The Caterer interview – Wendy Bartlett

01 April 2011 by
The Caterer interview – Wendy Bartlett

Wendy Bartlett launched Bartlett Mitchell in 2000 with Ian Mitchell, after a career at Sutcliffe/Compass, and last month the £17.5m turnover company was named one of the top 500 in Europe. Chris Druce spoke to her about a decade in business

As a business you were named in the top 100 of Europe 500's annual growth list last month - how did it feel? It's always a thrill to win any award, be it a Top 500 or Shine Award [which Bartlett won in 2010]. It's important to be recognised for the benefit of the team, which at our company is now 480 employees strong.

As individuals we all want to feel that we're part of a successful team in a business that's going somewhere. It's a great motivational tool at a time when the environment is tough.

How is business post-recession? We recently won back what on Christmas Eve 2001 was our first contract. We lost it a few years ago when the client went to a total facilities management deal with a single provider, but they've now realised that catering sits best outside this.

On a personal level I simply love winning contracts back. However, there's no doubt that we've had to re-evaluate deals and make the hard decision to end some that were no longer viable. However as a business you should always be doing this, irrespective of the economy.

What's surprised you most about the recession and current environment? I think what's pleasantly surprised me is that where you have a well-run catering operation its value in the eyes of clients has grown morally during this tough period. Catering is seen as a barometer of morale in a business and most clients understand the value of having a buzzy, social hub in their buildings. If you end your catering offer it's akin to giving up.

How have you ensured you keep cash-strapped consumers spending? People have had to trim what they spend but that doesn't mean they don't want an occasional treat, such as a Starbucks cappuccino. We haven't got rid of our desserts but we do offer smaller, more affordable portions now as well as incorporating the best from the high street, be it meal deals or promotions delivered via Facebook.

Inflation is a concern in the wider economy and food price rises have been making headlines again - how big a worry is this? Food inflation is definitely an issue as given the current environment we aren't easily able to pass on rises to clients whose budgets are stretched already. Technology helps though. We have a bespoke internal system that provides us with real-time pricing and allows us to share best practice between units very easily. So it's a case of keeping on your toes but as contractors we're very good at this.

Has the recession seen environmental concerns take a back seat? I think they're just as important to our clients as they've ever been. However, initiatives certainly have to make economic sense and have some business payback to win support. We're still planning a series of green roadshows, continuing our Wheel-Free Wednesdays commitment with supplier 3663 (which sees reduced deliveries to units to cut carbon emissions), and I am now up to 18 adopted beehives, with plans to possibly own some directly and produce our own honey.

With regard to the bees, the scheme's worked because we've been able to get a sense of ownership from the team, who can then get the clients involved via menus and other promotions.

The Government looks set to overhaul vocational training as it is not perceived to be working. What do you think? It's always a challenge to find skilled workers so I'd welcome a stronger focus on vocational qualifications. We do our best as a business to give opportunities but there's so much red tape involved.

We actually have 10% to 15% of our employees on external training programmes, including the Women 1st management course, but generally it's a very frustrating process. The funding is there in some form or other but it's hard to match up. We're planning to offer apprenticeships and as a smaller organisation I think we get our fair share of funding and support, but you really need a lot of persistence and to know what's out there.

It's a good time to attract people into the industry with the Olympics and other events coming up. Do you think the Games will deliver? I think the Olympics will be fantastic for the country and especially East London, which wouldn't have attracted the level of investment it has without the competition.

From a hospitality point of view it will be brilliant, and most companies are developing promotional material. We also have the Royal Wedding, Diamond Jubilee and Commonwealth Games to look forward to.

However, I am worried about the transport system for the Olympics as I don't think I've caught a train in the past six months that wasn't delayed. There will also be disruption for our East London clients but there's undoubtedly a big opportunity to market the UK as a top-notch tourism destination.

Do you think there are enough female role models for those joining the industry? I think we're fortunate within contract catering and the hotel industry. I do believe that women have other things aside from their careers that are important to them - such as children - and that in general they are not as egotistical as men, and more willing to step out and achieve balance between their personal and private lives. That's why we see fewer women in senior corporate positions.

Ultimately if they're good, women can succeed within hospitality. It might be harder in a big corporation due to cultural issues but it's not impossible. At Bartlett Mitchell the workforce is pretty much split and one reason we started the business was that we wanted to give our employees what they needed, not simply make it a one-way street. So if circumstances change and my top saleswoman needs to go part-time, we do our best to make it happen so we don't lose her skills. It's always better to adapt than to lose good people.

You were a manager at Sutcliffe by the time you were 21; did you feel any pressure to succeed as a young woman? People would say I'm ambitious, but I'm not. I just believe that if you're going to work you might as well do the best you can. I guess I've always been a solution finder no matter where I've been, and in my corporate life that was usually managing some sort of change. I've always liked developing my own skills and those around me. Certainly at 21 I never thought I'd start my own company but when the opportunity presents itself you either seize it or watch it pass by.

So what defines successful people? The best sound-byte I've heard on this, which is certainly true, is that being successful is not about the resources available to you but about being resourceful.

What gives you the most satisfaction 10 years on from setting up the business? The pride friends, family and colleagues take in it. One of my chef managers, who's been with us pretty much since the start, said of our recent Top 500 award that it was like watching her children taking the starring roles in the school play. If our employees feel that way about the company and working for it, well that's simply the best feeling. In my experience it's the little things like this day-to-day that provide the greatest satisfaction.

wendy bartlett's tips for success

â- Don't drop the ball on the financials. You've got to make money to stay in business and you can't ever afford to stop selling
â- Be clear, honest and direct in your dealings with others. Don't take no for an answer
â- Open your arms to change but don't give up on your values. You have to learn new skills
â- Listen - all good business people learn to do this

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