When Shirley Edwards and Caroline Blake decided to pool their knowledge and set up a contract catering business focused on the regional market place, plenty of raised eyebrows were pointed in the Norfolk-based pair’s direction.
Critics said their business model wasn’t sustainable in the long-term, that the number of opportunities simply wouldn’t be sufficient to provide them with growth. 17 years on, it is clear that those same critics have been served up a very large slice of humble pie.
From the outset, the duo (pictured above) believed that if they could develop a service that got to the heart of what customers really wanted and retained a strict geographic focus, they would be onto a winner. And so it has proved.
“If we are going for contracts of three years-plus, it is quite rare now to find a company that will not request some sort of [equipment] investment as part of the tender”
“We set out with a mission of having a business that was just regional, which is actually a unique and unusual concept in itself, and through that we believed we could provide a truly personal service to our clients,” Edwards tells FEJ. “We like to spend a lot of time in their business, not just running it day-in, day-out. If you’re a smaller company, particularly, that tries to become national or tries to grow very quickly geographically, those sorts of values can quickly get diluted.”
It is a reflection of the pair’s fortitude to stay true to their vision that the company has been able to expand — it currently employs 500 people, manages 90 contracts — without abandoning the very culture that has made it what it is.
Last month it was awarded an Investors in People (IIP) accreditation after satisfying 39 criteria covering business management, leadership and performance measurement. In a nutshell, the award is an indication that to the public and employees that it exhibits excellent people-management skills that include training, development and mentoring.
Staff turnover of less than 17% compares favourably with the catering industry average of 26%, reinforcing its goal of promoting a people-orientated ethos and delivering personal development programmes.
With a turnover of £15m, those that claimed the business would run out of opportunities couldn’t have been more wrong. “At the moment, our pipeline as it sits today totals nearly £8m worth of business, so if we got a third or even half of that I would be very happy,” says Edwards.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Edwards insists the firm has “absolutely no desire” to become a national player, preferring instead to concentrate on a geographic footprint that primarily covers East Anglia but also extends into Hertfordshire.
For a company that prides itself on delivering great food and sourcing locally wherever possible, the growth of the business has naturally created a need to ensure its chefs and kitchen employees have access to the tools they need to meet customers’ expectations.
The organisation will generally work within what the client provides, however when it takes over a contract it will invariably act in an advisory capacity during the mobilisation period.
“We have had an awful lot of involvement in kitchen design and that is the time when we have to say, ‘look, if you want the menus and if you want to buy this package of menus and these products, then clearly we have to have the equipment that will deliver that’. During the mobilisation period we will look at the kitchen, the light equipment, and we will put proposals forward and advise in terms of what they need to do. There are times when that can be quite incidental; it can be a small thing up to a huge kitchen refurbishment and anything in between.”
With clients desperately trying not to spend during the recession, Edwards & Blake’s authority as an advisor on equipment procurement was not required to the extent that it might otherwise have been. That is now changing as it takes on more sites and customers begin to invest again.
The company naturally finds itself in a position to exert control over where money is spent and what type of equipment is sourced, although the nature of the market ultimately forces it to take a practical and often conservative approach to equipment procurement.
Edwards accepts that contract catering tends to be a little bit of a “poor relation” to restaurants and hotels when it comes to equipment. “I don’t think the equipment side gets the focus that it need,” she says. “Because we are often providing quite a low-cost service, to spend on state-of-the-art equipment is quite a difficult sell to the client who ultimately pays for it.
“However, we are finding now more and more that clients are expecting some sort of investment, certainly for the longer-term deals. If we are going for contracts of three years-plus, it is quite rare now to find a company that will not request some sort of investment as part of the tender, and then that means that we do have a little bit more control over where the money is spent because we are spending the money directly.”
Maintaining a level of personal service and paying attention to the smaller details has so far served the company well in everything it does. It has an approach that has allowed it to thrive in a sector where larger competitors are always circling.
Name: Edwards & Blake Ltd
Address: 1 Beacon House
EcoTech Innovation Business Park
Tel: 01760 720201
Focus: Education and childcare; business and industry