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The Caterer interview: Stephanie Hamilton, managing director of ISS Food and Hospitality

27 January 2016 by
The Caterer interview: Stephanie Hamilton, managing director of ISS Food and Hospitality

The managing director of ISS Food and Hospitality tells Janie Manzoori-Stamford about meeting new challenges, dealing with sniffy attitudes towards total facilities management, and the pleasures of making fresh bread every day

You've had a varied career in catering that's taken in stints at Elior, Graysons and Aramark. Did you always know you wanted to work in this field? When I was at school, I knew I was going to work in catering. I always wanted to be a chef. My dad was a chef. We could do a vocational qualification and I chose catering, but it was put to me that as I was in the top class at school, I didn't need to. I said: "I definitely do need to, because that's what I'm going to do." They really challenged me, but I pushed and did it.

I got my City & Guilds qualifications and I was set to be a chef, but I worked three jobs through college and found I was really good at front of house. I did an HND in hotel management and went to work in hotels for Trusthouse Forte and I really loved it.

What I also love is that in my position now I'll always get dragged back into the kitchen. My team say that's where you'll find me. I can't help it. I'm just really happy because I feel like I've got my dream job. I went for my first job in contract catering mainly because I became tired of the split shifts in hotels and wanted a bit of rhythm back.

What led you to joining ISS Food & Hospitality?

I've always recognised when I've been ready for my next challenge, because otherwise you hold your team back. I knew that I wanted to go and work in a total facilities management [TFM] company, because I could see that the market was moving that way. I wouldn't go just anywhere and did a lot of market research. ISS is Danish-owned, so it puts a lot of emphasis on culture, family values, work-life balance and fairness. Every business [within ISS World] is run with single service excellence, so you have to be excellent in catering or whichever facility you choose, whether we just do catering for the client or other services as well.

I live in Stafford. When I first applied, almost three years ago, I was declined. They said I lived in the wrong place and I wasn't for them. I went back and said: "No, I'm really for you. Let the travel be my problem." I became head of operations under Andy [Chappell, former managing director], and when the opportunity came to take over from him, I wasn't sure at first because I had my daughter to think about and I was really happy as I was. I had to be really sure that to be the leader, I could still be in touch with the things that I love. It's important to me that I know the name of everyone who works in food and hospitality, and they know me. You have to compromise some things, because you can't sit above as the leader and also be in the nitty-gritty to the extent that I was.

I've got some fantastic direct reports and I've entrusted that on to them and, actually, they've brought it to life in a different way, which is good. I'm all about legacy. I know that in the period of time in which you're a leader, you leave behind a footprint. It's really important that you take that seriously, particularly as I have my seven-year-old daughter, Freya. It's important to me that she knows that women can do anything.

ISS offers many different services across the world. Can you give me a sense of how much of it is catering in the UK? We've always been seen as a bit of a cleaning business but, for the first time in the UK, the cleaning is half of the turnover of everybody else and we're a proportion of that. Catering is split into healthcare, education, defence and business and industry [B&I]. The combined catering entity is turning over more than £280m. I look after B&I. We have to be singularly excellent in our business. You have to be able to stand your own ground. Of the top 20 customers that I have, half are single service by turnover and half are integrated and delivering more than one service.

Has the attitude towards TFM companies in catering changed in recent years? Before I came into an integrated business, single service caterers would be quite sniffy about it. I still see that now. I'm a qualified chef and the people I surround myself with take this very seriously. It's our vocation. We call it our love affair. It's really disrespectful to be accused of not knowing what we're doing, but we live with that and shrug it off these days, whereas before we'd get quite emotional about it.

I also think it's really disrespectful to the client, because it suggests that a client that buys all these services has decided it can cope with two or three of them being substandard because the cleaning is great. Who picks services like that? "I don't like the soup, but my toilets are fantastic!" It's ridiculous.

If you go into a hotel, it's a hotel experience. When you transport those services and place them into a business environment, where all that's missing is the bedrooms, people then say that it can't be done like that. But how can it be done in a hotel? It's the same principle.

How do you encourage your team to respond to that attitude? I tell them to let people look down their nose at us. Let them assume we don't know what we're talking about and let's just crack on and concentrate on what we're doing. I'm driving what matters to me and that's absolutely the food and skills. For example, every morning in every one of my kitchens, we make fresh bread. We have a training course for those that don't know how, and that's for the kitchen porter, everyone, to get stuck in. You put the bread on and then you start the day. I love that. If I'm in, I'll take my watch off, wash my hands and get stuck in too.

