The Caterer Interview – Adam Elliott

15 April 2011 by
The Caterer Interview – Adam Elliott

When the Lindley Group's chief executive Alex McCrindle passed away unexpectedly at the end of 2009, the caterer was left without a man at the top. Enter Adam Elliott, a man on a mission to take Lindley to the next level. Janie Stamford went to meet him

What have you been doing since you took up your new role last August? My feet haven't touched the ground. I needed to see what Lindley was capable of doing and, more importantly, where it sits within today's marketplace. In terms of size, we're probably second after Compass in the sports sector. I found that Lindley is a very buoyant business at the level of turnover it's at. There are a few strings that we can add to the company's bow, but Lindley as a whole package can offer things that other caterers cannot.

Paul Heathcote's event catering business, Heathcotes Outside, was acquired in 2006 and in 2008 Lindley struck a partnership with London fish restaurant group Greens that allowed us to create Greens Outside. The fit with Heathcotes and Greens wasn't as succinct as I would have liked, but it is now.

What changes have you made? We streamlined the stadia operations so that the public catering and hospitality were being managed together by one team instead of two. Training was happening in the business but we've now renewed the focus on it. The skill already existed - our team at Manchester City Football Club delivers exceptional catering - and we're now utilising that skill and nurturing it.

We're going to do some masterclasses with Paul Heathcote for current and potential clients as well as all of our chefs and senior managers so they can take something from the experience back to their individual sites. The opportunities in terms of food are endless.

Another major task was to reorganise the senior team to get a much better split across the whole of the UK and to bring in some skill sets that would be capable not just of running stadia, but heritage too - a sector we're very keen to move into.

Has your most recent experience as managing director of contract caterer Elior's concessions business influenced the direction you plan to take Lindley? I enjoyed what I was doing at Elior and the diversity of looking after the sports heritage business. The chance to steer the Lindley ship in a completely new direction is too good to be true. It has a very good core business as a stadia caterer, and while it's a huge challenge to move into a new sector, it's one I wouldn't have embarked upon if I didn't believe we could do it.

When I reshuffled the senior team, two of the guys I brought in were ex-heritage and stadia people, too, so we've got a pretty good understanding of what the market looks like. What a client wants to see is continuity at the top level. I still believe that a lot of the heritage contracts will take a fairly good stab at a new person on the block if they really believe in the senior team.

Is it unusual for a sector to be open to new operators? I think heritage goes through two- to three-year cycles. We all saw Benugo hit the high street and then, boom, hit the heritage market. It's just what clients at the time think is good. It's whether as a business you've got the ability to be creative enough to hit that heritage sector with a good understanding of what the contracts need.

I do believe we've got a team within Lindley that can do that. It has been relatively easy for me to set up a heritage division and start talking about it. At the moment that's all we're doing. We're talking to three potential heritage clients.

Are you interested in going for the Historic Royal Palaces contract that you looked after at Elior? No, that would have been a push too far for me. I know them well, but to be honest I also have to understand the limits of where we are at the moment. Five months in, it would be extremely wrong of me to think that we could hit the heritage market and take it by storm.

We've got to create the heritage brand, deliver some good-quality heritage sites - maybe two or three small ones over the next 12 months - before that will start building. The momentum has begun already. A lot of people have shown an interest in what we're doing and where we're going. That's not to say I wouldn't turn a large one down.

I want to make sure that what we do, we do correctly and that the Lindley Heritage brand will start driving itself. It has some serious mileage. The heritage sector needs a couple of new key players to offer something different, which I think we can do. Lindley Heritage has a got a fantastic outside catering arm with Heathcotes Outside and we've got Greens as well. So if someone wanted to have a Greens wedding on a heritage site, we could do it.

Presumably the likes of Compass could also provide such a broad offer? They could, but they're not. They would have to go and find their own Heathcotes and Greens. This business allows me to be fairly entrepreneurial in the approach that I take. I can sit with smaller caterers and if we need to collaborate we can do it. Whereas in the bigger corporate market the view is "why go elsewhere? We should be able to do it in-house". It's more interesting for me to work with a good, reputable caterer. I think that's why Lindley did the deals with Heathcotes and Greens in the first place.

We may consider further similar deals. We have a very good business partner in Sovereign Capital. They're very supportive; they want the business to grow and have the capital if they want to spend it. But I've got to make sure the company grows organically. We don't want to buy a business just to grow.

What about a move into bundled services? We're definitely not going to rule it out, but I want to get Lindley - the branding; the website, everything - in the fashion I want it first. We will consider joint-venture scenarios if the contract requires it, but we will also look at whether we can acquire a business as well. Options are very much open at this stage.

I think all of us talk about bundled services but I'm not sure if any of us really do it. It's more important to make sure that what you can bring to the party you can then sell to the clients you've already got. The day will come when a client respects the one-stop-shop.

What's your plan for the next two years? I'm going to build on what we've already got, bring in the right team and ensure we're ready for the future. This business is currently sitting at £50m turnover. In two years' time I want it to be at £100m. I plan to double the business, which is quite a tall order, but not unachievable - hence the focus on heritage, which in itself could be a £20m business in the next two years. We've just rebranded the business into four distinct elements (see left) that will all sit under the Lindley Group umbrella business.

We've got a packed schedule of events this summer with the Take That and Kings of Leon tours, which is great because they'll keep us busy during a period when the stadia usually shut down. It's exciting for me at the moment, without a doubt. I love it.

Tips for refreshing an established business

Engage with the current business Understand the company culture and earn the trust and respect of staff within the business from the outset.

Consider your approach It's less about imposing a new regime and more about building on the cultural assets of the business - sharing knowledge and creating an environment where people are open to exchanging new and fresh ideas.

Establish good internal communications Keep everyone in the business informed of both financial and operational updates so they understand the business plan and feel involved.

Meet your customers Understand their business - where they are going strategically and their current operational requirements. This will enable you to help with their business plans and modelling for the future.

Finely tune the marketing of the "new" business Strike a balance between creating a fresh feel for the business and how it's evolving without losing sight of the history, heritage and the success of the company to-date.

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