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The Caterer Interview: Bonnie May

23 June 2017 by
The Caterer Interview: Bonnie May

Managing director Tony Laurenson launched Global Infusion Group (GIG) in 1984 from his father's garage and it is now a £17m turnover global operation. Who are the key players?
Tony is the major shareholder, with me and my fellow global operations director, Mary Shelley Smith. I head up both GIG Sport and GIG fyi, which is event catering. Mary looks after Eat to the Beat, which feeds bands on tour and festivals, and John Ford oversees e2B logistics and brand support, which is the only non-catering division.

What about your teams?
Our headquarters is in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, where we have 40 staff on the core team. e2B Logistics is based at Watford, north London, with 30 staff, and in Shanghai we have a bistro and catering kitchens with 60 full-time staff. Plus we have offices in the Middle East and the US and we have 3,000 self-employed people on our books.

GIG has grown exports by 48% in the past two years, as recognised by The Sunday Times Lloyds SME Export Track 100 report in February. Plus, it topped the list of the top 20 fastest-growing foodservice operators in the UK in the 2016 Foodservice Growth Report.

Is this down to the performance in a particular division?
Growth has been across the board, but GIG Sport looks after a number of large global games and, at times, the scale of them can spike out of kilter with the rest of the business.

Indeed, international business now accounts for 50% of company turnover
Yes. In fact, we have just won the Queen's Award for Enterprise: International Trade 2017 for outstanding short-term growth, having grown overseas sales from £5.8m in 2013 to £8.56m in the year to December 2015.

When did your success in the world sporting arena take hold?
The 2006 Asian Games in Doha put us on the map. As with many international tenders, they wanted to keep the money in the country, so we were not initially awarded it. But the event grew, and although the local companies put in the bones to make it happen, they didn't have the experience for the upscale, so we were brought in as a hit squad. We sent in a team of five, going up to 25 as the scale of the games grew.

Why is working with local partners such a successful formula for you?
Because they have local knowledge, a cultural understanding and a procurement chain. We, in turn, bring international knowledge and experience in project management and consultancy. We also understand how to meet the nutritional requirements for the teams. So when you sandwich all that together, you have a 360-degree delivery team.

Is there a further spin-off from these partnerships?
Yes. Off the back of Doha, the next biggest events for us were the Asian Games in Guangzhou in China in 2010 and the Summer Universiade 2011 in Shenzhen in China, where we also worked with local partners.

However, the 2015 European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, are probably the best example of working with a partner on the ground. Although the company is small, the experience they gained through working with us put them in a position to tender for the Islamic Solidarity Games in Baku in May. They know where their gaps are and asked us to tender with them, so we now have a team of 20 working there.

That presumably put you in a prime position to tender for the London 2012 Olympics?
We hadn't done an Olympics before, but we had a visual on the scale from doing Guangzhou, Doha and Shenzhen. Other suppliers hadn't seen what feeding 24,000 athletes looks and feels like compared with seeing it on paper - the logistics of storage, where your staff go, that you need a team to feed the team, and so on.

So what was your remit?
We looked after five Olympic venues, including Hyde Park and the Mall. The jewel in the crown was Horse Guards Parade, where the volleyball was held, which in terms of profile was fantastic for us. We also had a contract feeding the media in 22 locations, so we had kitchens in 27 locations.

Handling logistics is clearly one of your USPs
The logistics is what it is all about. We look at the competition schedule and make sure the meals are in the right place at the right time.We provide a turn key solution. At London 2012 we were the only caterer to operate a vehicle checkpoint, so we didn't need daily screening to get into the Games site. There are a lot of boxes to tick to get access into the Games.

What impact did that have on business?
There is a lot of credibility from having done it, because it is difficult to improve on what we delivered as a nation. London is still deemed as the default and contracts are still going to the people who were involved in it.

And you describe 2014 as one of your biggest years in the wake of the Olympics
Yes, in one year we did the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Prince Harry's inaugural Invictus Games in London and the World Endurance Championship, an auto endurance race, in Shanghai.

What are the challenges of pitching for a huge international event?
We never know whether we will be delivering a big piece of it or a small part. We didn't get the slice of the pie we wanted from the Rio 2016 Olympics. A lot of conversations were about picking up local staff, which meant we wouldn't be able to deliver the way we wanted.

In the end, we did a fine-dining contract out there. We also got a call three weeks out from a client who was struggling with a local caterer and so we sent in a team of 30 chefs.

The location for the 2024 Olympics will be announced in September, but the contenders are Paris or LA. That's not great for us Brits as both cities have fantastic skills and infrastructure, so we might not get a look-in.

Cultural considerations can affect how contracts are awarded, too. If the games are during Ramadan, you can only serve food before sunrise and after sunset, so at those times you need to be able to manage massive footfall. Translation fees can also be a huge cost. It is frustrating as the organisers often use English speakers to write the scope before translating it into their own language, and then we have to pay to get it translated back.

Do you get advice on handling work abroad?
The Department for International Trade is there to help us and other British companies to deliver outside the country.

How do you manage global food prices?
We are paid in different currencies depending on the client and location. The procurement research is massive. There might be 2,000 athletes requiring food for three weeks, and we have to find suppliers who can provide that. We had a 17-strong team in Baku since January in preparation for the Islamic Solidarity Games in May. Our menu was on an eight-day cycle to avoid the "chicken every Monday" issue.

