It's all change at Lexington, with a completed acquisition by Elior and the departure of chief executive Mike Sunley. But managing director Julia Edmonds is confident that the values of the independent business are secure and tells Janie Manzoori-Stamford what she's planning for 2020
"Mike has always championed the fact that it really is all about giving people in the business the autonomy to be the best they can be, every day," says Julia Edmonds, managing director of Lexington Catering.
She is talking about Mike Sunley, the Outstanding Contribution award winner at the 2019 Foodservice Cateys, who this month steps down as chief executive at the business he helped to create 17 years ago.
This people focus is a legacy she is committed to continuing when she takes the helm at Lexington in the New Year because, as Edmonds puts it, "that's what gives the business its strength". Of course, anything worth doing is usually easier said than done, not least because Sunley's departure comes five years after Lexington was acquired by Elior.
It was a move that at the time led industry observers to wonder whether the qualities that made the boutique brand an attractive proposition in the first place would get lost amid the ranks of its new global, corporate parent company.
So how has one of the capital's most successful catering companies fared under its new ownership? What was the strategy to maintain the characteristics upon which Lexington built its success? And what does the next chapter look like for the business?
"We were acquired for a reason," says Edmonds. "We were acquired for our reputation in the marketplace and we wanted to be part of a business that was going to help support the continued growth of Lexington as a brand."
Based purely on financial performance, it's fair to say this aim has been achieved. The most recently reported figures put Lexington's annual turnover at £47.3m, up 42.5% in five years. This is thanks to growth that Edmonds says is down to new business wins such as Charles Taylor, Virgin Active and Subsea 7, rather than cost-savings from sharing back of house resources with Elior or transferring contracts from the parent company's portfolio to Lexington's.
"We've always been very specific about making sure our clients receive a bespoke service," she explains. "There's not a drive to be more efficient. It's about optimising the resources we have to make sure that we're delivering, continuing to innovate and evolving the business to meet market trends."
Part of that optimisation has seen all London contracts run by both Lexington and Elior City remain separate in terms of financial reporting, but share Lexington's leadership. Another is the way the two brands have successfully shared complementary initiatives, such as LexDNA and Experience.
Elior's Experience programme involves having daily conversations about good customer service, focusing on one of 12 topics, while LexDNA is a daily temperature check of what's happening in the business.
"So you've got one thing that talks to our people about great customer service and the other that measures it. LexDNA and Experience mesh together really nicely and give us a holistic approach to make sure we're delivering what we say we're going to deliver, every day.
"The great thing about both of them is that it's the on-site teams that are given the ownership to implement the programmes," says Edmonds, again alluding to the empowerment legacy that Sunley leaves behind. But why is this so important to Lexington?
"It's a great way for people to be totally engaged with what it is we're trying to achieve within the business," she says.
Instilling this type of company culture is one thing, but Edmonds readily admits that it can be tricky to maintain this dynamic, particularly in the early years when the company was growing very quickly.
The way Lexington does this is to make sure every action and decision is made in support of the company's core values: delivering great foodservice; being bold and taking initiative; and being inclusive and diverse as a business. "It happens on many levels. The values are part of our induction, our appraisal system and initiatives like our One Team Leadership programme. It's about making sure we continually talk about what the values mean to us as a business and individuals, and that everyone can benefit from being part of that culture and community."
Of course, Sunley's departure undoubtedly leaves some pretty big shoes to fill. So how does Edmonds feel about the task at hand? "We've worked together for 12 years, so I've very mixed feelings. We've been very supportive of each other through the whole of the Lexington journey, so it does feel quite strange that Mike's going," she admits. "But at the same time he needs to move on and do his thing and it opens up an opportunity, which is really exciting."
Edmonds' job title will continue to be managing director, but she will step up into a more strategic role, having spent the bulk of her time being focused on the day-to-day management of the business. It's a move that has been in the making for some time, with the handover of responsibilities from Sunley to Edmonds just the tip of the iceberg.
Sean Ritson came on board from CH&Co as operations director in March and sales director Benjamin McEwen has been in his role for a year following a stint at Grazing.
"We've not necessarily been planning for Mike to go for that long," says Edmonds. "It's been about making sure that we've got a strong leadership team for whatever happens in the future. Rob [Kirby], who leads our food team, has been looking at increasing capacity there, and we've also expanded our sales and marketing team.
"There has been a lot of forward planning to make sure that the teams within the business are strong enough to be able to step up when we need them."
It also helps with maintaining client confidence. Typically when there's a change in leadership there comes a need to reassure clients that what they signed up for won't be lost. But Edmonds has been with Lexington since 2007, having joined as sales and marketing director from Compass Group before being promoted to managing director in 2010.
