Even in lean times we have to eat

Strategy: the runner-up in our listing of Britain's fastest-growing independent firms believes he has cracked the pounds 1.5bn company canteen mark et
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The Independent Online
IT SOUNDS like a cliche, but Jeremy Brand insists it really is true. Seven years ago, aged 30, he was operating his contract catering company by himself from his front room. Now he is achieving sales of more than pounds 28m a year, employing 3,250 people, and taking on the top names in the field in the battle for new clients.

This rapid rise made his business, Russell & Brand (the designer could not fit his full name in a logo, so took artistic licence and substituted an ampersand for Jeremy), runner-up in the fifth annual ranking of the 100 fastest-growing privately owned companies in Britain compiled by the Independent on Sunday in association with accountants Price Waterhouse. The list, published on 30 April, shows his firm increasing sales by 87.2 per cent a year over the five years. The latest results show operating profit up 116 per cent to pounds 622,000.

Mr Brand has been in the business since studying catering and hotel and catering management at college, but he first worked in larger companies before striking out on his own. To what does he attribute the performance of his venture? "It's a question of harnessing people's personal standards and going forward together," he says.

This is something of an oversimplification; he also acknowledges the role of the recession in making companies concentrate on core activities and thus open up such areas as catering for their employees to outside firms.

Having spread from a base in Kent, his staff now work all over the country in just about every organisation imaginable, from schools, universities and NHS trusts to directors' dining-rooms. Since the company usually finds itself pitching for new business against such well-known names as Gardner Merchant, Compass and Sutcliffe, there would appear to be little arguing with Mr Brand's claim to be "in the premier league".

Not that he is ready to rest on his laurels. He recently went to the United States to talk to contract caterers there, and, like others, he sees opportunities in South Africa's return to the international business community. And although he says he is dedicated to the catering market, he also sees great potential in information technology support systems; he has been using much of his firm's profits to develop a sister company called Uniware to oversee them.

Early innovations include a magnetic swipecard that can allow a staff restaurant to operate without cash, and Caternet, a catering management system that can not only be used to support Russell & Brand's activities, but also be sold to companies doing their own catering.

Another concept is the Corporate Supermarket. This is a one-stop shop designed to get around the fact that catering establishments at present take deliveries of vegetables, meat and other ingredients in separate lorries. Putting the prices paid for ingredients on the same sort of footing as cash-and-carries and conventional supermarkets would reduce overheads.

Above all, though, Mr Brand is looking for tricks that will help him achieve the aim he set himself when he started out: to build a top- quality business. The development of Caternet is the latest, but it is not likely to be the last. Its origins lie in the observation that, as things stood, half the reputed pounds 3bn catering market was closed to him, since it consisted of facilities operated by employers rather than contractors. In introducing a service aimed at that business, he is opening up another pounds l.5bn market, he believes.

"You need to look at the market to develop opportunities," he says simply.

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