Marc Verstringhe, the co-founder of Catering & Allied (C&A), has died at the age of 86 following a short illness.
Former industry colleagues have paid tribute to a "true gentleman" whose creative and visionary leadership helped transform the world of contract catering over 50 years.
Verstringhe, the son of a hotelier, was born in the seaside resort of Knokke-le-Zoute in Belgium in 1934 and spent five years living under German occupation during World War Two. He often recalled how from an early age he learned the "value of freedom, a resistance to subjugation and a love for life".
In 1954, after completing National Service with the Belgian forces in Germany and an apprenticeship at the Norfolk hotel in Knokke, he moved to the UK to take a role as restaurant manager at the Lygon Arms in Broadway, Worcestershire.
Verstringhe's career progressed rapidly. In 1960 he joined Sutcliffe Catering Group as a unit manager and by 1971 he was group managing director. By 1973 the company had grown to almost 1,000 units employing around 10,000 staff.
In 1975 Verstringhe left Sutcliffe and teamed up with former colleagues Jop Koops and Kit Cuthbert to launch C&A in the UK, which Verstringhe was to lead as chairman for the next 25 years, alongside sister company Holland Catering in the Netherlands.
At C&A Verstringhe was highly respected for his management style. He believed that directors should not work in "ivory towers" but stay close to clients, and insisted people work "with" not "for" the company. He saw traditional workplace canteens as a thing of the past and spearheaded the move towards offices providing staff restaurants inspired by high street trends. C&A was also at the forefront of promoting healthy eating, and by 1985 had launched nutritionist-led ‘Hungry Health' seminars, while vegetarian options were integral to menus.
Wendy Bartlett, executive chair of Bartlett Mitchell, said the biggest compliment she received was when people compared her business to C&A.
She said: "Marc was a true gentleman – he was always so supportive and genuinely enthusiastic about new start-ups, us at Bartlett Mitchell and our journey. He was an amazing believer in women in business and, in my mind, instrumental in putting quality into the world of food in the workplace."
Verstringhe was a passionate believer in business education and in 1972 pursued the advanced management programme at the Harvard Business School faculty at University College, Swansea.
He was awarded the 1989 Foodservice Caterer of the Year at the Cateys, and later went on to become a regular judge.
Alastair Storey, chairman of Westbury Street Holdings, BaxterStorey and Springboard, said that C&A was ahead of its time and Verstringhe's influence ran deep in hospitality.
"Apart from being a lovely man, Marc made a huge contribution over many decades to the hospitality industry," Storey added.
"He loved excellence and his knowledge of food and wine was amazing. Marc was always willing to help the industry and was a great mentor to many of us. It is impossible to think of Marc without smiling, as his kindness and generosity were accompanied by a delightful sense of humour and warmth. We have all been fortunate to have had him as a friend and colleague."
By 1995 Verstringhe had become honorary president of the European Catering Association, where he worked with David Battersby of Hospitality and Leisure Manpower to create the Ecarus workplace learning and professional development scheme, which has helped hundreds of young people.
That same year Verstringhe and his partners began an exit strategy from C&A, entering into a partnership with Elior to create Eurocaterer. In 2000 the remaining shares were sold to Elior. By this time C&A had become a multimillion-pound business with 220 contracts employing around 2,000 staff.
Retirement was not part of Verstringhe's vocabulary and he continued to provide consultancy services and remain heavily involved in a number of industry organisations. He founded the MESV charitable trust, was a fellow of the Institute of Hospitality, a director of the Academy of Food & Wine Service and a judge and ambassador for the Gold Service Scholarship.
Alistair Sindall, head of professional development at the Institute of Hospitality, praised Verstringhe as a very well-respected fellow who will be sadly missed.
Edward Griffiths, trustee and chairman of the judges for the Gold Service Scholarship, praised Verstringhe as a "bastion" of the industry.
He said: "I first met Marc while setting up the Roux catering services in 1986, and I remember his reaction not being that of a competitor, but one of interest and admiration that more food and service quality would be joining the sector.
"He was always interested in sharing views, helping others and talking passionately about good food and wine. He was both a gentle man and a gentleman, and inspired respect from all sectors, always ready with a dose of good humour."
"A distinguished man of great urbane charm, and a measured, empathetic and inspirational leader to so many who worked for him in Catering & Allied."
Battersby said: "Throughout his career Marc also showed himself to be a most warm and kind individual with boundless energy and ideas. He was always generous with his time and cared deeply about the wellbeing of all those he came to know. Sadly, with his passing, we have all lost a most remarkable and special person. Although Marc is no longer with us, his ‘can-do spirit', the impact of his many achievements and his drive to create partnerships between education and business will live on."
Verstringhe passed away on 21 August 2021 and is survived by his wife Carole, sons Simon and James, and four grandchildren.