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The Caterer interview: Allister Richards

03 April 2015
The Caterer interview: Allister Richards

Gather & Gather's managing director talks to Janie Manzoori-Stamford about what it takes to steer a successful rebranding in a tough economy

In a nutshell, could you give an overview of your career pre-Gather & Gather?

Before joining Gather & Gather in 2011, I was at Sodexo for seven years, which was my first foray into contract catering or outsourcing. Before that I was in pubs, most recently Spirit Group. I had conversations with people who had taken the same route, including Martin Archer, HR director at Elior, and when an ops director opportunity came up at Sodexo, I thought it was time to do something new.

Four years ago you made the move to Mitie Catering. What prompted the repositioning of the brand to Gather & Gather?

It was always the plan. I remember sitting with Ruby [McGregor-Smith, chief executive of Mitie Group] in 2010 and she was selling the idea of coming [to the business]. I said my understanding of Mitie was that as much as it's a respected organisation, it was not really synonymous with food. This is a very emotionally driven market. It's all about people, reputation and softer projections, and I said I'd need assurance that I'd have real autonomy to do the right thing by the business. She said: "Call it what you want, do what you want. Your mandate is to do something different that gives us a bit of a reputational spillover onto the corporate brand."

Why did it take two years to relaunch the foodservice proposition?

We'd brought in loads of new people and we couldn't agree. Also, we were having a lot of success, so we were busy. I assumed the market would have a, not negative, but indifferent response to us turning up under Mitie and saying we're building a new team. But the reality of those two years is we went like the clappers. It made us wonder whether it was just us being a bit precious about the brand. Should we rock the boat and do something that might make the market not understand who we really are?

Were you conscious about losing the Mitie name from the new brand?

The last thing we wanted to be was disingenuous about our ownership structure because we're not distancing ourselves. We've got a slug of equity among the management team, but we are majority-owned by a PLC and every-thing that comes with that. You can be given lots of assurances to "sex it up and do great things", but until you get in you don't know if you're just going to get slammed with a load of procedure and restrictions. As we're responsible corporate citizens when we need to be, and we deliver growth and well-managed numbers, we get licence to do what we want.

Such as?

A couple of years ago we started buying a fleet of vehicles. We've just bought Freddie Flintoff's fish and chip van for one of our contracts because we thought it would be a bit of a giggle, and we've got an ex-MOD service Land Rover that has a coffee offer and a wood-fired pizza oven on the back. We've got all this stuff and yet we're part of a PLC. When I think about other organisations I've worked in, if I'd picked up the phone to the internal corporate fleet and said, "We're bringing over this knackered 1955 vehicle that's on bricks, can you sort it out and make it formally part of our fleet please?", someone would've chopped my legs off!

What happens when you make a call like that at Gather & Gather?

There's an element of asking for forgiveness afterwards, but you kind of know when to push it, as long as you don't do anything silly. It's a very welcoming, encouraging environment for doing things a little bit differently. We have to be mindful that 40% of our business is in a contracted environment where Mitie does something else, whether it's everything or just one other service. That may well mean we've still won the catering independently, but we're there with Mitie and the last thing we want to do is give an impression of being in some way divided or harder to deal with.

I report to a guy on the board who's got total facilities management responsibility, so if ever I'm in a contract where there's a problem with security or vice versa, we can sort it out between us. We've grown, too. When I first got here there was a view that catering was lower down the food chain, but that's changed now. We tend to take a bit of a leadership role in client relationships, just because of the sorts of people we recruit and the backgrounds they come from. We find that relationships are built quite nicely.

Gather & Gather picked up £20m of catering business in 2014. How has the company grown over the last few years?

Has it affected the type of clients that invite you to tender?

Yes, we're now regularly invited to tender for work where it's just us and the independents. It's always gratifying because we've got a lot of respect for those organisations. When you go to a tenderers' briefing meeting, and there's Lexington, Harbour & Jones, BaxterStorey and us, you think, OK, something's going well here. We know we're not accepted everywhere, but the initial slight scepticism that looks at our ownership structure and asks whether we're a specialist business or an add-on to an FM company is, in the majority of cases, falling away and becoming less of an issue.

Last year you launched a dedicated division in Ireland. What prompted that move?

We had a couple of contracts that were linked into wider Mitie activity that we managed in Ireland and Northern Ireland, but we hadn't formally launched Gather & Gather and put in a dedicated operating structure. We brought in Alan Russell, who worked for Compass, and he thought the market was ready for a challenge. We formally launched last September and the reactions have been incredible.
Having the PLC backing means we've got the support of an established business in terms of infrastructure, networks and systems. We've just won and mobilised our biggest contract in Ireland and, given the scale of our operations in the region was comparatively small, I don't think we could have done that had we truly been a standalone entity without any backing.

The Irish economy has been through the wringer in recent years. How would you describe the state of it now and how much impact does it have on business?

