Bill Downie retires from the industry in April, bringing down the curtain on an illustrious catering equipment career that has seen him lead Meiko for almost 30 years. FEJ travelled to the warewashing company’s Slough HQ to reflect on his success and ponder the state of the market and business he leaves behind.
It was a phone call out of the blue that first planted the seeds for Bill Downie’s long and fruitful association with Meiko. It was 1988 and he’d been running a hotel in his native Edinburgh for two years, having returned from a seven-year spell in the Middle East with Al Otaiba.
But life as a hotelier never really suited the qualified chef-cum-salesman and even after renovating the property and using his culinary know-how to make a success of the restaurant he admitted to “feeling a bit bored” with the venture.
Fortunately fate was to strike in the shape of a call from the chairman of Carron Ironworks in Falkirk, who’d been passed his details by a mutual friend, asking if he’d be interested in joining Strands Scientific, the import agent for Meiko. Downie was encouraged to see the business close-up and so, with wife Betty, who sadly passed away in November 2016, he travelled to Nottingham, where the operation was based.
“We spent the weekend in Long Eaton and went to Carron Scientific for a look round, and it really excited me,” he remembers. “I knew about Meiko because I had lost a job to them at Dubai Airport just before I left the Gulf. We were the agent for another brand at the time and it was a big job.”
The Downies’ trip merely served to confirm their hunch that it was an opportunity too good to turn down and, after managing to rent out the hotel, they headed south to start a new chapter in their lives. Strands Scientific was selling Meiko’s laboratory glasswashers at the time, but the manufacturer was keen for it to begin targeting the airline market where it had enjoyed success elsewhere.
I felt excited and empowered, and I have never lost that feeling over 29 years”
Before long it was supplying dishwashers to companies such as British Airways, promoting a relocation of the office to Feltham, close to Heathrow. A rebrand to ‘Carron Strands’ reflected the increasingly catering-focused nature of its business as it also became the UK agent for Elro, Rorgue and Mareno.
Things took an unlikely twist, however, when the business fell into the hands of Franke. Within a year of the ownership change, Downie had started to tire of the frequent tips to Switzerland for board meetings and the direction of the strategy — “it was all cash, cash, cash, margin, margin, margin, not wanting to invest, wanting to take out,” he recalls — and persuaded Meiko to set up on its own in the UK.
Meiko UK was formed in October 1993 and officially began trading a few weeks later. It had a staff of 16 and turned over £700,000 in its first year, mainly from selling large flight models to British Airways and a handful of other key customers. “I actually sold the first semi-automatic dishwashing machine in the UK to the Royal Free Hospital back in the early nineties,” he reveals.
These were exciting times for Downie, who was only 37-years-old when he took the helm. “I felt excited and empowered, and I have never lost that feeling over 29 years. I first went to the Meiko factory in Offenburg in April 1988 and from the day I stepped inside and met the people that attitude has never changed. The first thing we did in the UK was to go out looking for sales people and increase our engineer base because from my point of view technical services are what drives businesses.”
Downie’s tireless work ethic has set the tone for the business over the years. He is well-known for getting in the office before dawn, works on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and will always take calls on his mobile from customers regardless of the time or day.
He describes his management style as “open” and has successfully fostered a culture where people are encouraged “to think for themselves”.
Some of his staff have been with him from the outset and he talks proudly of the many individuals that have grown with the firm and developed new skills and responsibilities.
The business he leaves behind now employs 90 staff and turned over £17m last year. Outside of Germany and countries with manufacturing operations, the UK is Meiko’s largest sales and services subsidiary.
A lot has changed in the warewashing market during the three decades Downie has been in charge. Much of it, he says, is down to the simple fact that food trends and food habits have altered so dramatically.
“If you go back 10 or 12 years, when we worked with [consultant] Ken Winch on HSBC at Canary Wharf, we had a £700,000 order for dishwashing. The whole thing was geared to do 7,500 people on site. I think they now have about 3,200 on site and lots of concessions. You are probably down to feeding about 1,200 to 1,500 a day in the central restaurant block, absolute maximum.”
The shift away from big, cafeteria-style food set-ups in B&I and other sectors, such as motorway service stations, has seen demand for heavy automated systems with vertical tray-lifting towers replaced by a need for smaller, faster dishwashing systems. “The machinery has changed, there is no doubt about it,” he says.
Appetite for energy-saving systems has rocketed too as customers have sought to cut down the running costs of their clean-up areas.
Downie has always been frustrated by the lack of transparency and uniformity around the figures that manufacturers quote, but says operators simply need to know one thing: “At the end of the day, if you want to have a machine that is efficient and reduces energy, chemicals, water and all that kind of stuff, you have to accept that you will need to invest in it and load it at the front end with capital investment.”
The problem, he says, is that specifications routinely get ‘value engineered’ on projects and cheaper machines are substituted in but won’t attain the same results.
There have been many highlights over the years. On a personal level he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2016 Catering Insight Awards and crowned ‘Industry Personality of the Year’ by CEDA in 2013.
In terms of the business, he is immensely proud of the many loyal customers Meiko has harvested and the work it has done with names such as DHL, Rail Gourmet and Cafe Royal.
A £4m contract with JD Wetherspoon, meanwhile, saw it deliver 2,000 front-loading machines across the estate. His ongoing charity work, which sees Meiko involved in the redistribution of second-hand catering equipment and other fundraising activities, has positively impacted many great causes.
Long, lazy days on the golf course and more time with family beckon when Downie returns to North Berwick to retire. He will miss his friends from the industry but many — including his colleagues from Germany — have vowed to visit Scotland.
He could well come to feel like he’s running a hotel again…