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The Caterer Interview: Ronan Harte, Holroyd Howe

04 March 2016 by
The Caterer Interview: Ronan Harte, Holroyd Howe

Last year Holroyd Howe won the Education Caterer of the Year award at the Foodservice Cateys, and the company currently boasts a 98.5% contract retention rate. Piers Zangana discovers how first-time managing director Ronan Harte has helped spur such success

Holroyd Howe was your first managing director role; how did you end up doing this job?

If you had told me that, after leaving school at 16 to be a commis chef in Dublin, I'd be the managing director of an education business of this size at 45, I wouldn't have believed you. My first ‘proper' role as a chef was at the Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) when I was 20.

Fast-forward two years and I had become the youngest head chef on the QE2 at the time. I always knew I wanted to run my own business but never really knew what it would look like. Eventually, having taken a role at P&O, I left to go back to Ireland to start my own business.

It was an import and logistics company operating in the foodservice space. As a small business, I had to do everything; from mopping the floor right the way through to selling our services to prospective buyers.

That must have been quite a shift

Yes, I had never really ‘sold' before. However, I really enjoyed it. It sounds corny, but people buy from people. I was very fortunate to meet some like-minded people and this helped me develop my business.

Do you think hospitality is more supportive than most sectors for entrepreneurs?

Absolutely. By our very nature, we are all hospitable people. The industry is full of decent people who will support others in their new ventures. We are great at investing time in helping people get off the ground. I saw this when I was starting my business in Ireland and when I eventually came to sell it before we returned to England.

What did you do when you returned?

My wife and I decided we wanted to come back to England to start a family. I took a role at what is now Sodexo Prestige to help mobilise the Ascot contract. From there, I moved to Elior UK where I spent a number of years in operations in business and industry (B&I) catering, before I moved into a sales role.

When I then met with Alastair Storey to discuss the Holroyd Howe role, I knew that I'd be able to really push on. I remember him saying: "This will be your company, so manage it how you wish to". I thought it was too good to be true and, given that it was part of a wider family, I'd have to work within certain parameters.

I soon found out that I didn't. Holroyd Howe was very much an independent business operating within a family of brands. It was daunting, but exactly what I had always wanted to do.

Holroyd Howe's turnover has increased rapidly (£22.5m in 2011 to £44m in 2014). How? The market has shifted considerably and we are now seeing schools taking a ‘whole-school' approach, where they are focusing even more on what they can do to attract and retain pupils.

It is very competitive. Headteachers and bursars see food as more important now than ever before. It's a real unique selling point.

When I joined, Holroyd Howe was just finding its place as a brand in the independent schools sector. It was traditionally a B&I brand, but these contracts moved over to Baxter-Storey after the Westbury Street Holdings (WSH) acquisition in 2007. Alastair was keen to develop a number of distinct brands operating in their own markets.

We decided to invest in our infrastructure. I'm a firm believer in investing in services and people that set you up for growth. We do not go for sales first then look at building resource off the back of wins.

Also, in August 2011, approximately 70% of schools were self-operating, and now its closer to 55%. If you look at the contracts we were first picking up, more than 80% of them were schools looking to change from one provider to Holroyd Howe. Now, 85% of our new contracts are from schools moving from a self-operating model to outsourcing. It has really made a difference. By the end of 2016, we hope to hit the £60m turnover mark.

We entered the market later than some of our competitors so we've been able to develop our services with a new energy which the market was probably lacking a little.

You must have faced some challenges Schools will always outsource for a reason and there is always a trigger point. A school won't look for change when things are going well. Via the transfer of undertakings (TUPE) process, we will sometimes take on challenging teams, who may have worked in a certain way for decades, or those who haven't worked with an outsourced business before. It can be difficult to integrate for some. Ultimately, it's in our collective interest to provide the best for the children.

We've always tried very hard to ensure that we don't become a self-serving business. It sounds like an obvious and perhaps clichéd thing to say, but we really believe in putting the customer first. We do whatever we can to ensure that internal mechanisms don't get in the way of our service to our customers.

I firmly believe that is why we've achieved a 98.5% retention rate.

What do you mean by 'internal mechanisms'?

