INDUSTRY INTERVIEW: FCSI’s UK chair Matthew Merritt-Harrison

Matthew Merritt-Harrison is tasked with promoting the FCSI as an authoritative voice of the industry after taking over as chair of its UK division. FEJ met up with him to find out what role consultants have to play in the market today and learn why he is so keen to foster a culture of transparency among its membership base.

As far as handovers go, Matthew Merritt-Harrison’s receipt of the FCSI UK & Ireland chair’s baton was pretty smooth. Having served as the vice-chair over the past year, the highly experienced management consultant was all prepped to go when predecessor Julian Edwards’ tenure reached its conclusion at the end of 2018.

“There is certainly no issue with continuity,” Merritt-Harrison declares over a cup of coffee with FEJ in Central London. Anybody expecting the change of guard to signal a sudden shift in strategy is sorely mistaken. It is very much a case of carrying on from where Edwards left off, which involves ensuring the FCSI delivers tangible value to its members while preserving its status within the wider foodservice community.

Efforts have been made to forge stronger industry ties with bodies such as the Institute of Hospitality, CESA, and Ceda and Merritt-Harrison makes a point of stressing that these are organisations the FCSI wants to partner with on a long-term basis. Then there is the much-needed update to the CIBSE guide to energy efficiency in commercial kitchens, which the FCSI is currently tasked with overseeing.

“It was last done 10 years ago and things have moved on since then,” he says. “It is the standard to work to in the same way that you have DW172 for ventilation. It is quite a major piece of work that is chaired by [FCSI Professional member] Roz Burgess and involves working groups that consist of two consultants plus the appropriate FCSI manufacturing members.”

The aim is for the guide to be fully proofed and submitted to the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers by the end of the year. “They will review it and it will become the standard once it has been agreed. It is very important.”

Merritt-Harrison conveys the sort of conviction that suggests the FCSI has regained its focus and got the bit between its teeth again. Three years ago the UK arm temporarily folded after a dispute with the European, Middle East and Africa chapter to which it belonged. For some weeks it looked as though that was the end of its UK presence, especially with breakaway members vowing to set up their own independent body for consultants. That failed to materialise, differences were patched up and a new executive leadership team was elected.

Merritt-Harrison acknowledges that mistakes have been learned and he is definitive about what it will take to prosper. “The way I see it is that the FCSI is a membership organisation so it has to deliver quality, value and real commercial benefit to all members, both Professional members – whether they are management or design consultants – and Allied members, because that is why they are in it.”

Membership numbers are still down on what they were at its peak, but the group is “actively” working to change that. An upswing in both sets of membership categories during the past three months suggests things are moving in the right direction.

He is adamant that maintaining the FCSI’s integrity as the industry body for foodservice design consultants and management consultants holds the key to its success. If there is a legacy he’d like to leave behind when he vacates the chair, it’s that the professional standards expected of it are preserved. This is especially true when it comes to the role of consultants as independent and impartial knowledge-givers.

“I am very passionate about that and have great difficulties when you have individuals who might be saying that they are independent and then you find they are actually selling equipment. If you sell equipment you are more than welcome as an Allied member, but the whole point about Professional membership is they are completely independent so they can be impartial. For a design consultant it is not about getting as much equipment into a project as possible, it is about getting the right equipment.”

He raises a valid point, but one that is notoriously thorny. Cynics would argue that it is not possible to ever be truly neutral, not when consultants are more familiar with one brand than another, or when they have had long-term success specifying a particular manufacturer or platform.

“When you talk about matters of ethics there are always blurred lines and what one person thinks and what another person thinks may differ”

For all the emphasis on objectivity, surely the lines are becoming more blurred these days, if anything?

“When you talk about matters of ethics there are always blurred lines and what one person thinks and what another person thinks may differ. I am very black and white on the matter. I do not see that if you are an equipment supplier and you earn income from selling a particular brand, how you can also claim to be independent.

“And even if you are acting independently, it is also how other people perceive it. Many years ago I worked for an American contractor and they had a very strong business conduct and ethics policy. Basically they had two questions they used to ask: are you happy for this to be on the front page of a national newspaper? And are you happy for your family to know exactly what you are doing? If the answer is yes then you are probably okay but if you have any doubts about it, don’t do it.

“I was recently asked by an equipment house if we would work for them because they were having difficulty with a client and we had to say ‘no, we don’t do that’. They were a very reputable, quality-driven company but I still said no because I can’t be seen to be doing something like that. And secondly, how am I then impartial if I am evaluating tenders from three other distributors?”

Allied membership is another topic that has caused fervent debate within FCSI circles in recent years. Some manufacturers have openly questioned just how much benefit they get from belonging to the body, arguing that without the fees they pay it would be impossible for it to survive financially.

Merritt-Harrison insists that significant work has gone on behind the scenes to generate compelling value and he is confident that the FCSI is delivering on its promises to manufacturers. “I think now they are beginning to realise that it is better to be in than out,” he remarks.

So is it easier to become an Allied member of the FCSI than it was, say, five years ago? “As long as you fulfil the criteria, the rules haven’t changed. It is not about it being easy, it is about whether they can agree to the code of conduct and it is appropriate. And that is what we want; we want people that are going to behave in a professional and ethical way.”

