Bailey points Compass in the right direction for wary investors

Business Profile: Catering giant's chief brushes off demerger critics with commitment to cash
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Trying to envisage Mike Bailey wining and dining clients in a Compass venue is proving tricky. Battered cod 'n' chips or a Double Whopper with Cheese doesn't seem the type of food to lure in big accounts - even if the clients in question are just looking for someone to run their school cafeteria.

Luckily, before I say something rude about Harry Ramsden's or Burger King, two of the many fast-food brands run by the catering giant, Mr Bailey reminds me about the group's finer dining options. "Most people look at us and say, 'You run canteens don't you?' Well, yes, we do, but also some spectacular places. The number one restaurant in Los Angeles for the last 10 years is ours. Patina. You can see Brad Pitt there most nights of the week," he says, his accent betraying his Essex roots. "Events like the Grammys, the Emmys, the Oscars, we do them all."

Most people wouldn't have a clue that they'd been served by the world's biggest catering company as they tuck into their Upper Crust baguette or sip a cup of Café Ritazza coffee, standard fare at railway stations and airports across the country. Neither would the 120 million motorists who stop for a bladder-relieving pitstop at Moto, the group's rebranded chain of motorway service stations. And neither would they care. Mr Bailey likes it this way. "Every company that we've got is small, cuddly and local. The Compass name is never used anywhere except the City."

Which may help explain why its customers feel they get more value for money from the group than its investors. Shareholders have had to stomach a collapse in sentiment about Compass, which has sent its stock tumbling by more than half in the last couple of years. A raft of warnings from Sodexho, its French rival, about the worsening economic conditions has not helped, but neither has the company's propensity to dip into its cash tills to buy growth. That this prompted raised eyebrows back in the pre-Enron days goes some way towards explaining the group's current fixation on hitting its organic sales growth targets, improving free cash flow and raising return on capital.

"We've never had these accounting issues that we've had in the States before with companies that were all acquisitive," he says. "So for anyone that's been acquisitive, I think there's a question mark out there." Hence the current "cash is king" mantra.

Mr Bailey - who with his smart blue suit, heavy gold watch and gold-rimmed glasses looks very much the City slicker - bristles at the thought that Compass should be tarred with the Enron brush. "I've had people say to me before, 'You're just acquisition junkies. You don't know how to run the business.' That's factually incorrect." He pauses to draw breath: "I'm not a banker, I'm a caterer and I have been for 38 years."

He dismisses the suggestion - still voiced by many in the City - that the decision to merge with and subsequently demerge from Granada a few years back destroyed value. "The reason we're winning today," he says, referring to last week's stellar set of interim results, "is, quite frankly, a direct result of the Granada deal. There's a laundry list of pluses." For one, it stopped the TV group's Sutcliffe catering arm from becoming a number three to Compass and Sodexho. But investors baulked at the fact that it also saddled the group with the Forte Hotels business. Its recent sale of Little Chef roadside eateries and Travelodge hotels has tidied things up, but some shareholders are still wary.

There is no denying Mr Bailey's passion for his business. Cooking was the only practical thing he could manage at school, so he was forced to don a pinny in the home economics class, "with the girls, which I liked", rather than get his hands dirty doing metalwork or woodwork. Realising he was on to a good thing, he left school at 16 and walked straight into a job as a trainee chef. He worked in the kitchen for five years, "doing college day release and evening classes to catch up". He denies having a chef's stereotypical bad temper. "I wouldn't say I lose my rag a great deal, I try very hard not to. And I'm certainly not one of these prima donna types," before admitting: "I can get quite lively, yeah."

Despite only managing to make time to cook once or twice a year (barbecues, mostly, or fish or roasts), his direct approach to running the group helps him to keep his hand in. He describes how, wandering round a kitchen, he can be talking to a chef "and the guy suddenly realises you can cut the vegetables quicker than he can", so he grabs the knife and takes over. At home it's a somewhat different story. "I do it and often get my hand chopped off. Get banished from the kitchen," he smiles.

Home these days is Sunningdale, a commuter-belt town in Berkshire that is a short drive from the group's head office in Chertsey. Not that he spends much time there. He reckons 80 per cent of the month he's on the road, visiting the 90 countries in which Compass does business. He squeezes in the odd weekend in Switzerland, where he has a house in Montreuil. But mainly he works. Even shooting, the one hobby he admits to, he manages just two or three times a year.

Luckily he likes his job. "Love it," he says, with his slight wide-boy nuance. "I'm one of those fortunate guys that get up every day and want to go to work." And to nice restaurants? I ask after he confesses to eating out at least a dozen times a week. He chuckles: "Oh absolutely. That's why I wanna go to work." At 54, he claims he has "no intention of retiring whatsoever", adding: "I think I'd go nuts if I did. I'll probably work till I drop. Or somebody kicks me out."

One of his current projects - when he's in the UK, that is - is persuading the Government to let him turn his Moto pitstops into airport-style shopping centres. He is particularly keen to repeat the success he has had in railway stations from turning dowdy, overpriced convenience stores into Simply Food outlets, the upmarket mini-supermarkets the group franchises from Marks & Spencer. He reckons that installing somewhere for passing commuters to pop in and buy groceries could massively add to Moto's attractions.

He has already made great inroads into transforming Britain's motorway service station culture. Moto is considerably more pleasant than either of its venture capital-backed rivals, Roadchef or Welcome Break, which still leave drivers feeling as if they've been fleeced. One of Moto's latest touches - in addition to offering decent kids' crèches, edible food and somewhere to get a neck massage or a haircut - is to provide drivers' pooches with somewhere to refuel. The idea came from one of the maintenance guys, he says. "It's been one of the most successful things we've done. You go there now and there's two dozen dogs lined up eating outside."

I bet he still doesn't take clients there, though.

MIKE BAILEY - RECIPE FOR SUCCESS

Position: Chief executive

Age: 54

Pay: £2.07m

Career: He joined John Gardner at 16 as a chef, where he worked his way up from the kitchen to the role of managing director of what became Gardner Merchant's UK contract feeding business. He then had a brief spell working for a small healthcare food service business in the United States, before joining Compass in 1993 as group development director. He was head of its North American division from 1994 to 1999, when he succeeded Francis Mackay as chief executive.

Hobbies: He lists his interests as shooting and cooking, although he admits his culinary pursuits are limited now to barbecuing fish or roasts once or twice a year.

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