Whether it's the low ratios of contracts our managers and directors look after, or the banning of internal conference calls, we will do all it takes to ensure that we don't self-serve and our schools see us as an extension of their team. I actually only spend half a day a week at the very most in the office, as I'd much rather be in the business. We are entrepreneurs and I believe you will get the best insight if you are in the business, rather than talking about it.

I'm also happiest when I'm rummaging around a fridge or store room at one of our schools. I will learn more about the quality of our produce by doing that than I will by having an email exchange with somebody.

Holroyd Howe was named Education Caterer of the Year at the 2015 Foodservice Cateys - how important is external recognition?

It is obviously a great way to recognise the work our team has done over the last year. As caterer since the age of 16, it as also absolutely huge for me personally.

What I couldn't have foreseen, however, was the reaction from our teams and clients. It really took me by surprise. We are very active on Twitter and, when the news came out, we saw hundreds of tweets from clients and team members, not to me but to each other.

I couldn't help but smile and be incredibly pleased for everybody.

What is the current state of the independent schools market?

Schools are now looking at broader enterprise activity to support their traditional income. Many are set in beautiful locations so we are seeing an increase in schools doing events, hospitality and conferences. We are working hard to support them with this.

In addition, many schools are seeing an increase in pupils coming from abroad, which has an impact on the type of food we provide.

For example, at Bromsgrove School, we now have to cater for more than 40 different cultures, which is facilitating more diversity in our food offer too. An example of this is the launch of our Uprooted Kitchen concept. This gave pupils the opportunity to try street food from different parts of the world.

Tell us how you feel about the current debate around sugar?

This issue has been around for some time. I have a strong personal view that moderation is the key to safeguarding a ealthier future for young people; it's something I subscribe to with my own children. In our world, we believe that we need to continue to deliver education to enable children to make informed choices about their relationship with food.

Our Half Measures programme is something we developed to help us reduce sugar gradually. It helps the body cope with reduction rather than complete elimination, which shocks the body.

So what do you think schools can be doing to help reduce obesity in future generations?

We are lucky to work in an industry where active involvement with food is welcomed. We can engage directly with children to talk about food and give them access to dieticians. We've recently teamed up with the Institute for Food, Brain and Behaviour where we are looking at the science behind some of the food we prepare and produce. That, coupled with the very recent appointment of Amy Roberts, our director of nutrition and food development, means that we are able to look at food at the front line.

What's your view on the relationship between food and academic achievement?

I always quote one of our clients -this particular headteacher outsourced his food for the first time and, within a very short period of using us, the feedback I got was: "The pupils are now more alert and aware since you changed the style of the food in the restaurant than they have ever been".

You have many people to 'serve'. Who do you see as your actual customer?

I feel a huge sense of responsibility to the children we serve. I don't want to sound evangelical but I always want to ensure that we treat children in our schools they way we'd want our own children to be treated. It's really important that we create a supportive and comfortable eating environment.

I know from my own upbringing that eating brought the whole family together. It breaks social barriers and helps foster an environment of support.

It's also vitally important that you recruit the right people to deliver your food. Our staff need to be prepared to offer the right level of support and influence - a seven-year-old will need to be encouraged to eat certain items whereas a 15-year-old will want to be left alone to make their own choice based on their own acquired level of understanding.

What does the future hold for Holroyd Howe?

We have only just started our journey and we can see so many opportunities for growth. We are in a strange situation where our sector isn't growing as there are few new schools being built, but our position within the sector is.

Any business which doesn't want to continue growing will stop developing and will stagnate. Why get to a certain point and decide that you've grown enough and you don't want to continue moving? I think it's really important that we continue to develop and adapt to ensure that we are pushing ourselves further.

Career to date

1986 Commis chef in variousrestaurants in Dublin, including Les Freres Jacques

1990 Joined QE2 as chef de partie, becoming head chef of first-class dining in 1992

1995 Became executive chef, then food and beverage director, Carnival UK (P&O Cruises)

2000 Returned to Ireland to start Gourmet Choice Ireland, a food import and logistics business

2005 Moved back to the UK to join Sodexo Prestige for Ascot mobilisation

2006 Operations director, then sales director for business and industry at Elior UK

2011 Becomes managing director of Holroyd Howe (part of WSH)

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