IN-DEPTH: How McFarlane Telfer is breaking new frontiers in the world of kitchen maintenance

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 09:  A general view of Burj Khalifa on November 9, 2016 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images)

McFarlane Telfer is the UK kitchen maintenance specialist with its eyes on global domination. But whether it is fixing fridges in Dartford or Dubai, its approach to customer service is all based on meticulous technical expertise and world-class standards. FEJ reports.

When McFarlane Telfer opened for business in 1992, kitchen maintenance was the last thing on its mind. Founder Chris Craggs set the company up as a stainless steel fabricator targeting luxury London hotels. It was only six years later that a maintenance team was introduced alongside its projects division, but after the financial crisis struck it closed the fabrication and projects arms to focus solely on repairs.

This new strategic emphasis, coupled with its alignment with high-end customers, proved to be a masterstroke, allowing it flourish as a specialist service provider with a mission to deliver open, accountable and best-in-class kitchen maintenance for multinational customers through global intermediaries.

The last four years have brought consistent annual growth of 30% and seen its geographic reach evolve from London and the South East to the whole of the UK and, more recently, the Middle East. With Craggs spending more and more time exploring new international opportunities, sales and marketing director, Mark Brooker, has been promoted to managing director of the UK business. It’s been a seamless transition given the pair have been working together to shape the strategy ever since Brooker joined the Maidenhead-based business three years ago.

“I have a different style to Chris but we have a very similar set of goals — and I think that’s the key point. We will come up with things in different ways but we have the same degree of passion and drive to hit the targets we set. There are times when we have exactly the same views and times when we have opposing views, but the key thing we both see is this ability to achieve things: me from a position where I genuinely believe the only thing that can stop us is us; Chris with the view that it is all about that dogmatic approach — ‘unless you do it, you don’t know’.”

Mark Brooker: “The key thing we both see is this ability to achieve things: me from a position where I genuinely believe the only thing that can stop us is us.”

Brooker has only been involved in the catering equipment scene since starting at McFarlane Telfer. Prior to that he worked for Chubb Electronics Security. At Chubb he was responsible for 120 engineers in London; at McFarlane Telfer he oversees 50 engineers nationally.

McFarlane Telfer has never been precious about describing what it does — “we fundamentally fix fridges and cookers and that’s the way Chris describes it,” says Brooker —but it remains hugely proud of its ethos and ideals.

Staff receive extensive career development plans from the moment they begin their employment and undergo one of the most comprehensive social, commercial and technical training programmes in the industry. Awards from BIFM, BQF, Investors in People and CBI merely underscore the extent of its commitment to individual development and fostering a true ‘people’ culture.

“Engineers are not just trained to be fixers of equipment, they are trained to be account managers; they are trained to be able to handle situations with customers,” explains Craggs. “We take them in on sales opportunities to help us win deals and we take them in when things have gone wrong to help us keep deals, so they are ambassadors and they are account managers. I would suggest that is a differentiator, certainly in how others play it,” he adds.

It has been an exciting and interesting challenge and along the way we’ve kept an eye on where else can we go”

There was a time when it was thought that home working and employee flexibility would prove to be the downfall of workplace catering. But that doesn’t appear to be the case. And while it is likely that the types of food and catering facilities in B&I will change, everything will still need to be prepared, produced and delivered on equipment that will ultimately need servicing, repairing and sometimes replacing.

For Brooker and his colleagues, McFarlane Telfer’s objective is to increase the sophistication of the products that it delivers, the prices that it charges and the methods of its delivery.

“We exist in a fairly traditional market place that hasn’t had a great deal of thought or dynamism injected into it and I think we have the opportunity to just try and challenge whether things are being done in the right way, without simply change for the sake of change.”

Making waves in the Middle East

It is difficult to think of too many examples of independent UK kitchen maintenance firms expanding internationally, but McFarlane Telfer is bucking the trend in style after making the decision two years ago to enter the Middle East market.

It believed there was a clear gap for the kind of professional PPM and repair services it offers to premium catering organisations in the UK — and promptly despatched business improvement manager, George Roberts-Smith, to Dubai to set up the operation from scratch.

