THE ONE SHOW: How Middleby UK used the pandemic to sculpt a new culinary-led growth strategy

Chris Jones, group managing director, Middleby Commercial Foodservice

Middleby UK has spent the past year restructuring its operations in the UK to implement a groundbreaking new strategy aimed at providing customers with industry-leading culinary support. Andrew Seymour travelled to the company’s Culinary Innovation Centre on the outskirts of Wigan to discover more about the changes it has made and get the lowdown on the ‘Middleby1’ concept at the heart of its approach.

Hospitality might have felt like a depressing place to be over the last 18 months, but you certainly won’t find Chris Jones peddling a downbeat narrative.

The managing director of Middleby UK Commercial Foodservice is adamant that while the market might be bruised, it most definitely isn’t broken.

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“Covid-19 came along and pressed a big pause button on the market and in that period of time our industry changed, but the thirst for socialisation and people wanting to go out and eat and drink is very much still alive,” insists Jones, who oversees a UK business worth around £70m a year in sales before the pandemic.

Although the final stage of unlocking was delayed, Jones insists the industry is encountering a “supersonic boom” following the most tumultuous period in its history. He acknowledges that some sub-sectors are hurting more than others, but the activity he has seen among fast food operators, pubs and independent businesses to name just a few has left him convinced the tide is turning.

“If you look at the turnover which Lincat is currently doing, it is not rare now to see intakes of £500,000 a day,” he reveals. “That is huge and it is being driven by exports, the UK market, independent businesses re-evaluating and investing…”

Jones says demand for tabletop products and value added item has intensified, with its Silverlink midrange line popular among customers diversifying and trying new concepts during the pandemic. Holding equipment and high-speed cooking have also been high on the agenda.

“People want to cook on demand now because they don’t want to waste product. Cibo, which we launched a few years ago, is a different technology in speed cooking — it is not accelerated, it is done by three levels of cooking. It is a growing business and it has gone from just breaking into the market to a £2m brand for us now.”

Lincat is the most sizable part of US-based Middleby Corporation’s assets in the UK. It acquired the company — which celebrates 50 years in business this month — more than a decade ago. The brand has gone from strength to strength.

Its factory employs 200 staff, produces more than 2,000 SKUs and despatches 70,000 items a year. Lincat turned over £46m a year before the pandemic (and in excess of £55m when you include sister companies Britannia and IMC).

Middleby UK, which is responsible for bringing in group brands such as Pitco, Josper and TurboChef, is smaller, at around £10m a year pre-pandemic, but the company expects to hit £20m by the end of next year.

Largely a QSR-led business driven by US specification, the firm has profited from chains such as Five Guys, Papa John’s and Burger King expanding at scale in the UK market. And with these businesses leading the home delivery boom during the pandemic, there has been no shortage of demand for equipment.

“Middleby UK didn’t have a pandemic!” declares Jones. “Their pandemic was that their phones and emails were red hot! It was like ‘woah, where has this business come from?’ It just proves that when we talk about sectors and different sides of business, hospitality is one big family but the different sectors within it perform differently. And QSR switched on completely. Hot-holding has been the big thing. There is a lot of hot-holding for QSRs now and even some of the larger independents are hooking up with the likes of Deliveroo and Uber Eats.”

There has also been another very significant factor in Middleby UK’s renaissance: during the last 15 months it has shifted its business model much more firmly in the direction of distributors. Lincat, of course, has always been 100% dealer-focused.

“We are reaching out and cross-referencing the Lincat dealer network, we are leveraging relationships, we are leveraging opportunities and we are supporting the dealer,” explains Jones.

“Our activity levels across sales and marketing have increased so we are getting a big percentage traction of new distributors coming on board and people talking to us now. I sat on my laptop two weeks ago and saw a weekly sales figure that wasn’t far off £1m for a business that used to do between £10m and £12m a year. That’s great news for the industry and all of us here. The numbers across both companies are being driven by high demand, but also strategy as well.”

One of the key pillars of the revised strategy is its UK Culinary Innovation Centre in the North West, which has received significant investment. Here, customers can access its full range of equipment, test and develop new menus and concepts, and undertake training. The facility is proving so popular with dealers and operators that it is booked out for the next three months.

Plans are afoot to create something similar at Lincat’s headquarters in Lincoln, where it has the added benefit of being able to show visitors around its manufacturing facilities as well.

