Robyn Jones has been made an OBE, 20 years after setting up Charlton House at the heightof the 1991 recession with the unwavering support of husband and chairman Tim. One of catering's most enduring partnerships tell Janie Stamford how the business grew from a one-woman-show to a multifaceted £75m empire that shows no signs of slowing down
What prompted the decision to set up on your own during such a challenging economic period?
RJ I had been trying to set up the contract catering division of Higgs & Hill [building contractor] when I was made redundant. My confidence was knocked and it was a bit scary but with encouragement from Tim, I decided to give it a go myself.
I like to be thrown in at the deep end. Getting the first contract was always going to be a challenge, but getting the first appointment was even harder because I had no business to refer potential clients to. It was just a case of offering them Robyn Jones. That was it.
You launched with the support of an Enterprise Allowance. What do you think of the Government's proposed reinvention of the scheme?
RJ It hasn't increased that much; it was £50 a week 20 years ago and it's now going to be £64.50. But it's right that it will again be given out for a set period, ceased for a while, and then reinstated. That ensures people are really serious about the business they are looking to grow. My advice to anyone with a business idea they feel strongly about is to go for it.
TJ It's beneficial because it provides some income, because technically as soon as you start your own business you're no longer available for work and therefore not entitled to claim unemployment benefit.
What was your first contract?
RJ It was Guide Dogs for the Blind, a training centre with accommodation. The client was basically a man that was acting a bit helpless so I ended up helping with everything including choosing curtains and carpets for the bedrooms. The most significant win after that was Sony in 1994, which we still have today.
Guide Dogs was nice. It had a very country kitchen style. Sony was all steel, glass and marble. The main reception has a very prestigious feel.
TJ We won that contract while we were one of Caterer‘s Adopted Businesses and a photo appeared in the magazine of Robyn on her brand new Sony mobile phone sat outside Sony's offices, so needless to say the client was very pleased with us.
How did you go about building up the business?
RJ It grew in steps. I remember that we were doing really well, we got to about 30 contracts and then it plateaued. Then we got to about 100 contracts and again it plateaued.
You do get these steps where no matter what you do you can't seem to get to the next level. You just have to be determined and keep going, knowing that you're providing a good service and that you can break through that barrier.
What was your strategy?
RJ We looked internally to see what we could be doing; what our competitors were doing well that was winning them more business than us. Whatever it was, we addressed it.
We also focused on specific sub sectors. When we broke into the law firms we were able to then gain momentum and get a nice grouping of them; getting that first one was the challenge.
Obviously with Tim's financial background, we were keen to get a bank, but we didn't break into that market until last year because we were told we didn't have any experience. It was frustrating because it's still food on a plate; it's not different. But the clients see themselves very differently.
The UK is once again in the midst of a challenging economic climate. Are times tougher this time around?
RJ When I set up I was trying to offer a service that was potentially going to be more expensive than the existing supplier and people went for it then. But it feels different now, maybe because I've now got the business I'm feeling the hurt a lot more from people cutting back.
Hearing everybody talk about the hundreds of redundancies taking place in big corporate companies, those are scary figures.
TJ CH&Co has its fingers in many pies so when Lehman Brothers happened and hospitality in the City of London disappeared, our B&I sector supported that side of the business. But I think 2011 will be reasonably buoyant for London. We will see conference and banqueting work volumes improving and that will support the outer London business.
That's the benefit of working in a number of different sectors: they can offset each other in the good and the bad times.
What prompted the decision to rebrand the five divisions?
RJ We'd diversified an awful lot and so we felt we needed to have a brand for each of our specialisms. It did cause some confusion when it first launched because Charlton House has been around for so long. I'm still guilty of saying I'm Robyn from Charlton House because in 20 years it became ingrained in me.
Why did you choose to name the group CH&Co and not Charlton House?
TJ For a long time the group and the B&I brand were both going to be called Charlton House. We decided to allow the B&I business to have a standalone identity and change the umbrella name to emphasise that point.
Did we do the right thing? I don't know. But if we got it wrong, we can always go back because Dixons have. They rebranded as DSGI for about five years but they've just gone back because that's how everybody referred to them. But courage of conviction and all that.
How does it fit with your plans for future growth?
TJ There are other sectors of the catering industry that we haven't yet embraced and it will be easier to have them sit under the name CH&Co rather than Charlton House, which would have no relevance.
Further education is definitely going to be a big focus for 2011 because there are good opportunities out there, partly as a result of the Mercury Alliance. There are a number of contracts coming up on the radar.
RJ One of the routes we will consider will be the acquisition of another company's specialism. It's an expensive way to go, although obviously we did it with Chester Boyd. You've got to make sure it's a good, solid business that you're aiming for and that it doesn't disappear as quickly as you bought it.
There's a lot in the boiling pot at the moment. We're looking at a number of different things but we do have to consider carefully exactly what we want to spend our money on.
What keeps you awake at night?
RJ Aside from Tim's snoring? It's in my make-up to always deliver on promises. I get upset when we haven't done what we promised to deliver, either to clients or staff, so I'll never make a commitment to something I can't achieve. We've recruited staff with the same mentality. It makes my skin crawl when I hear our competitors making promises that there's no way they can deliver.
What do you say to the persistent rumours that the business will be sold?
RJ We live and breathe the business together. We've been married 25 years and in business 20 years. The business and our lives are completely interlinked.
TJ People have been saying we're for sale ever since those Adopted Business articles in Caterer all those years ago and we just shrug our shoulders. All you have to do is look at what we're doing to see that we're not selling. The rebranding was for a purpose and that purpose was not to sell the business.
RJ I don't understand why the rebranding set people's tongues wagging again.
Why would we spend all that money doing it just to sell up? It cost us a bloody fortune.
Group turnover circa £75m
Brands Charlton House - staff catering, B&I; Lusso - City and fine dining; Chester Boyd - livery halls/private venues; It's The Agency - venues/events booking; Ampersand: - public catering at iconic venues
Staff Almost 2,000
1991 company established on Government Enterprise Allowance Scheme
â- 1993 Winner of Booker Prize for Excellence: Best Young Business and Best Caterer
â- 2000 Tim Jones joins board full time
â- 2006 Foodservice Caterer of the Year at the Cateys
â- 2010 Robyn Jones made an OBE in New Year's Honour's List