That's where I think that ISS is really unique and why I definitely beat the door down to work here. We're not shy to strengthen through acquisition, but after that there's a period of consolidation. We've got nine leadership principles and four core values around the likes of quality and entrepreneurship, and because everyone operates with that first, we lead from a different place. I don't think we feel like a big global organisation or like an elephant coming to sit on a mouse that is the client and saying "right, you've just been ISSd".

How do you maintain that sense in such a big organisation? We have a training course called Service with a Human Touch and that's about how no matter what service you have, it's delivered by a person. You must be connected to your team. If you focus on what's really important in your organisation, which is your employees, then everyone turns and starts working on the client's purpose. It sounds a bit hippyish, I know, but we reward people that show they're working in that way.

In recent months we've seen high-profile chefs such as Sat Bains announce big changes to their restaurant operations in order to improve work-life balance, staff retention and high levels of consistency and standards. Foodservice has traditionally been able to offer greater opportunities for work-life balance, yet struggles with attracting talent as much as the rest of the hospitality industry. Will Sat Bains's trailblazing make things easier or harder for caterers?

I love Sat and his restaurant in Nottingham is amazing. I think it has to help, because people listen to him. If I go back to my experience at school, some of the reasons they would use to try and put me off were the long hours and the pay not being the best, so if there's anyone that people want to listen to that is able to say, "actually the hours aren't as bad as you think they are and there are some perks", it can only help. What Sat is doing brings it out into the open and blasts some of those old-fashioned careers teachers who sit around discouraging people from catering. There's a part for us all to play in that.

What makes contract catering different is you can go into the most amazing businesses and be part of something. I've got contracts that look out over the City and you stand in those dining rooms and marvel that you're in that establishment because of catering. I get inspired by that every day.

There has been tremendous debate over the introduction of the National Living Wage. What are your thoughts? It's fantastic. My pay in my first restaurant supervisor job was £105 a week, paid in cash in a brown envelope - don't worry, I paid my tax - and so I lived off my tips. You always knew that wherever you went you'd be on that type of pay. Then you would see other people doing fewer hours in a different kind of job and getting a bit more. The fact that it evens everyone up a bit is a good thing. We're quite passionate about it here. Richard Sykes signed us up as the first facilities management provider.

I see the other side of that too. My husband is general manager of a small visitor attraction at Arley Hall in Cheshire, which is owned by one family and has been for generations. It's very small and the National Living Wage has a massive effect on a business of that size. But overall it has to be the right thing to do. What's really important is that it's started a conversation that improves people's standard of living and that can't be a bad thing.

How is the current economic state affecting tendering?

It's busy and very competitive. The opportunities are fantastic, really intense and actually quite exciting, because we've had this period of time when people were cutting back. But now people are starting to think about revitalising the things they used to do. I don't think they'll ever return to the state they were before 2008, but now we're through the lean period and we're flourishing. I was talking to a consultant recently who said that you can tell when the money is coming back because fish tanks start reappearing in receptions. I saw a fish tank this week and I knew we were back in the game.

The foodservice market in the UK has seen much consolidation in recent years in terms of mergers and acquisitions. What do you think the impact of this will be?

I felt it was a shame when Lexington was sold. There are a number of businesses of that pedigree that you come across that are just doing something really lovely and have a very tight team. I'm sure that will continue in Elior in a different way, and I've worked for Elior myself, but I feel sad because I think there always should be businesses like that on our landscape. I think that owner-operator boutique businesses have a place. If we're all just large businesses playing for a contract, that's when it becomes less interesting.

What have you got in the pipeline for 2016?

Our contract with Mark Sargeant came to an end in December and we have a new partnership with Glynn Purnell. We met a lot of different chefs. I wanted someone with a Michelin star who is also completely rooted in the food culture like we are, which Glynn is. He sends his chefs to amazing places for training, he's got a brilliant sense of humour and the food is fantastic, obviously. We had three on our shortlist and he was number one, so Lloyd Mann and I pursued him. I didn't just want a name. I wanted to feel like there's an absolute connection. We had that relationship with Mark, but we'd had it for almost three years, and Mark wanted to go off and do something else and so did we. It's perfect timing. It's a nice end and a new start.

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