Market Leaders Pick Their Market Leader: Who's top of the table in catering?

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The Independent Online
David Ford

Chief Executive

Gardner Merchant

LONG SERVICE is the norm in catering because it is so exciting. But it is a fight to raise our profile. Traditionally in the UK the service industry has little value or recognition - there seems to be a general difficulty in distinguishing between service and servile. We are involved in all sectors and become a sort of barometer for industry. We can usually tell how well the economy is doing by the state of the executive dining room.

The definition of contract catering is changing massively. It now encompasses schools, blue-collar businesses, the NHS; we've even got four restaurants with Gary Rhodes. I do enjoy the breadth of the business and the sheer loyalty and dedication of those who work in the industry.

I am not a caterer by background but I am passionate about food. I bring the customer's viewpoint as opposed to the technician's. The customer is becoming more knowledgeable about food, and expectations are rising. This leads to stiff competition - in the UK there are three large organisations fighting on the world stage. But it is important to have strong competition so we do move on and push ourselves to provide the best.

Francis MacKay, executive chairman of Compass took over the company and turned it into a very strong international competitor. They are rivals but it is a healthy rivalry.

John Greenwood

Chief Executive for UK, Ireland and South Africa

Compass

ALTHOUGH I enjoy food, the most important thing for someone in a managerial position is to have a passion for the people who have a passion for food. The industry is changing and evolving into a more sales- oriented service. We aim to provide people with the products and the services which will rival those they can find on the high street. We need to encourage them to come to our facilities, spend more and have more fun than they would on the high street.

Sectors in the business and industry are moving towards globalisation. This trend has a knock-on effect on us because as companies organise themselves globally, they're looking for global suppliers they know and can rely on. This will develop massively over the next 10 years. Trends take a long time to develop in this industry. We deal with peoples' habits so there are no sudden changes.

The pioneer of our industry is Francis MacKay of Compass. He set out to build a global company seven years ago and has done so with great success. He is respected internally and externally and the proof is that lots of people are starting to copy the precedents he has set.

William McCall

Chief Executive

Aramark

CONTRACTING IS essentially getting someone else in to do what you aren't very good at. By dealing with experts you are going to get better value for money. Companies want to remain focused on their own needs and the contractor will take away the distractions.

It is a tremendously diverse, exciting industry where challenges are boundless. You have to be turned on by the idea of satisfying your clients and customers. Once contract catering used to serve food but the customer has evolved and now we have to sell food. Contract catering services involve a great deal of merchandising and marketing rather than cooking and serving. People are insisting on a diverse and decent menu and to forge ahead we have to take risks with what we provide.

The structure of our company is similar to Compass and theirs is the company I admire. We come up with new concepts to change the nature of sales - so contract catering is taking on the high street retail concept. We live for the excitement of driving up sales.

Linda Halliday

Chief Executive

Hallidays Catering Services

THE CATERING industry is about delivering the service our clients and customers have come to expect and developing that service according to their desires. Contract catering was seen as the bottom end of the food service market. Canteens served pie and chips and school dinner gravy. But the industry has moved that perception on and we are heading into the 21st century offering customers the kind of specialised foods they might find in the high street.

Clients are much more demanding and more knowledgeable; expectations are higher. We need to be entrepreneurial to identify exactly what client and customer seeks. I can't cook. What is important is understanding what the client wants.

Of people in the industry who stand out, Gary Hawkes chairman of Gardner Merchant, showed immense commitment which has led the industry to where it is today.

Peter Green

Managing Director

Sovereign Catering Services

OURS IS a fascinating industry - we find ourselves working right in the heart of British business and industry. As contract caterers we work on our client's premises and learn from the client organisation what their customers want.

Different cultures infiltrate the restaurant; years ago we had canteens, now we have staff restaurants which reflect today's multicultural and international society. It is a challenge to try to meet their requirements and to keep them coming back for more.

To succeed in this business you need to have a passion and love for food and service. You also need to possess exceptional interpersonal skills. Ours is a competitive business, in a state of rapid expansion; even in the teeth of the recession, staff restaurants survived.

Over the years, the industry has changed dramatically - it is no longer the age of personalities.

Now we are dealing with conglomerates rather than stars, although if I had to name someone who stands out it would be Gary Hawkes of Gardner Merchant. He has transcended the industry - his personality has moved across the contract catering industry and is bigger than the company he runs. He set the template for today's contract catering world.

Alastair Storey

Managing Director

Granada Food Services

WE ARE working within a growth market which makes for a very exciting industry. It has expanded dramatically in the past few years and the market continues to grow. Customer expectations are higher and standards have to rise in response.

The new approach people seem to be adopting to cope with the new higher expectations is to become more retail-like - that way we can compete realistically with the offerings to be found on the high street. We currently find ourselves in an extremely competitive market place and all the competition is of a good standard.

Forbes Mutch

Editor

Caterer & Hotelkeeper

Magazine

ONE OF the biggest problems facing contract catering, in common with other sectors of the industry, is the recruitment and retention of skilled staff, particularly in the kitchen. It's surprising because, unlike hotels and restaurants which still suffer from the legacy of a long-hours-low- pay culture, the food service sector offers more regular hours and some of the best kitchens around.

People still remember mince and watery mashed potato when they think of school meals, which is a shame when you consider the variety and innovation being applied to catering in education these days. It just doesn't get talked about.

It's a tough market. The medical, education and public admin sectors put food service contracts out to compulsory competitive tender on a non- subsidised basis. This has driven prices down over the years, and made profit margins tighter and tighter.

But it has also created an environment that's made UK companies very competitive abroad, particularly in North America, where it's still common for "in-house" catering contracts to be subsidised.

Look at the latest results from Compass: it handled pounds 1.58bn worth of business in the United States last year. And Gardner Merchant is running much of the catering for the Sydney Olympics next year. This trend will grow. It's an area in which the UK leads the world.

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