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The Caterer Interview – Alastair Storey

The Caterer Interview – Alastair Storey

With 44 new client wins in the past year alone, Alastair Storey, chairman and chief executive of contract caterer WSH, has to keep his finger on the pulse of the latest dining trends. And he achieves that, he says, by giving young people an array of opportunities for a career in hospitality. He talks to Janie Manzoori-Stamford

Congratulations on another year of double-digit growth at WSH. How did you achieve it?
It was a great year for organic growth. We have been lucky that we have been consistent and a lot of that is to do with how we try to concentrate on both our customers and our teams.

It's really, really easy to say you do that, and it's really, really quite difficult to actually do it.

How have you found the market?
It's really competitive, and we've got some great competitors out there that all want a share. You've got to watch what other people are doing, including the high street, which, in a way, is your biggest rival for your day-to-day sales. Obviously, you're up against all the other contractors once every three or five years, but there's a long gap.

From the outset, we've tried to think like a retailer and we've still got lots to do on this. It helps that we have Benugo, but it's not going to help the team at BaxterStorey
think outside the box.

How do you do that?
Through things like having chef-directors, development chefs, investing in training like the Chef Academy and a lot of interchange between sites. We run Food Files, where we routinely get anything from 100 to 250 people together for a few hours at the end of the day, including chefs, managers and clients if they like, to check out four or five new ideas.

They're shown how to do them and it becomes much easier to roll them out. A lot of sharing and networking goes on in the business and I think that's important.

It's also important to us to think back from the customer, for whom the most important person is the one they interact with. We need to think of our teams in those terms.

So I don't say 'head office' I say 'support centre'. It supports the person with the toughest job andwho can make the biggest difference. Of course, if we get our billing wrong it will cause a problem; if we don't pay people, it'll cause a riot! But we need to give that [ frontline] team member all the tools to do the job well. Don't mess them around, but ask a lot as well.

Give us an example of your training initiatives.
We do things like our Barista Academy, which we set up a few years back. We put 650 people through that training programme this year alone. That was about recognising that we give people expensive machinery and that it's actually very difficult to be a good barista. It's not just the technical skills, like understanding what you've got to do with the coffee and the machine. You've also got to deal with a big queue and everyone in it wants their coffee their way, and by the way, your company wants you to upsell. The job is quite easy to underestimate.

Do you have a recruitment strategy?
We've always tried to bring in young people. I'm not being ageist, obviously, for self-preservation reasons, but it's brilliant to get young people in the business because when you think of enthusiasm, energy and a little bit of thinking outside the box, young people are better.

That's an interesting perspective, given all the talk of generation Y being difficult to engage with. Has that been your experience?
I've heard all this, but I think it's rubbish. What a dreadful thing to say. Just like anybody, you get some young people that you could do with less of, but come on… they're a pleasure. When I think of the young people in our business, I cannot think we have big problems in that area. It's just complete nonsense.

We do a lot of things to encourage young people into the business. We've raised £1.5m for our Foundation from company profits, and we've invested a lot of that back into things for young people, such as school gardens. We do a lot with the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts and its Chefs Adopt a School programme and with the House of St Barnabas and we've invested heavily in the Gold Service Scholarship to get people interested in front of house.

We work with colleges and, at any given time in our business, excluding chefs, we've got probably around 100 apprentices across the whole of the WSH portfolio. We're doing lots of things that are designed to make the industry look sexy and attractive, because to attract young people we've got to shine a light on our brilliant industry.

If we don't reach out to young people, they're not going to think of us. If a business doesn't keep a good balance of youth and experience, it's going to go wrong. Make it
fun for young people. Give them freedom to make their own choices.

It's the same with our chefs. If you're told, there's a recipe, there are the ingredients, there's where you buy it, there's how you cook it, you're not a chef, you're a cook. That's souldestroying. We don't say 'go berserk' - we give them options of nominated suppliers and tell our chefs to work them to their advantage.

They can put the price up or down, but they must make sure they get great quality and achieve their targets.

Last November saw the company undertake refinancing, with the formation of a new parent company (Boxford Investments), as well as three new subsidiaries (WSH International Investments, WSH UK & Ireland, and WSH Hospitality). Can you explain the structure?
We're independent, privately-owned, and we've got a bit of private equity - about 15% -with a company called ICG, who have been excellent. Management control the
business, with 85%. If you do a re-finance, which you have to do time-to-time in a private company when you've got a changing around of shareholding, you usually have to create a new company. It's what I would call back of house administration rather than anything material.

Boxford Investments is pretty much my personal company - ish. It's just the new top company. It doesn't do anything. The trading brands - BaxterStorey, Benugo, Holroyd Howe, Caterlink and Portico - sit within WSH UK & Ireland. A joint venture with John Campbell that's coming up sits in WSH Hospitality. And then WSH International refers to our small bit of business in Europe.

Let's talk about new business. What significant wins in the last 12 months contributed to the 14.74% increase in annual turnover?
We had 44 new client wins, including Reed Smith, Shell UK, Verizon and BAE Systems. But often when we talk about new business wins, we talk about big new accounts, but actually we do a lot of relatively small business. That's very much part of our target. We're trying to offer the marketplace a commitment to really take care of their account; to try hard to give them the best return on their investment in expensive real estate and catering equipment, and often a subsidy. That's why we use fresh food, invest in training and have an ops manager running, on average, a dozen accounts.

