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This year's winner is a professional at the top of her game. Her long career, strong operational background and passion for the sector put her in a unique position to develop innovative practices that add real value to the business and its staff. She takes pride in sharing her skills and love of the sector to benefit others and the industry at large.
As HR director of CH&Co Group, one of the largest independent foodservice operators, Alison Gilbert has certainly been kept busy in the past 18 months following its mergers with a number of foodservice businesses. Despite the demanding workload, she has found time to act as a judge in the regional heats and final of the prestigious Toque d'Or competition, and is a board director of Springboard. In April she became a government adviser on apprenticeships, responsible for setting standards of knowledge, skills and behaviour required by catering and hospitality employers.
In 2016, her role at CH&Co hit a new high when the business merged with Brookwood Partnership and ABsolutely Catering while summer 2017 brought a merger with Harbour & Jones, taking turnover for the newly formed CH&Co Group to £265m.
Gilbert continues to offer a graduate programme via her strong links with Bournemouth University. Each year, CH&Co Group accepts up to eight students onto a placement year before returning to university to finish their studies. Over 50 people have completed the placement scheme, with the vast majority continuing their career with CH&Co Group or in the broader sector. The programme is now being extended to regional hubs, at University College Birmingham and Glasgow City College.
A member of the Women 1st top 100 list of the most influential women in the hospitality and tourism industry and the winner of the HR Award at the inaugural Foodservice Cateys in 2013, Gilbert is described by her colleagues as one of a kind. Thanks to her operational experience, she offers a unique level of insight and understanding to anyone working in the industry and has an undeniable passion to help people succeed in the field.
Her chief executive, Bill Toner, describes her as a proactive champion of hospitality and the exciting career prospects it offers, an the driving force behind the group's "fantastic" learning and development opportunities and initiatives, not to mention an excellent mentor.
James Tanner, head judge of Toque d'Or and co-owner of the Kentish Hare in Bidborough, Kent, says: "Throughout Toque d'Or, Alison is always so eager to share her professionalism and enthusiasm with the younger generation to help them realise their potential and the opportunities available to them. She plays an integral role and helps shape and guide the industry's next generation of great chefs.
You can't put a price on that kind of professionalism - it comes from years of experience."