From The Apprentice to Aramark: how Helen Milligan-Smith is aiming to double the size of the foodservice firm

28 April 2021 by

Covid isn't standing in the way of foodservice company Aramark. Its grand plans include rapid growth and acquisitions, ready to capitalise on the post-pandemic world. Tom Vaughan discovers how Frank Gleeson and Helen Milligan-Smith intend to mine a "hidden gem" of a company.

Frank Gleeson and Helen Milligan-Smith are all smiles and warmth. Aramark's president of Northern Europe and his new UK managing director are on what is clearly one of a number of press Zoom calls.

They are pleasant company: Gleeson, open, approachable and with a dash of Irish charm; Milligan-Smith the polished, polite, uber- professional that came close to winning BBC One's The Apprentice in 2011. But among all the thoughtful commentary on the state of the industry, one thing is clear: they are not here to reflect on the fallout of the last year – they are here because they want to capitalise on it.

"Ultimately, it comes down to ambition," says Gleeson. "We've got to want to have more business and we're well-placed to take advantage of a post-Brexit, post-Covid world in the UK."

If there are any lingering questions why Aramark – a company that has for years quietly gone about its business in the UK and rarely broken cover for press interviews – is suddenly stepping out of the shadows and into the limelight, Gleeson and Milligan-Smith swiftly put paid to them. They don't say it in such explicit terms, but this is evidently a campaign ahead of a year where they hope to oversee huge UK growth for the American-owned multinational.

"I'd love to see Helen double the size of the business in the next year," says Gleeson. "I don't think that's unreasonable given that there will be regional players that will want to exit and there will be opportunities to win new business. In a world where Aramark is a strong player, we could definitely do something like that."

There will be regional players that will want to exit and there will be opportunities to win new business

Sweet spot

Milligan-Smith was brought in from Moto Hospitality, where she was head of M&S Simply Food, and prior to that, growth director at Brakes UK and head of retail at Greggs. She appears, on face value, to be the driving force behind the press engagement. As someone who not only pitted her wits against Lord Sugar in The Apprentice but bagged a record-breaking nine challenge wins in a row, she is clearly not afraid of putting herself out there.

"In 2021, what you'll see much more of is us talking to people in the industry and the public about what we are doing," she says. "We're a bit of a hidden gem at the moment. I'm keen to be more outwardly proud of the work we're doing. We're a company that has 98% client retention rates, but we don't tell people that enough."

We're a company that has 98% client retention rates, but we don't tell people that enough

Aramark's core business in the UK is spread across business and industry (B&I), defence, education and healthcare – sectors that have suffered wildly differing fortunes over the past year. While the likes of defence – where Aramark is a market leader in the UK – has proved resilient during Covid, B&I and universities have struggled under lockdown restrictions.

The diversity of its portfolio has helped stabilise the company, but it has also hugely benefited from having the strength of a multinational organisation to fall back on.

"Aramark is a pretty resilient business," says Gleeson. "I mean, it's broad based, we're an international organisation, and we've got a strong parent company based out of Philadelphia in the US, and it's pretty well financed."

The international make-up of that parent company – a $16b [£11.5b] business that operates in 19 countries – means that its Northern European arm was able to swiftly learn lessons from sister companies as Covid spread across the world.

"For example, China was the first to be hit by Covid," says Gleeson. "So we were able to learn from what happened in China and adapt. We could move quickly through all of the safety issues, through the challenges of how to react to your business being closed down, and then put in place programmes to try and bring our business back in a different way."

One such programme was EverSafe, developed and launched in the US in conjunction with Jefferson Health, which enabled the safe reopening of client operations. It includes everything from new cleaning procedures to appropriate social distancing practices and frictionless environments.

However, the pandemic has not been without its costs. Of the 8,500 workforce in the UK, roughly 1,000 have been furloughed, mainly from the B&I sector. Meanwhile, revenues for the year up to October 2020 were down 21.9%, with losses of £17.2m, down from £3.1m. Rewind to March 2020, when the world was shutting down and no one knew what the future held – least of all for the hospitality industry – would Gleeson have settled for those kind of numbers?