How does the Eat to the Beat division work?
We feed the artists and their entourage. Take Coldplay. We've been with them for 16 years as they have grown into a global band. When they are on tour we have two teams leapfrogging across the world and a core team travelling with the band. There's a crew of 16 in total and we pick up local staff too. They cater for 240 people a day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as supplying food to the dressing rooms and food on the bus and so on.

We get paid per show, so if we are touring for 30 days but there are 21 shows, it would be a lower cost than 15 shows over 30 days. It's not just based on F&B but on the period of time. So seven shows in seven days would be cost-effective, but we would be hanging.

How do your teams source food and maintain quality on the road?
We have suppliers across the globe, but we are time-sensitive, so deliveries are difficult. On the whole, we shop locally in, say, a cash-and-carry or a supermarket. We have a menu framework. For instance, lunch is a buffet with a choice of starters, hot dishes and salads. But the team tend to write the menus on the road and may theme a dinner according to location. You have a lot of repeat business, such as catering for Iron Maiden on tour for 33 years.

How do you do it?
We have key people who have been working with us for a long time, so we trust our teams.

Getting the right person to serve the teas and coffee to decision-makers is important. It might be the smallest part of the job, but you need your superstar in there because they may bring in the next business. Repeat business is often about the individual - particularly with the artists. They would rather have a happy team that knows they want brown sauce with their sandwich. It's all about the people - good food is taken as read.

You've also catered at Glastonbury for 30 years We cater for all the artists on the main stages and the technical teams. For example, we feed the team that delivers the temporary electricity. How long they are on site at the start and the end depends on the weather.

How do you recruit your army of freelancers?
We have 3,000 temps and we get people to do a trial day to see if they are a good fit. This is the easiest way to get to know people. I would rather have a great chef who can cook, empty the bin and communicate than a chef who can knock out a lobster thermidor but isn't a team player. Many applicants are attracted by the prospect of working at the national TV awards or feeding a rock band. The truth is, they may be flying off to do the Olympics at Sochi, but they will be working in a tent in a car park.

Can you tell us about the events arm, GIG fyi?
We are vying for the same business as everyone else, but we know we can create great food, so we compete on logistics. We don't have a competitor that sits side-by-side with us. Few of our clients [ from celebrity weddings to the Michelin Guide launch in Shanghai], fall into clear categories.

And that brings us to e2B Logistics
This looks after event equipment for about 40 F&B clients, such as Fevertree and Vita Coco. We store their equipment, deliver it and set it up, then afterwards we clean it, repack it and re-store it.

Are there any plans to set up another division or to diversify?
No, not into any other sector. But there are more international games coming up - the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics 2018 in South Korea, Tokyo Olympics 2020 and Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and the Asian Games in Jakarta 2018. Many are in emerging countries, where they've got the people and the facilities, but they don't have the catering skills or vision of what happens when the circus comes to town. So, in terms of large-scale sporting events, the next 10 years look exciting.

On a smaller scale, here in the UK, we've launched Bonnie May Events. People see us as a global company, so Bonnie May Events makes us more approachable for smaller, bespoke parties.

Spotlight on GIG
www.globalinfusiongroup.com
Turnover (2015) £17m
Staff Employs 130 full-time staff worldwide, supported by about 3,000 freelance staff
Clients More than 250 clients worldwide each year
•The Sunday Times Lloyds SME Export Track 100 report in February 2017 revealed GIG was ranked 69th, one above its previous rating. The listing, compiled by Fast Track, shows GIG has grown exports by 44% during the past two years. Its overseas sales for 2015 were £8.6m - half of the company's overall turnover of £17m. Operating profit was £1.5m and EBITDA was £2m.
•The company topped a list of the top 20 fastest-growing foodservice operators in the UK as a new entry in the 2016 Foodservice Growth report, compiled by AlixPartners and EP, after achieving 67.9% compound annual growth from a turnover of £17m, supported by 16.7% turnover growth that financial year.
•The company has catered at functions as diverse as Buckingham Palace, the Dubai World Trade Centre, the Hollywood Bowl, the Great Wall of China and the ice fields of Inner Mongolia.
•Key sport events include several Asian Games, the 2012 London Olympics and the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
•It provides backstage catering support on concert tours for an A-Z of world- famous bands, such as Coldplay and Lady Gaga, as well as at major festivals, such as Glastonbury and Reading, and TV and films.

GIG timeline
•1984 Tony Laurenson launches his company as Eat to the Beat, specialising in backstage catering for artists, production and crew. It kicks off with an Iron Maiden tour, who remain clients to this day.
•1988 fyi (feeding your imagination) launches, a bespoke corporate and private party planning, catering and event design division, notching up clients such as Google and O2.
•1997 e2B Logistics launches, serving high-profile clients such as Vita Coco.
•2002 GIG Sport is created, a global sport and automotive event catering division.
•2003 All the divisions come under the umbrella of GIG with a head office in Chesham, Buckinghamshire. GIG goes on to establish bases in California and Qatar.
•2010 GIG starts trading in China and opens an office in Shanghai.
•2012 GIG wins contracts at five London Olympic venues and caters for the
media at 22 sites.
•2013 The company is rebranded.
•2014 Receives the Queen's Award for Enterprise in International Trade.
•2015 Wins Event Caterer of the Year Award at the Foodservice Cateys.
•2016 Works in seven Asian countries and 50 cities across China.
•2017 Wins its second Queen's Award for Enterprise for outstanding short-term growth and the national Festival Supplier Award 2017 for Best Crew/Artist Catering for the second time in three years.

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