The Caterer interview: Matt Johnson

12 June 2015 by
The Caterer interview: Matt Johnson

Straight-talking Aussie Matt Johnson is managing director of Bunzl UK and Ireland. He grew up "mostly barefoot" in Adelaide, and his laid-back attitude makes him an unconventional corporate man. Lisa Jenkins finds out more

We have three market sectors. The first one is catering consumables, which includes Bunzl Catering Supplies, WK Thomas, London Bio Packaging and Thompson Medd Christmas. This sector supplies consumables and disposables in the UK.

Bunzl Catering Supplies is the largest business. WK Thomas is in the airline and travel market, supporting customers like Gate Gourmet. London Bio Packaging is focused on recyclable, biodegradable and sustainable packaging, and supplied over 50 operators at the London 2012 Olympic Games with over 120 million pieces of recyclable or biodegradable packaging. I'm very proud that we helped the London Games achieve its mission of creating the greenest games ever.

The catering equipment and design services part of the business includes Lockhart Catering Equipment and Continental Chef Supplies (CCS). It supplies the industry with kitchen equipment, tableware, crockery, cutlery, chefs' knives and chefs' uniforms.

Our guest amenities division consists of Buwier (which services the five-star hotel market) and Bunzl Guest Amenities, and is the third area of the business. All eight concerns are run as separate companies. The individual managers and management teams have a lot of autonomy to make their own decisions and develop new business opportunities.

How does Bunzl view its role in the wider hospitality industry?

It's simple - it's about consolidating the supply of non-food consumables and products. We will never sell food. With our global sourcing capabilities we are always able to buy at the best price. Lockhart alone stocks 18,000 stock-keeping units and Bunzl Catering Supplies has 15,000 different products.

We audit our ranges regularly too, so that we can always stay ahead of the emerging trends and be ready and flexible for changing customer demands. The businesses are kept separate so each customer gets the right expert and ongoing advice about what to buy.

The supply chains are different, too. Packaging is about the seasons and the volume required for each. It's quite predictable, so our vehicles can be run efficiently on a fixed cycle. Catering equipment is more on-demand, on a next-day basis, and more of a reactive buy.

What are the biggest challenges facing operators today and how do you think you can you help them?

As the economy continues to strengthen, operators will be looking to improve their offer and the customer experience; they will want more innovation, inspiration and new products. We work with various market research organisations to research and predict the future trends, but our managers on the ground are our best assets and they have fantastic relationships with their customers.

We have worked hard with customers like Costa, Caffè Nero and Starbucks to make the supply chain more consolidated. If we can simplify the processes our customers have, then they can achieve costs savings, free up valuable space and resource in their sites and focus on their core business. It's about delivering the products our customers want, at the right price, when and where they need them.

What industry initiatives and partnerships are you involved in?

I'm a board director for Springboard and an executive director for Hospitality Action. Bunzl UK and Ireland raises a lot of money for these two charities, but we obviously make money out of the catering market. For me, and for the business, it's about giving something back.

We have an auction system in the company, so if there is a charity event or trek or special campaign, Bunzl would secure a place and our staff can then apply to be involved. We pay the costs for the place and give them extra holiday.

I also love being involved with the National Waiters' Day race with my friend Fred Sirieix - I'm normally on the starting gun. This year's race, on 21 May at Hyde Park in London, was our third year, with all proceeds made on the day going to Springboard UK.

Which hospitality businesses do you most admire and why?

I admire the Galvin brothers' business - the restaurants and the individuals. It's a fantastic enterprise. They are all passionate chefs but they are also very grounded, and I consider them the gentlemen of our industry.

In terms of best practice - our biggest customer is Whitbread [which includes Costa], and we have an extremely close relationship with them and have just signed a new fiveyear contract.

The other organisation we work closely with is Sodexo, which uses nearly all of our businesses. We work with Whitbread and Sodexo to develop products and innovate on service, including trials on products and sharing best practice.

What about the sustainability issue? What is Bunzl doing to improve in this area?

We have a huge focus on sustainability because a lot of what we supply is packaging. We have a fully electric delivery truck for the City of London and we take our role as advisors about this subject extremely seriously. In fact, we have just employed a new sustainability customer manager and her sole purpose is working with customers on their sustainability plans. We have implemented this with customers like Gather & Gather and Sodexo already.

We have a waste disposal licence and are currently conducting some trials with customers to collect all their cardboard and plastic waste. We are also members of the Food Packaging Association and they are doing a lot in terms of lobbying for the market.

Sustainability is back on the agenda, unlike in 2008 to 2013, when most companies just didn't have the money because it does come at a premium.

What are your goals for the second half of 2015?

As a FTSE 100 company, it's obviously to continue delivering growth. By Christmas 2015 I'd like to see that we've grown as a company, which means we've employed more people and continued to deliver great service. We don't manufacture anything, so our investment is in our people. If they are happy, then we've done a good job.
Personally, it's to carry on doing what I'm doing. I really enjoy this industry. I grew up around pubs and restaurants as my father was a hotel broker and my brother owns four pubs/hotels in Adelaide. I guess it's in the blood. Oh, and I should say spend more time at home with my family!

Bunzl's business

Bunzl operates in 27 countries across four continents. Its global headquarters are in Seymour Street, London, where only 40 people are employed. The revenue for the group in 2014 was recorded at £6.2b, with a UK and Ireland share of £1.1b.

CV highlights

January 1993 - June 1999 Director of business development, National Packaging Group, Coventry

June 1999 - September 2001 Director of business development, Buck & Hickman, Coventry

September 2001 - December 2002 Director of business development UK and Ireland, Premier Farnell, which acquired Buck & Hickman in 2001

January 2003 - present Managing director, Bunzl UK and Ireland

Did you know… ?

  • Matt Johnson started out in the packaging business as a cost accountant with Australian company DetPak.
  • He played amateur Aussie Rules football (at a level that would now be considered professional) and supports the Adelaide Crows.
  • His mum was born in Douglas on the Isle of Man, and her lineage goes back to Ireland.
  • He loves the UK, but if Australia is playing the UK, he's for Australia every time.
  • He swims and cycles and is preparing for the Blenheim Palace Triathlon swimming leg later this year.

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