Jones describes the centre as the “glue” for its sales teams. “It is very important to our business,” he explains. “We want to offer solutions to people’s problems, so we sell slightly differently now. It’s not a case of just walking in like the old manufacturers’ reps used to do, ‘here’s your price list, here’s your discount off list’. We don’t even sit down with someone with a price list now. We say, ‘what are your issues? What are your problems?’ We look to do more solutions-style selling.”

If the company is changing its approach to the way it goes to market and engages customers then the pandemic has certainly crystallised its vision for growth.

But before we delve into that more deeply, what was it like being at the helm of such a large organisation when the UK first went into lockdown?

“It was an interesting time. I remember chairing a regional board meeting at IMC and on the agenda, at the bottom, was Covid-19. And we went through all the normal strategic stuff and then we got to Covid-19 and someone said, ‘right, we’ll put some stickers on the wall, we’ll do this…’ and literally within three days the industry was closed! And it was like, ‘wow, how did that happen!’”

Once protocols had been put in place for staff safety and the company had got its head around what the restrictions meant for the industry, Jones quickly realised the business would need to be proactive.

He says the company went into “overdrive”, ramping up its marketing and social media activity, launching dealer ‘SOS’ packages with extra discounts, rebates and extended credit terms, expanding online training and launching a ‘Chefline’ telephone service.

Perhaps most importantly, however, it found ways to keep the Lincat factory fed. Items such as touchless water boilers and the UV Confidence Box steriliser ensured the wheels never stopped turning even as demand for cooking equipment tailed off while many operators remained closed.

Specially adapted IMC handwash stations went like hotcakes during those early months of the pandemic. “The first day we sold six and I thought, ‘have we wasted a lot of time here, is it going to pay off?’ The following day we sold something like 40 and then it went to selling 100 an hour, very quickly. Then it went to selling containers. We were shipping containers to Europe, to Ireland, and we were on overtime at that point. Then we got schools contacting us for short versions and that developed quickly, too. We did £2m in two months. That wasn’t where we needed to be turnover-wise but it was a big assistance in that key period of time.”

Jones also oversaw the relocation of IMC’s manufacturing operation from Wrexham to Lincat’s plant in Lincoln.

“Moving IMC was always the plan. It was going to be done next year, but because we had a quieter period of time it made more sense to do it then. The reason we moved IMC was not to save overheads because we were in trouble but because we wanted to streamline our business and grow the IMC brand. The Lincat model is that we hold £5m worth of stock, and we want the same with IMC. So we minimise lead times, we want to be efficient, it’s one point of order, one point of sales and it makes it easier for the customer.”

The Lincat and IMC integration is indicative of a much greater unification project underway across the broader Middleby business in the UK.

Known as ‘Middleby 1’, the concept is all about optimising the collective power of each brand and sharing resource for the benefit of the customer.

Jones describes Middleby 1 is his vision for the future of Middleby within the UK: “We have independent brands such as Lincat, IMC, FriFri and 57 brands from Middleby globally and we all operate with different P&Ls. But the Middleby 1 concept is all to do with how we bring that together for the customer. We want to be easy to deal with.”

During the pandemic, the company hired in additional expertise in areas such as sales, national accounts and digital marketing, while rewarding some of its existing staff with greater responsibility and autonomy. Lincat’s highly experienced development chef Paul Hickman is now in charge of the overall Middleby culinary team and its team of chefs.

Jones says: “We want to share best practice and leverage our relationships. The goal is to deliver culinary-driven, industry-leading experience across all the Middleby brands. We have upgraded the showrooms and development kitchens to help deliver that vision. We are working to the point where we have one service desk regardless of whether you’re a customer of Lincat, Pitco, Middleby or whoever. We are not far away from that, maybe two or three months, but we will get there.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge in terms of establishing the Middleby 1 philosophy internally is getting people accustomed to operating in an independent way thinking about the collective picture.

Jones is clear on how the model should look: “The Ali Group strategy is completely different — they have independent businesses and they all work independently in silos. Middleby is not that — we are one huge global business with lots of separate P&Ls but we are trying to bring it forward and go to our customers as one solution. Yes, we are two or three separate P&Ls but we want to work as one team and leverage the opportunities available.”

He adds: “Our focus is all about the customer. That’s where it starts and finishes. Everything in between, you have to make right. I have always said that people will always forget what you tell them, people will always forget what you’ve done for them but people will never forget how you make them feel.”

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Tags : LincatMiddleby UK
Andrew Seymour

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