Why do you limit the number of sites looked after by your operations managers?
We set that ratio in 2000 when we set up the business because we thought the spans of control were too great in some companies. Having done all these jobs myself, from
being a chef to a chef manager, site manager, ops manager, I could probably run 15 sites OK, but where do you stop? 16? 18? 20? While an ops manager might feel better being given a few more sites, they'd have less time to do the detailed work to be excellent.

Tasting the food, talking to the chefs about how they're making use of the supply chain, going through health, safety and food hygiene in detail, ensuring all the allergen
training, which we're launching with around 2,000 managing chefs, is being done. That's what the client expects. If they haven't got time to do that, then we are failing as an
organisation.

Growth has been largely organic over the years, and WSH has now surpassed the half billion pound mark in terms of annual turnover.

What are you aiming to get to?
The nice thing about being a private company is you don't really have to have a target in that sense. I don't think we ever have. We try to do a good job for our customers and support our teams with good career opportunities, and the energy that brings results in more business.

But you must be striving for growth, even if you don't have a number and deadline in mind?
Well, obviously we like growth; growth is fun, isn't it? It's nice. It keeps our ideas fresh, so it's good for existing customers. I don't imagine a business in a holding pattern. Once you start to say it's a lifestyle… well, stuff that for a game of soldiers. It's about getting up in the morning with a dream and an aspiration.

You're right, 80% of our growth has been organic. The last time that we bought something properly was the end of 2007, and that was Benugo and Holroyd Howe at the
same time. It was a bit stupid, really, because it was a bit stressful - but it worked really well.

Generally, I'm not very keen on acquisitions. It's just a culture clash. You end up with clients that didn't choose you, and team members that didn't choose you and for whom you've been the enemy. It's just really difficult, so it has to be worth doing. You've got to feel that the cultures are quite similar in order to do it.

In that case, was it deliberate that with Benugo and Holroyd Howe you bought businesses that complement your existing operations rather ones that needed to merge in?
Holroyd Howe was a diverse business and we took all the B&I and put it into BaxterStorey and concentrated on the independent schools, which it had quite a few of. At the same time, we took the independent schools out of Caterlink and put them into Holroyd Howe, so what we'd got was a real intense focus in one market. That's proven to be brilliant.

Benugo was a great, fairly young businessthat had so much possibility and was frustrated by lack of capital. It's a good foil for BaxterStorey. You can put a Benugo in a big site alongside a BaxterStorey operation and we have, many times. Benugo was in B&I sites back in 2007. They'd really taken the New York deli offer into quite a few sites and that's developed.

We are seeing a continued convergence between what was once called contract catering and the restaurant market. Has this resulted in a shift in customers' and
clients' expectations of you?

It varies. The market is always shifting. If you look inside cities - London particularly - people are used to the café culture, grab-andgo sandwiches, and there's a Pret on every street corner, as well as supermarkets and coffee shops. All of them are our competitors. Generally in B&I, clients still want to have some degree of control over what goes on in their building, for a whole variety of reasons.

If you go into any company's offices, the way you're greeted, the feeling you get from the café, the hospitality, all of these are about the client, not the caterer. It's the client's brand and it's quite front-facing. Clients want to have a big influence on how they're perceived.

What are your predictions for the contract catering sector in the next three to five years?
First of all, I hate the expression contract catering because it's a complete misnomer. We are competing with the high street. If we don't get that as an industry, we are missing a trick, because our customers have a choice. They get off the Tube and go into whatever their favourite place is, and we should have that spend.

If you think like that, it starts to work for you. It will become more and more that you have to think like that. You can't just open up shop and hope that people turn up. This idea that you've got a building with 1,000 people in it doesn't give you any rights to speak of. You've got to do something that will encourage them to want to come and eat or drink with you.

Why did you come into hospitality industry?
I got a summer job as a waiter, having never been in a hotel in my life before that. There was a guy there who was also doing a hotel management degree and he persuaded me this was a great thing to do. I hadn't given it a blind bit of thought. I got into the Scottish hotel school to do a hotel and catering degree and worked my way through university.

It does sort of worry me a bit that there are so many young people that can't seem to find a job and yet we've got an industry crying out for people to join it. In a way, it's better to start on the shop floor, as it were, just doing things. Most companies in hospitality, especially the big ones, have really good training programmes, and if you look at bodies like the Institute of Hospitality, RACA and Springboard, there's a lot of support structure there.

A lot of it is just about trying to encourage people into hospitality and, with so many of us in the industry, if we all just did our little bit to encourage somebody in, it would be great. And they might be the next Alastair Storey… Poor sod, if they are! It all looks so good from the outside…

WSH Winners

•Tim Axe, business development director, Acorn Award winner 2014
•Catharine Barras, operations manager, RBS, Acorn Award winner 2014
•BaxterStorey, Procurement Team of the Year, Foodservice Cateys 2013
•Corinne Du Preez, Caterlink, LACA School Chef of the Year 2013
•Simon Esner, Sales Director of the Year, National Sales Awards
•Hayden Groves, Goldman Sachs, Craft Guild of Chefs National Chef of the Year 2013
•Benjamin McEwen, sales executive, Acorn Award winner 2014
•Sam Roth, BA lounges - operations manager, Acorn Scholarship 2014
•Janine Swales, Tottenham Hotspur Training Ground, Restaurant Manager of the Year, Academy of Food & Wine Service

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