are having more success in selling additional services, such as with the £375m European Unilever contract to deliver a range of services at 70 sites across 15 countries.

Increasingly, large private sector clients are insisting on doing European or global deals so the fact that Sodexo's footprint is as broad as it is positions us really well.

What is your view on the economy?
We have to be able to support small and medium-sized businesses in a more positive way. Our ability to grow out of the recession has got to come from all sectors of the economy - it cannot just come from the public sector or big business. We have to make the economic environment encouraging for everybody and the UK could do a lot more to encourage successful small busi-ness opportunities.

The US churns out very strong innovators and entrepreneurs from its leading universities. There are thousands of people out there all starting new business ideas and all being encouraged to do so. I'm encouraged to see the UK Government is doing some of this with initiatives such as the new Small Business Lending Fund, but I think we can do a lot more.

For our economy to be really successful we need to make sure that the role of entrepreneurs is clearly supported.

debbie white: career highlights
1983 Senior tax advisor, Arthur Anderson
â- 1987 Various financial roles including vice-president integration, following merger, AstraZeneca
â- 2000 Director, PricewaterhouseCoopers
â- 2004 Finance director, Sodexo UK & Ireland
â- 2007 Group projects director, Sodexo Group
â- 2008 Senior vice-president and chief financial officer, Sodexo Inc (North America)
â- 2012 Chief executive, Sodexo UK & Ireland

Sodexo UK & Ireland: Snapshot
Annual turnover £1.1b
Number of employees 43,000
Number of sites 2,300

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