The Caterer Interview – Geoffrey Harrison

The Caterer Interview – Geoffrey Harrison

Geoffrey Harrison, founder and chairman of Harrison Catering Services and 2010 winner of the Foodservice Caterer Award at the Cateys, is this year celebrating the company's 20th year in action. He tells Janie Manzoori-Stamford about nurturing talent and running a family business

You started the company in 1994 with £230,000 in start-up funds. How did you finance it?
I put in everything I could lay my hands on. My brother Peter [Harrison] came in, and we found two other investors. I was knocking on 50 when I started the company, so we couldn't run it from my front room and build it up gradually; we had to hit the ground running with offices and the support functions in place. I felt that for a potential client to choose us it would be easier if they didn't have to give up other things to back somebody small. There's an enormous myth that all the clients you had in your previous life are suddenly going to follow you over the hill into the horizon. You've got to go out and fight for them and they've got to see due process when they change.

You've always operated in both the independent and state school sectors. Did the expectations of your offer change accordingly and has that changed over the years?
Yes, in some respects. Most of the state secondary schools were, by then, cash cafeterias, whereas the independent sector tended to have far more conventional eating. One was very much a traditional menu offer and the other was trying to ape the high street in one way or another.

In the state sector back then, you could encourage better eating habits by making the alternatives better. It wasn't prescriptive. We were serving chips alongside other great food and year on year the consumption of chips and burgers was going down and down. As [children] were encouraged to eat and try different things, they did, which goes against the idea that if you put chips on the menu that's all they'll choose.

How much of your business comes from the business and industry (B&I) sector?
It's about 15% and it's mainly in the Home Counties. We can never change the mix. We'll get a nice B&I contract and then we'll get an even bigger one in a school, so the ratio stays about where it is. We don't trade in August very much as nearly all schools shut down, so if you can have a chunk of your business that's trading you've still got something going on.

We are, of course, seen as a school meals caterer, but we prefer to be seen as an organisation that serves great food to young people. If you put the menus from both our B&I and independent school contracts on a screen, you'd be pressed to be able to work out which market they came from. Youngsters today are miles better travelled.

Harrison Catering picked up three school meals contracts in its first four months, but did you experience any periods of uncertainty in the early days?
My brother, as the finance director, thought about those things. I never had any doubt that we would succeed but when you're burning capital as fuel, you do have to have a weathereye. Will the capital run out before we've got enough income coming in? We never got anywhere near a worrying position.

We were never going to sell so we were able to make decisions for the long-term. We upgraded our payroll and accounting software in year two because looking ahead we thought about what it might be like to do it when we had 50 contracts. We employ around 2,400 people and still have that system now, and there's no way we need to change it. That forward planning really paid off, which I suppose is an advantage of owning your business. If you work for a public company, it's all about share price.

In 2006 the business had grown to more than £30m in annual turnover. Where is it at today?
Today it's £58m, which we reached organically. From about five years in we've sketched out where we want to be and it was more to do with building on the previous year. I wish I could sit here and say ‘oh yes, we planned for £25m in 10 years, and 50-odd in 20', but I wasn't as scientific as that. We'd like to get to £100m in a reasonable timescale. We've got to grow to keep our good people.

You go through the first few years in a survival mode, getting boots on the floor and building a reputation. Then you can sit back slightly and start looking at how far you can go and whether the tenets on business that you started with are still holding true. You want to get up in the morning and be pleased with what you're doing, don't you?

What were your founding principles?
When we started, our sector of the industry was very much about finding ways to take the labour out of contracts; ways of bringing prepped food in, such as peeled potatoes. I couldn't fly with that. The chef in me said no. If you roast a potato that you buy peeled, it will never be crisp. My belief was if you cooked great food, the people stood out front could smile more often because they'd be proud of what they're serving up. It's not very complicated and it hasn't changed.

The skills in the school food sector are very varied. How do you manage that? A lot of women go into school meals because it's convenient. Six years ago one of our girls in Ealing thought she could wash up or fill shelves in a supermarket. Now she's got a degree. She's running a kitchen and producing 900 meals a day to a high standard, her kitchen is well-organised and she's on budget, and she's done that while bringing up her children. I pick her out because she was one of the first to really go for it; there was a pearl there that needed finding.

How are you finding payment terms these days?

How else do you measure company performance?
One of the numbers that I'm interested in is average, which is about 33%. We've always done this, and you could argue it's a waste of a chief executive's time, but I sign 2,400 birthday cards. We won't stop doing it, even though the grown-ups say they can scan my signature now, but the moment we do that we invalidate the whole process.

We also give Marks & Spencer vouchers to all staff at Christmas, which we pay for, and that is something I'd learned at Sutcliffe's. They used to give their management a turkey. Of course what we give our staff we then have to pay tax on, but it's not massive. Our staff are our business. Without them, we're nothing. In this sector, the people on the front line are the ambassadors and they're usually the lowest paid. Don't look after them at your peril.

Not all families could successfully run a business together. How do you make it work? Claire and Gareth are characteristically very different, which is an advantage. They've got two things going for them that help massively: they love each other and they respect each other. Claire is a real go-for-it while Gareth is more of a lateral thinker. The two of them together are a formidable pair.

Conventional wisdom says you can't have joint managing directors. I should have given one of them 51% of the vote and the other 49%, but I wouldn't do it. It meant that they always had to come to a consensus and I knew that they would. One doesn't acquiesce all the time, though they do have heated debates.

I'd always wanted them to take over but as a business I wanted to be sure that they could because you have a duty of care for all your employees, your clients and so on. I employed Caroline Gourlay, an occupational psychologist, to help coach them. That way they had somebody that wasn't me that could challenge their thought and decision-making processes. She has been outstanding with them.

Tell us about the charitable Geoffrey Harrison Foundation. We set it up because I think companies should do good things with their profits, other than just reward their shareholders. I wanted to do something that was near and dear to me, that was to do with craft. It doesn't matter if you're going into the industry; cooking is a life skill.

We put some money into it and I spoke to David Foskett [head of the London school of hospitality and tourism at the University of West London] and Geoff Booth [assistant principal at Westminster Kingsway College], who very kindly agreed to join us as trustees.

They said to get youngsters into the industry, sometimes from challenged backgrounds, we could run Saturday junior chef programmes [at both colleges]. They've told me that about 70% subsequently go on to full time courses in the hospitality industry, so it's a great feeder for the business. What they achieve is incredible.

We wrote to the Savoy Educational Trust about what we were doing and they've done some match-funding for us. We're thrilled because it's enabled us to run more cohorts.

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