Me and My Partner: The dymamic duo behind a successful contract catering business

Rick Holroyd and Nick Howe run Holroyd Howe, a contract catering business. Founded in 1997, the company's turnover was £28m last year
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The Independent Online

Nick Howe

Rick and I met in 1988 when we were area managers for a contract catering company in the City. We were running different patches, but sometimes we'd go out socially. I remember Rick once said that he wanted to set up his own business eventually, and I said when you do it, don't forget me.

We both wanted that sovereignty that you don't quite get, even if you're a director, with any medium-sized or large company. Ultimately, policy and strategy is dictated by more senior individuals. That's what inspired us to have a go ourselves.

Rick and I both have a similar background and values and we've tried to integrate those into the way we run the business. Rick is composed. He brings discipline and authority and he is the best strategic thinker around. He takes care of the more sturdy framework of running a business, which enables me to bring some spark and excitement to it all, through the man management and through drive and enthusiasm.

Our roles developed quite naturally. My expertise and experience has always been in operations: managing the contracts, liaising with the clients and directing teams below me. I'll get involved in sales presentations, but only in my capacity as the person who's going to run the contract if we win it. Rick, on the other hand, has been in sales and marketing for the last 20 years, so he looks after all that side of things. And he oversees the financial structure and was instrumental in setting up the initial business model.

Working with a friend never bothered me, as we were friends fundamentally through work. We knew where we wanted to go, we knew what we wanted to develop in terms of a quality food and beverage business, and that always underpinned our relationship.

In the last year we've brought in a much more robust board within the company, which now includes the operations director, sales director and food and finance directors. It means Rick and I can mix and match a bit more in terms of who does what. But clients always see us as a team. They'll ask me how Rick is and the same with him. We both cherish that because it means that people still recognise our names above the door, and that our philosophy of a proprietor-led organisation still means something to our clients.

We were recently voted one of the best companies to work for in the country. In our business, that is a massive accolade because our people are our main asset. We work on other people's premises and use other people's equipment; what we bring is people, so to get an endorsement from the "shop floor" was a real vote of confidence.

We do mix socially, but not massively; we need our space. We have an unwritten rule that we never phone each other when we're on holiday. It's quality time, it's the breathing space that we all need and we refuse to compromise that.

Rick Holroyd

Nick was more senior to me when we first met. I remember him being very lively and in control and knowing what he was doing. He had a certain spark about him. I aspired to emulate that to a certain extent.

From my earliest years, though, I'd had ambitions to do my own thing; and by the time I met Nick, I'd started giving it a bit more thought. I decided that if I was going to start my own business, I'd better learn how to sell, so I moved over to the sales side at the company where I was. Then I thought, as I'd only ever worked for a large catering company, it would be useful to see how a smaller one operates, so I went to work for an independent company; all the time learning as much as I could.

I bumped into Nick occasionally and he was working for a competitor, so we'd say hello and have a beer. But it was only when a serious business opportunity came up that I really got back in contact him. I knew the business would need a very good operations director and Nick was the best I'd seen.

He and I are much the same in many respects, but completely different in others. Nick is the spark plug that lights up the company. He is a good fun guy and he's excellent with people. It seemed to be a good match of skills.

One of the first things we did was to set some rules, and that was family first, business second and ego last. Those values are very dear to us. They've been our constant guiding light in running the business.

We realised quite early on that we had the potential to make the business work because we both shared the same vision of what we wanted to achieve. In the very early days, we were asked to bid for a contract with a FTSE 100 company, which was a major opportunity for us. We had to produce an executive tray lunch as part of our presentation. We'd never done anything like this together before, so we took different elements: I did some of the cooking, Nick sorted out the tray and cutlery and the crockery. But although we'd individually done different parts of it, the combined whole was exactly the vision that we had each wanted, and that shared vision for the business is ingrained in both of us.

Initially, we would mostly go out and sell together, but as the business developed, Nick gravitated towards the operational tasks, whereas I would worry about suppliers, health and hygiene audits, the financial structure. And Nick is not very good at IT, so those sorts of things naturally fell into my lap.

Most of the problems we had were around coping with our rapid growth. We both found it difficult to release responsibility and accountability to those people who were working for us. Nick in particular found it difficult to let go. And that then frustrated me, because he wasn't focusing on the strategic things that I thought he needed to.

We still disagree about things. We both tend to take different ends of the spectrum. But we have this saying, "we'll take 24", which means we'll both go and think about it overnight. Invariably, the decision is eventually taken somewhere along that spectrum of opinion - and it's usually been the right decision. I think it goes back to our "ego last" philosophy; neither of us is afraid of compromising in order to reach the right decision for the business.