And this long service with the business means she aims to ensure the united front that the leadership team has always demonstrated continues, alongside co-founders and directors Katharine Lewis and Rachel Lindner, and chef-director Kirby.
"Mike is probably leaving at the best time because he's ready to go and the business is in a very strong place. I think the clients can feel that, so no one's expressed any real concern," says Edmonds.
The New Year will bring not just a change in leadership for Lexington; it also marks a new chapter for the business. And while Edmonds is clear that the foundations on which the business was built are going nowhere, a fresh period of evolution is definitely on the horizon.
"We recognise that the marketplace is changing quite dramatically and very quickly, particularly the food scene on the high street and what's going on within our client businesses. We see this as an opportunity," she explains.
A fresh start
A major brand refresh is on the cards, alongside ongoing focus on front of house brand Lexington Reception Services, which has doubled in size over the last 18 months.
Investment in new technology to enhance the customer experience is also a big part of Lexington's ongoing plans. In addition to developing its own smartphone app called LexEat, the caterer is utilising other app technology, either through Elior or third parties such as VitaMojo.
But, with new apps launching daily, all vying for valuable space on people's phones, how does Lexington ensure it can compete in a crowded arena?
"We're using technology that's appropriate for each client's offer and our app has a day-to-day impact on what people are doing in the workplace," says Edmonds. "Adoption rates vary according to the profile of the customer but we are finding that the apps are increasing sales, loyalty and return customers.
"Our own app is probably the stronger performer and the fact that it can be tailored and branded for each location makes it very powerful too."
Support for new education arm Lexington Independent Schools, which launched this summer, is also expected to continue through 2020, with new caterer Richard Glass, previously at Tesco Hospitality and Mitchells & Butlers, driving the business.
Since its inception in 2002, Lexington has resolutely concentrated on the London B&I scene.
Was the move into a new foodservice sector prompted by the wave of mergers and acquisitions that has slashed the number of operators within the independent education market? "That's one reason we saw an opportunity, but also we felt that the Lexington brand is quite closely aligned with that particular sector. There's great synergy there," says Edmonds. "There's a huge push to feed children the best possible food and focus on their health and wellbeing and that's what we're already doing for our clients in B&I."
Has there been increased pressure from parent company Elior to maintain strong growth trajectories? Could this also have had an influence on Lexington's efforts to expand? According to Edmonds, no.
"We've always put pressure on ourselves to do better. We've always had targets. We've always wanted to make sure that the business is evolving and growing because that's its lifeblood," she says. "So I wouldn't say there's been increased pressure."
And it is clear that for Edmonds and her team, growth is about much more than adding numbers to the top line. People development and innovation are equally important key performance indicators.
"That's what make it exciting and that's also what drives the turnover," says Edmonds. "Yes, of course, we have a business to run, so we've got to make sure that we're profitable. Every business does.
"But what's really exciting is seeing people love what they do, delivering the best every day and progressing within the company. That's what gives me the greatest satisfaction. That's what keeps people coming to work every day."
Lexington and CSR
"It's at the forefront of most decision making now for our clients, in terms of what we do," says Julia Edmonds. It would be easy to imagine she is talking about costs, but instead Edmonds is referring to the meteoric rise of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the consciousness of consumers and clients alike.
Lexington's CSR credentials are in evidence in myriad ways, from its work with social enterprise food businesses such as Change Please, Redemption and Fat Macy's to the way it reduces food waste and eliminates single-use plastics.
But sustainable operation is not a new concept, so why has demand spiked? "
It has always been there but it seems to have ratcheted up in a huge way," explains Edmonds. "When you have a programme like the BBC's Blue Planet II series highlighting the huge world impact [of not being sustainable], your customers suddenly wake up to the scale of it. As an industry we've been talking about it for many, many years, but suddenly our customers are demanding it. I know that not every country is doing their bit, but it's about what we can do to improve the situation as individuals or as businesses."
While innovation plays a huge part, it's as much to do with reminding people what is already being done.
"Yes, we are raising our game, but we're also reminding people what we're already doing because quite often they've simply forgotten," Edmonds adds.
"For example, we launched our vegetarian and vegan brand – Grains and Greens – three or four years ago, but it's really only in the past two years that people have really switched on to it.
"We were ready for that and that's what we need to be as a business: agile, adaptable, flexible and responsive."
Facts and figures
- Name Lexington Catering
- Sectors B&I, independent education, reception services
- Sites 65
- Staff 1,066
- Annual turnover £47.3m (year ended September 2018)
- Key clients Knight Frank, AMV BBDO, Coca-Cola, London Business School
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