For the guys on the ground, the general feeling is there's a lot more optimism coming through the market. I think the view is that we're in a bit of a perfect storm: we've got an economy that's showing signs of recovery and positivity, and we've got a business culture in Ireland that's very open. When you're a new business in slightly more established markets you tend to come across more cynicism, whereas in Ireland it's much more welcoming.

There's willingness among the sorts of institutions and organisations that are talking to us to be early adopters. But if I think about our client base in the UK and Ireland, that attitude has been particularly apparent in media, telecoms and technology-type sectors where there is a more positive attitude to newness. We've also got a fairly large slug of financial services business through the likes of Standard Life and Lloyd's Bank, but the buying patterns and the ways that those sectors engage is slightly different. I wouldn't like to say that we're more appealing to one sector over another.

As we move out of a particularly turbulent economic period in the UK, how has the catering sector been affected?

The real tightening of belts, particularly around financial services, happened in the immediate aftermath of 2008. Many of the changes in attitudes with regards to spending and catering expenditure in those markets has been seen as more discretionary than in prior years, but what's interesting is that it hasn't flipped back. As much as there has been more positivity, the habits that were enforced in 2008 and 2009 haven't loosened or been overturned. From what we've seen, organisations that were looking to drive subsidy out, restrict spend and take away some of that discretionary element in that particular market, just aren't returning to their old ways.

The high street has arguably seen a move away from fine dining to more informal restaurant offers. How have food trends in the sector evolved?

It's been interesting because that whole piece around fine dining is a constant debate for us. We acknowledge that an area of our delivery that is probably lacking in credentials, as far as the market is concerned, is around long-standing fine-dining collaborations and chef associations. These are incredibly expensive to maintain and don't always land incredibly well. There are notable businesses out there doing it well and have done so for a long time, so it's a big decision for us. If you look at that market and the number of clients that have that requirement, you see that their needs are quite prescriptive, but the number of organisations where that's relevant is relatively limited.

You've got to look at the investment to deliver that capability versus the likely return, and just because you start to do it, it doesn't mean Restaurant Associates will suddenly stop doing it well. We think we can deliver as good a level of fine dining, but [at the moment] we can't deliver it through a prescribed model backed up by a particular chef association.

Is it something you're seriously considering?

We're taking a different approach and looking at links and collaborations with people who can help to network us and keep us up to speed with what's going on in the market, with the market being the broad and exciting world of food, not just one- or two-star cooking.

If I think about the profile of the people that we feed on a daily basis, the types of places that they want to go to, and the service style that they enjoy, they'll probably be heading to more relaxed environments. You've got Hawksmoor achieving a £78 spend per head, which a lot of Michelin-starred restaurants would kill for, and it's doing it with a 'bearded and tattooed' sensibility. It's beautifully done - none of this stuff happens by accident - but it comes across as being very laid back. Everyone is a semi-friend but they can read the table very well, and you can see that there's an awful lot of detail and investment that goes into creating something that seems effortless. We feel more in tune with those sorts of businesses.

Tell me about the acquisition of Creativevents in 2012, ahead of Mitie Catering Services' rebranding as Gather & Gather the next year. How have you found the integration of such an entrepreneurial business like that with a PLC?

We've had our ups and downs like everybody. Creativevents is a romantic story: Adrian started that business with a Prince's Trust loan, and he and his brother went flying down the M1 with a converted horsebox that they'd turned into a Champagne bar. They talked their way onto a pitch at Ascot and they've had that contract for 15 years now. This is the first time they've reported into any sort of structure, so there have been things that we haven't done as well as we should have, but we spent a lot of time together beforehand and we were honest about the likely issues that would come up.

What sort of issues did you consider?

Around control and trying to integrate the cultures of two organisations. The front-facing element of Creativevents has remained as it was, while the finance, QHFC and HR functions are integrated back of house, so they get the benefit of the group, but that doesn't come without challenges because we do things in a slightly different way.

The highlights have been the way that Adrian and Ian have bought into the benefits of the deal, and the way their market has responded, which is that nothing has changed. The outdoor catering market and the world of festivals is relationship-led, even as it becomes ever more professional, and our biggest fear was that the Creativevents team's reputation for being flexible and creative would be at risk.

Any plans for further acquisitions?

We're looking at sectors in which we don't have any profile; for example, we don't have an education business, so there are potentially some opportunities for us to extend into other sectors. We'd take the approach of Gather & Gather being our B&I business and Creativevents being our festival business - we wouldn't suddenly try and homogenise everything into a great big mass. We would look at who's out there doing very good things in their market, whether we could add anything to them and vice versa, whether it would take Mitie into new markets or we could explore existing non-food related relationships we've got in the group, and where there's opportunity.

Timeline

  • 2011 Allister Richards appointed managing director of Mitie Catering Services
  • 2012 Mitie buys majority stake in Creativevents
  • 2013 Mitie Catering Services rebrands as Gather & Gather
  • 2014 Gather & Gather launches dedicated division in Ireland
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