Frank Gleeson
Frank Gleeson

"I think our figures compare reasonably OK to some of the other companies in our market- place," he says. "We had a little bit of resilience with the defence business and with our offshore catering, but it was pretty tough. It's not much fun to have losses. But I think our response was swift. We've managed to cope through a tough time and to create this opportunity where I think we're very well-placed for growth."

And growth is exactly why Milligan-Smith was brought on board at the tail end of 2020. "One of the reasons we hired Helen was to drive that growth in the UK," continues Gleeson. "If you look at Helen's CV, she's had a great career so far. We did an exhaustive search. We didn't want to look in our own sectors; in actual fact, I was more interested in bringing some fresh thinking into the business, because I already have a lot of hospitality experts. Helen has worked in the consumer business and retail, for me, is the frontline of consumer business. But she's worked on the B2B side too. I think she brings a unique perspective for us."

Plan of action

Gleeson and Milligan-Smith both feel the fallout from Covid will help bring new business Aramark's way. "I think we have an enormous opportunity given there will be a lot of pressurised companies in our sectors, as well as the fact the high streets are going to see a lot of closures. I think there's a definite pent-up demand from consumers. So if our market responds well, which it will, and it has the right solutions, I think we can pick up quite a considerable amount of business."

Milligan-Smith already has her strategy planned out – a combination of organic growth and acquisitions. "We're in B&I, defence, education and healthcare. In the UK we have a market-leading position in some sectors, but in other countries in which we operate we would have a market-leading position in probably all of those. So we're quite ambitious in terms of organic growth, but also I'm keen to look into acquisitions to help us move into more sectors."

L-R: Carolyn Hails, marketing director, Northern Europe; Frank Gleeson; Helen Milligan-Smith; Rajat Chawla, commercial and business excellence director, Northern Europe; and Paul Bloxham, culinary director, UK
L-R: Carolyn Hails, marketing director, Northern Europe; Frank Gleeson; Helen Milligan-Smith; Rajat Chawla, commercial and business excellence director, Northern Europe; and Paul Bloxham, culinary director, UK

Are any particular sectors in her crosshairs? "Sports and leisure, and entertainment, and also healthcare, all of which we have a wealth of knowledge and experience in from the US business," she says.

What's more, says Gleeson, this is a strategy signed off from the very top. "We've a new chief executive, John Zillmer, who is an Aramark person, through and through. And my direct boss is Carl Mittleman [chief operating officer, international], who is an Aramark lifer. So what I'm finding is we've got this renewed ambition for growth – that's been the message I've been hearing from Philadelphia for the past 18 months. More growth, faster growth.

"They're supporting our strategy in the UK and Northern Europe to grow faster, which is terrific, because that allows us to unleash the potential of our people. I feel a renewed energy. That, to me, is the type of thing that I like to be involved in. I mean, every company I've worked in throughout my career has been a high-growth company."

For Gleeson and Milligan-Smith, that means deals (one or two are under consideration, but nothing to announce just yet, he says) and an ambitious recruitment programme. "As you might expect, as part of our growth projections, we're creating some really interesting roles. We've just committed to doubling the size of the new business team, we're looking to bring in top talent, and I would encourage anybody interested to keep an eye out," says Milligan-Smith.

We're looking to bring in top talent and I would encourage anybody interested to keep an eye out

Rewriting the story

Part of the challenge of organic growth will be shaping the future of B&I. With no one knowing when or in what number workers will return to offices, will we look back at 2020 in five years' time and think: this was the moment that everything changed for the sector?

"That's a great question," says Gleeson. "I think there will be change and I don't think that story has been written yet. I feel quite strongly that as hospitality providers in the workplace we have a great opportunity to create a safe and holistic environment where you might find a lot of the customers choose to stay on-site initially rather than go outside. So we've got an opportunity to capture more of the existing clients.

