The big cheese: Vacherin's Phil Roker explains his ethos of change

03 August 2019 by

Vacherin is evolving its food offer and core management team, while retaining the company's ethos of offering a bespoke service for contract catering clients. Janie Manzoori-Stamford spoke to managing director Phil Roker

Change nothing but change everything. That was the remit Phil Roker set himself when, in 2016, he stepped up to be managing director of boutique London caterer Vacherin.

Turnover increased by £6.5m to £26.2m in the 12 months to August 2018 alone, thanks to nine new contract wins, including the headquarters of broadcaster ITV, as well as 100% retention of a client base that includes Hiscox, Miller Insurance Services, PSP Investments and the London Stock Exchange.

Based on this ongoing impressive commercial performance, it's little surprise that Roker took home the Foodservice Caterer of the Year award at the 2019 Cateys.

But what did he mean when he set about changing nothing but changing everything? And how has this cryptic business strategy brought about Vacherin's continuing success under new leadership?

From left: Phil Roker, managing director, Dan Kelly, director of food, ZoÁ« Watts, commercial director, Simon Macfarlane, head of operations -><figcaption>From left: Phil Roker, managing director, Dan Kelly, director of food, ZoÁ« Watts, commercial director, Simon Macfarlane, head of operations - commercial,</p><p>Sam Feenan, head of finance and administration, and Mark Philpott, chairman</figcaption></figure></p><p><strong>Personal service</strong></p><p></p><p>>

He's talking about the company's determination to always offer a personal and bespoke service to each client, while showing the same attention and care to its staff. It's a strategy that's paid off.

Three clients: Imagination, JLP and Mizuho - that Vacherin took on in its first year - continue to be clients today, enabling the company to launch a 15-year, long-service award for employees in 2018. "It's quite incredible that we can do that, given how few staff we had in that first year," Roker points out.

So what about changing everything?

Phil Roker + Vacherin team</p><p>2019 005
Phil Roker + Vacherin team 2019 005
"That's the innovation bit," he says. "We've got to be evolving the whole time. We're a growing company and there are things that we've been doing for years that aren't necessarily right for now and in the future, which we're looking to evolve. That's everything from the head office structure to the food offer through to personnel policies."

The adjustments to the head office structure included a carefully curated leadership team. Roker's background is primarily in the front of house and service side of hospitality operations, so when chef-turned-caterer Philpott became chairman, and finance man Hetherington became executive financial director, the emphasis on the food and figures had the potential to go with them.

There were three key appointments to the operational board - joining Roker, director of food Dan Kelly and director of human resources Dale Thompson - that formed part of Philpott, Hetherington and Roker's strategic long-term succession planning.

Simon Macfarlane (previously CH&Co, Bite Catering and Restaurant Associates) joined as head of operations in 2014; ZoÁ« Watts (previously Creativevents, Company of Cooks, the Natural History Museum and Tate Catering) came on board as commercial director in 2016; and Sam Feenan (who joined from outside the sector) was appointed to the new post of head of finance and administration, also in 2016.

"They were the three key people that were going to really replace Clive and me because Phil was moving up to manage the business," says Philpott.

Kelly was then promoted to deputy managing director last December, enabling Vacherin to complete its rebalancing of its leadership team.

"We were set up as a food and service company and nothing demonstrates that more than having our director of food as our deputy managing director," says Philpott. "But we didn't give him the job because he was a food person and it was going to make us look good. Dan has some exceptional qualities. He's got a very good business brain."

Kelly had been in his food-focused role at Vacherin since he joined the business in 2012 - so was it a tricky transition to make?

"I was in a company that I was comfortable in. I'd always said that if I was ever going to start my own business, I'd struggle to differentiate it from Vacherin because everything that we as a company stand for is exactly how I would implement my own business. So in that respect, it wasn't that difficult," he explains. "But for any chef - a person who has found comfort in the kitchen all those years - it can be hard to transition away."

Kelly was helped by the appointment of Candace Webber - a chef whose career he had long watched with interest - to the role of head of food development last July.

"Candace understood both my vision and the Vacherin vision from the minute she walked through the door. She's someone I could put 100% trust into and that does make life easier," he adds. "But, of course, I still want to play with the pots and pans now and then."

Phil Roker + Vacherin team</p><p>2019 045
Phil Roker + Vacherin team 2019 045
Boutique attitude

This investment in resource ahead of growth is one of the business traits that has made Vacherin stand out from the crowd since the company was launched, says Roker. The reason is simple: they don't want to play catch up.

"We want to be on the front foot," he explains. "We've always had operations with very low ratios of jobs because we don't want them to be run ragged and then have to go to the market in six months to try and redress the balance. It's the same with our food development team, which has a huge resource. That's where we've always wanted to be: over-resourced, so that we can over deliver." This is part of Vacherin's Think Big, Bigger Thinking strategy, which is about reassessing everything to make sure the business is geared up for the future by thinking like a bigger company.

"Which we now are," adds Roker. With annual turnover of more than £20m, the caterer is no longer classified as boutique (based on the 2019 Foodservice Cateys criteria). But that doesn't mean it can't operate with a boutique attitude.