It now has 26 staff across the UAE and a further four in Qatar, with plans to launch its services in Saudi Arabia by September 2017. Having encountered a very fragmented market upon its arrival in Dubai, the company has had no problems recruiting staff. Employees are enrolled on gas and electrical safety courses and take part in technical training arranged and funded by the firm.

McFarlane Telfer has already amassed more than 50 customers in the region, including Starbucks and Nando’s in the UAE, as well as a string of hotels and public sector clients. It’s a marked difference from the UK, where it primarily serves sites run by large contract caterers and FM providers.

Chris Craggs: “Engineers are not just trained to be fixers of equipment, they are trained to be account managers.”

“In the UK we specifically don’t do hotels, restaurants, pubs, bars or cafes but over here it is different because there isn’t that corporate head office market,” explains Roberts-Smith. “They don’t have hundreds of staff, so they don’t need to provide a full catering set-up inside their office. What is really growing here at the moment is the chain restaurants and cafes — there is a massive amount of hotels being built.

“The majority of our business in the UAE is restaurant-based, plus we do some education and we are massively expanding in terms of healthcare contracts. So there are some similarities but critically we are not as fussy; there is a not a lot we’d say no to over here but in the UK we have really carved out a niche. Over here the niche is just that somebody is recognising the value that we can add rather than saying there is a specific sector.”

Additionally, while a high percentage of UK customers is signed up to planned preventative maintenance contracts, the majority of Middle East clients currently use it for reactive work or spare parts procurement.

According to Craggs, the runaway success of the Middle East operation so far has been built on its ability to replicate the standard of work and level of service it delivers in the UK.

 A lot of the parts we are shipping in come from the US and Europe, and that adds an interesting logistical element to everything we do and adds time to a business that needs to be very fast”

Fundamental pillars of customer service, such as quick response times, giving sensible answers and providing clear documentation stating when and how things will be fixed have proved to be as endearing to clients as the technical expertise it can promise.

“It has been an exciting and interesting challenge and along the way we’ve kept an eye on where else can we go,” says Craggs. “We’ve been to Bahrain and Oman and built up confidence in our ability to deliver. All of a sudden people aren’t concerned that you are doing a job and flying off because they know you are doing a proper job of it. That is very gratifying and quite flattering. We’ve done the same thing in Jordan and Lebanon.”

If the underlying business process of the company’s Middle East operation is the same as it is in the UK, its experiences with equipment and parts procurement most certainly isn’t. “We don’t have a First Choice providing next-day delivery of spare parts,” says Roberts-Smith. “We do use First Choice but a lot of the stuff we are shipping in comes from the US and Europe, and that adds another interesting logistical element to everything we do and adds time to a business that needs to be very fast. It means you have got to be even faster. If you don’t sort the shipping that day, you are going to lose another day or two. But what we have shown is that if you do, and you are switched on, it is another differentiator.”

George Roberts-Smith: “In Dubai there isn’t the seasonal variation in fridge call-outs like you have in the UK because the temperature where the fridge is doesn’t vary.”

Although parts can be sourced from Europe overnight, and the US in a couple of days, the company typically holds more stock than it does in the UK to account for longer delivery times. Plus, there is a greater spread of equipment in use. With Chinese, South Korean, Turkish and American equipment all heavily specified in the Middle East, it has more than 700 manufacturers on its database already.

Given the scorching temperatures and sunshine in the Middle East, is it fair to assume that refrigeration repair is its most requested service?

“Actually it isn’t,” says Roberts-Smith, “the ambient temperature is air conditioned so in the vast majority of cases the fridges are operating in a more regulated environment than they are in the UK! There isn’t the seasonal variation in fridge call-outs like you have in the UK because the temperature where the fridge is doesn’t vary. The other thing is that because air conditioning has been in this part of the world for years, and people have needed it maintained for a very long time, you have people with basic refrigeration skills. When it comes to equipment breaking, we definitely see it happening more on the hot side than the cold side!”

Roll of honour

2015    BIFM Learning & Career Development Award (Winner); BQF Customer Service Award (Finalist)
2014    Investors in People, Small Business Employer of the Year (Winner)
2013    EFQM Recognised for Excellence 4 Star
2011    Investors in People (Gold status)
2009    CBI People Awards (Winner)
2008    Investors in People (Gold & Champion status); National Training Awards (Regional Finalists)

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