"The frictionless environment is definitely here to stay. As well as being efficient it also helps with data, loyalty, rewarding consumers and, more importantly, how you communicate with them. That's a very positive, permanent change."

What's clear is that many of our working weeks will change – probably forever. If 20%, 30% or even 40% of desk spaces aren't being filled during the week, would that have a major impact on Aramark's B&I operations?

"Each client is different," says Milligan-Smith. "Some, for example, are saying ‘well, employees might only be in three or four days a week, but when they are in they're doing longer days'. So they are working with us to concentrate on breakfast or evening meals, whereas traditionally we might have done lunch and snacks. There are lots of opportunities – we just have to make sure we're working with each individual client to understand what works for them."

One thing's for certain, as many companies come out of a devastating 12 months reflecting on the hits they have had to take, Aramark is looking squarely forwards, not backwards.

"I'm optimistic because there's definitely pent-up demand," says Gleeson. "Consumers are tired of being at home, they want to get back to work or into education establishments. There's absolute demand for leisure and activity. We all want to get back to restaurants and bars and sports arenas, so I'd be very hopeful that the second half of this year will balance well.

"Ultimately, it's down to us as an industry, creating confidence for our clients and confidence for our customers, and making sure we do things in a different but a better way to create sustainable businesses."

Ultimately, it's down to us as an industry, creating confidence for our clients and confidence for our customers

About Aramark UK

Sectors Pre-Covid, business in the UK was broadly split into thirds between sectors of defence, B&I, other public sector – for example education, judicial and rehabilitation facilities – and healthcare

Size 200 clients operating across 325-plus sites

Staff 7,500, plus a further circa 1,000 currently on furlough

Turnover £229.7m (October 2019-October 2020)

Helen Milligan-Smith: from apprentice to master

Helen Milligan-Smith
Helen Milligan-Smith

  • February 2019-December 2020 Head of M&S Simply Food, Moto Hospitality
  • November 2016-February 2019 Growth director, Brakes UK
  • April 2014-December 2016 Divisional director – corporate, Brakes UK
  • June 2011-May 2014 Head of retail, Greggs
  • April 2009-Jun 2011 Executive assistant to chief executive, Greggs
  • June 2008-April 2009 Regional operations manager, Greggs
  • August 2003-June 2008 Business development manager, BB's Coffee and Muffins
  • June 2001-August 2003 Restaurant, bar and hotel manager, Whitbread

Milligan-Smith may be known to many as a finalist in the 2011 series of The Apprentice, but she already had a decade of hospitality and retail experience under her belt by the time she signed up for the show.

Graduating with a contract law degree from De Montfort University, she decided to move into hospitality following a stint at Whitbread.

"I worked on a new concept that they had at the time, and I just really enjoyed it and felt like what I didn't want to do was [go into law and] sit down all day. I wanted to carry on in hospitality, which is about creating great experiences for people," she says.

She did restaurant manager training and chef training with Whitbread, before moving on to BB's Coffee and Muffins and then Greggs.

"Greggs has a great culture and it was a fantastic growth story too. We were opening a store a week when I was head of retail. We brought what was a very northern brand at the time down to the south of the country, changing its offer to appeal to the nation and making them fall in love with the brand."

It was during her time at Greggs that she applied to The Apprentice and the company gave her a sabbatical to compete on the show.

"I'm really proud of all the experiences I've had and that I've put myself forward for, because it's by putting yourself forward and being brave that you truly learn and improve. That's when you really develop leadership skills – in a highly pressured, stressful environment."

Despite several job offers on the back of the series, she returned to Greggs before moving on to Brakes UK, Moto Hospitality and now Aramark. What was it about her current position that attracted her to the role?

"It felt like a special opportunity – working in this high-growth, high-energy environment, but also being part of a large global corporation and all the benefits from that. I'm on the global female leadership programme, called Empower. I have a number of female leaders, who are my mentors across Aramark. So having the mix between the UK growth aspirations and that large global presence and backing is unique."

Photography by David Cotsworth

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