"That's what's really nice for Clive and me," says Philpott. "The attitude hasn't changed one jot. The staff, clients and suppliers are still treated the same way. The ethos has been absolutely maintained."

This is reflected in a key characteristic of the entire operation: it remains entirely focused on London. By not stretching itself physically, Vacherin is able to apply the full weight of its resource and market-specific expertise to a relatively small geography. That said, operating in the capital is not without its challenges.

"It's only the toughest market in the country - probably the world," says Roker, alluding to the intense competition from rival caterers for contracts and an ever-more sophisticated high street offer, from grab-and-go and casual dining operators going up against staff restaurants, to fine dining fare competing with in-house executive dining and hospitality.

"It's the sophistication of the clients and customers that is the hardest to deal with," adds Philpott. "They know what they want, and if you won't deliver it, someone else will."

Geared up for growth

Last year Vacherin recorded a net profit of £600,000, but that would have been more were it not for the collapse of Carillion, for which the caterer operated one sizeable contract. The facilities management and construction company's demise led to the direct loss of £105,000 for Vacherin, but according to Roker, it wasn't all bad news.

"There was a silver lining to the Carillion thing, because we now have a direct contract with the client," he explains. "Yes, we had to swallow some bad debt, and there were suppliers that upped sticks and walked away because they weren't getting paid, but we worked with the client to find a way through it and now have a contract that is on a much better footing."

The legwork that Vacherin puts in to maintain the upward business momentum it has enjoyed since launch has undoubtedly reaped rich dividends.

The 66% growth of the past three years was primarily driven by a few very large contracts, including Regent's University London (see below), while Vacherin's ability to expand its existing portfolio, by growing with clients into bigger buildings and offering additional services, has certainly helped. The company's reception services brand Entrée, which launched four years ago, today has 10 clients in 15 locations.

But the management team is the first to admit it has benefited from the abundance of mergers and acquisitions that have consolidate the market.

"It's been a golden time for us," Roker says. "Traditionally, our closest competitors have been just that, because they could also claim independence and they can't any more. Clients are either the big boys who go out looking to partner with a big boy, or they're looking for something bit more innovative."

As for whether Vacherin might sell up to one of the big boys, Philpott is firm: "We're not for sale." Instead, the company intends to keep repositioning itself for further growth.

"We've got a great chance to continue capitalising on this great market with our unique offer that we can both promise and deliver," adds Roker. "The opportunity for us is huge."

Working with Robin Gill

robin gill
robin gill

For Vacherin, the main point of collaborating with high-profile chefs is not to impress clients - though, of course, that doesn't hurt. Instead, it's all about what the collaboration can offer the company's own chefs. That's why, two years ago, Vacherin teamed up with Robin Gill.

The Irish-born chef has a burgeoning restaurant empire that includes the Dairy, Sorella and Counter Culture, all in London's Clapham, and Darby's in Nine Elms. He is also overseeing the food and beverage offering at forthcoming hotel Great Scotland Yard, which will operate under the Hyatt Unbound Collection - all of which adds weight to Gill's credentials as a business-savvy chef-restaurateur.

"It was about finding someone to work with that understood our ethos and what we're trying to achieve," says Kelly, who eschews the idea of working with celebrity chefs purely because they're famous. "With Robin, it was all about what our chefs could get from him in terms of training and development."

In addition to attending Gill-led workshops and training sessions, every Vacherin chef is given the opportunity to spend a week working side by side with the man himself in one of his own kitchens.

So how do you measure the success of such a collaboration? According to Kelly, through his chefs' technical abilities and enthusiasm to stay with the business, though he admits chef turnover has never been particularly high.

"And this year we were the only contract caterer from the B&I sector to have a finalist in both the Roux Scholarship [Lewis Linley] and National Chef of the Year [Nick Smith] competitions," adds Kelly.

Winning against delivered-in catering

News broke in July that food delivery company Just Eat had acquired 'office catering marketplace' City Pantry for a cool initial cash offering of £16m. With figures like that, confidence in the delivered-in model is clearly high, but according to Roker, it doesn't look set to shake up established contract catering.

"There is a market for that, but it's not our market," says Roker. "The delivered-in model is not flexible, agile or broad enough for the size of client that we tend to look after."

It is more likely to attract smaller clients with no on-site facilities or a small client population that doesn't have a team permanently on-site, he explains.

And while it is unlikely to challenge established players, it could pose a credible threat to start-ups. "New businesses might find it harder to get a foothold because the types of contracts they would have won in the past are the ones that might turn to a delivered-in model," adds Kelly.

Having said that, Vacherin has already gone up against this model and won. When it took over the catering at Regent's University London in 2017, there was a nightly stream of bikes turning up with food for the students.

"The university wanted us to take something forward that would counteract that, so the idea was to create our own versions [of the food being ordered]," says Kelly. "But before we even got to that, the quality of our food at the right price changed everything. No one was ordering out because they were coming in to buy the food we were producing."

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