In return, Merritt-Harrison accepts the FCSI needs to be seen as “open and transparent” — perhaps more so than it has been in the past. He wants to ensure that every member is fully aware of what they are getting for their money and proposes clearer communication channels and greater inclusivity when it comes to things like executive meetings.

“I do not take the view that different grades of membership should get different information, such as in terms of the accounts, for instance. You need to be completely transparent and that’s the right way to do it,” he says.

Other trade bodies in the sector have been vociferous about the need to nurture the younger generation and attract new talent to the industry. The FCSI doesn’t appear to have been quite so vocal on that subject, but Merritt-Harrison denies it is running a closed shop.

He admits the age profile is a “challenge”, simply because individuals must amass 10 years’ experience to qualify for Professional membership..

As he points out, the reason an end-user typically engages a consultant in the first place is for their track record and expertise. “You could go to a client with somebody who is two years out of university, but they would probably say ‘why am I paying these fees?’ because what they are buying is experience, knowledge, reputation and impartiality. We are pushing to the younger generation and we want to bring them through at the Associate level, but to be Professional it is 10 years.”

There is a natural churn, he insists. Usually somebody will split from the equipment house or consultancy they are working for to go it alone. It is more common in management consultancy than design, simply because the barrier to entry is much lower. “You get a phone and a website and you’re off. With a design consultant, they need the equipment, they need the software. There is churn but it is slow and getting younger people in has been a challenge for years.”

He thinks it was a “real shame” that there was not sufficient interest to keep the masters degree in international consultancy and catering design offered by Sheffield Hallam University alive. It was seen as a compelling development for the industry when it was launched, but only seven individuals graduated from a course that the FCSI part-sponsored. “I have to tell you that the advantage it has given those seven people is huge. It was tough but it was a really coherent group that came from that.”

“From an equipment point of view I think there is going to be more emphasis on ensuring that the lifecycle costs and environmental impact is lower, rather than on the initial purchase price”

What about the topics that are driving conversation among his clients? “Sustainability is going to be a big issue over the next year irrespective of what happens with the political climate,” he says. “From an equipment point of view, I think there is going to be more emphasis on ensuring that the lifecycle costs and environmental impact is lower, rather than on the initial purchase price, and that raises some interesting issues.”

He credits David Attenborough with bringing the subject of plastic pollution to everyone’s attention and says the impact of this is clearly being felt within the industry.

“We will see further reduction in the use of single-use plastics and single-use disposables, whether that is voluntary or applied to the industry, and that has a knock-on effect. It has a knock-on effect on the configuration of kitchens and dining rooms, it has a knock-on effect on the warewashing equipment, it has a knock-on effect on staffing, because if you take out what was single-use disposables or recyclables suddenly you have got a whole process that has to be put in place to make it work.”

The landscape is changing rapidly in the UK foodservice sector and every client wants to be seen to be making the right decisions on every level — operational, commercial and environmental. Consequently, the FCSI believes its services and expertise will be needed more than ever.

Merritt-Harrison’s chairmanship has only just begun, but he knows exactly what he wants to achieve. “I will endeavour to leave it stronger rather than weaker when I hand over and we want to be seen as the go-to place for management consultancy and design consultancy. That is the key — the go-to place. And actually that is in everybody’s interests. It is in the equipment houses’ interests, it is in the manufacturers’ interests and it is definitely in the clients’ interests.

About the FCSI

The FCSI is a professional association which aims to set the highest standards for foodservice consultants. Its Professional members offer independent catering and foodservice consultancy, which ranges from specifying catering equipment and designing kitchens and food concepts to advising on hygiene, foodservice strategy, benchmarking, menu planning, project management and tendering.

The FCSI offers consultancy to all types of caterer, large or small, from restaurants, cafes, golf clubs, sports centres, retail units and hotels to hospitals, food manufacturing units, and staff, student and public feeding facilities for government and
private sector.

Matthew Merritt-Harrison, managing partner of Merritt-Harrison Catering Consultancy, was appointed chair of the FCSI UK & Ireland in December 2018. A fellow of the Institute of Hospitality, he is also a former co-chair of the FCSI North American Conference and chair of a previous FCSI Worldwide Conference. He has more than 40 years’ experience of the catering industry.

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One Comment;

  1. Radford Chancellor said:

    Interesting reading, but sadly this just proves the FCSI is stuck in the past.

    To say design consultants do not pack equipment into a design implies that any one that sells equipment does. From my side their is a number of very good kitchen houses with consultancy arms and they are highly professional and often design better commercial kitchens then a lot of consultants. More over they have a lot of ‘one the ground’ experience.

    On the mater of independence, we support a number of manufacturers in the UK and we are open about that to our clients and the sector – we still specify a range of brands to suit the clients needs. We remain independent as the company is privately owned and our relationship with manufacturers does not change our governance or professional approach.

    For me it goes to show how out of touch the FCSI is, what about the bigger issues effecting the sector, Brexit, Gender Pay Gap, Equality, standards, late payment, skills shortage and for FCSI members value for money.

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