Industry Q&A: Ali Group’s chain vision

Ali Group Milan headquarters

Robert Gehl is the new group commercial director for EMEA and Asia Pacific at catering equipment giant Ali Group. What’s more, he serves as the group-level contact for regional and global key accounts with hotel and restaurant chains, catering companies and quick service restaurants. FEJ caught up with him.

You have been in your role several months now. What have the first few months entailed?

It has really involved getting to know the breadth and depth of the group. From pizza to coffee, prime cooking to dishroom solutions, each of our 76 brands has its own unique history, value proposition and success story. Take Scotsman, for example. It is a really well-established brand in the UK and has a longstanding distributor partnership with Hubbard Ice Systems. But not everybody will know that Scotsman is a part of the Ali Group. And if they don’t they probably won’t realise that the sister brands of Scotsman are companies such as Carpigiani and Rancilio-Egro. I need to understand what is driving the growth of each of our businesses and how we serve customers — that is what’s essential. It will take a little bit more than a few months to tackle that!

You serve as the group-level contact for global accounts, QSRs and groups. What kind of duties and responsibilities does that encompass?

It is very much a co-ordination role. As you might expect, Ali Group companies already enjoy some privileged customer relationships. If you take a segment like supermarkets, for example, where we have strong positioning, you can look at the kind of equipment and applications that are already in there and start to identify gaps. There is a mapping process for that. And that applies for other sectors, too, be it coffee shops or pubs. Pubs are focused on selling food and doing so across all day parts. This is where we can come in as Ali Group and talk about multiple applications across their operation.

Does the creation of your role signify a new approach in the way that Ali Group deals with and manages key accounts and chain customers?

Yes. From distributors to consultants, FSOs to buying groups, customers regularly ask me, “how do can we do more with the Ali Group?” This is a huge testimony to the strength and value our companies deliver. My job is to answer that question in a meaningful way. How we begin to ‘fight in formation’ will very much depend on the requirements of individual customers. What will remain a constant is an Ali Group structure that is flexible, responsive and accountable.

Italy-based Ali Group owns and operates almost 80 different foodservice equipment brands.

Ali Group prides itself on the fact that all 76 brands in the group operate autonomously. How difficult does this make your task given that you will be representing all Ali brands?

You are quite right to say the autonomy of our brands is a source of pride. It is also a differentiator and integral to Ali Group culture. The structure allows Ali companies and their organisations to better serve customers. That is what we are about. It makes my role less of a puzzle and more of a Rubik’s cube, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s exactly what I signed up for.

In terms of the global chains that you have had discussions with so far, what’s on their minds from a business point of view?

Across all segments, our end-customers prepare and serve food. They are telling us, “let us focus on serving and captivating our customers. We are looking to the Ali Group to simplify our relationship so that we can do what we do best”. It sounds fundamental, but it is also a call to action. Beyond that, operators call on Ali Group expertise to improve their top and bottom lines. Customers want more from a supplier than equipment. Ali companies manufacture great products, but customers tell us they value our support with things like menu development, application and product training, and sustainability initiatives.

The autonomy of our brands is a source of pride. It is also a differentiator and integral to Ali Group culture”

You have extensive experience of the foodservice business. What sort of state do you feel the industry is in today? 

Fundamentally, it is in a very good state although the growth we see is not a rising tide that lifts all boats. Our business is driven by consumer lifestyles and eating habits. Health and nutrition, affordability and mobility are influencing the hours, places and ways of eating. Foodservice operators that are quick to see and respond to these trends are enjoying great success. The fast-casual segment understood that there are more and more consumers ready to enjoy a £5 hamburger. One day we heard about Five Guys and then bang, they have 1,500 outlets and are expanding globally. FSOs continue to grapple with increases to input costs and in that respect Ali Group companies continue to be part of the solution. Operators are asking us to respond to the need for smaller kitchens, respond to a young and unskilled labour force, and to develop technologies that simplify kitchen operations.

A lot of customers in the UK will know specific individual brands owned by Ali Group better than they know Ali Group itself. What is your view on that?

Of course we want people to associate these brands with Ali Group. But take the Falcon brand, for example. It is a couple of hundred years old — we wouldn’t want to even attempt to cast a shadow over that. And if you look at our websites or letterheads, it really is the brands that are in the first line. The group will continue to support the brands and stand behind them from a marketing point of view. Moving forward, we do need to better communicate the size and scope of Ali Group to the market.

Do you expect to spend much time in the UK market?
Yes, I do. And one of the reasons for that is just the really good health of the hospitality and catering industry here. It is a really strong market for chain expansion and there are some interesting trends taking place. Not only is it a growing market, the market is really a kind of incubator for chains and trends outside the UK. So we as Ali Group, and myself personally, want to stay close to the UK, just for everything that is coming out of there.

Profile: Robert Gehl

BOX OUT 1- Robert GehlRobert Gehl joined the Ali Group in November 2014 after 10 years at the water filtration systems division of Pentair, where he served as director of foodservice EMEA. Prior to that, he held various sales, marketing and management positions with equipment manufacturers Lancer Corporation, a division of Hoshizaki, Multiplex, a division of Manitowoc, and JetSpray, a division of Cornelius. Gehl is a US and Belgian dual national and resides near Lausanne, Switzerland. He has spent over 20 years in Europe and almost 25 operating in the foodservice equipment industry. He is based at Ali Group’s head office in Milan, reporting directly to chairman and CEO Luciano Berti.

Ali Group in numbers

  • 1963    The year Ali Group was founded
  • 8,500    Number of employees globally
  • 76    Number of brands in the group
  • 55    Manufacturing facilities
  • 26    Countries that Ali Group operates in
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