Gardner Merchant




Gardner Merchant was the UK's leading contract caterer when it merged with Sodexho of France in 1995 but it continued trading under its own name until February 2000, when it became Sodexho UK and Ireland (the group name was simplified to Sodexo in January 2008).

Gardner Merchant stemmed from the 1966 merger of two older firms - John Gardner (which can trace its origins back to a London butcher's shop established in 1886) and Peter Merchant, a 1920s cigar importer who by chance acquired a business supplying tea and buns to building sites. Both rose to prominence during World War Two running factory canteens for workers in line with government policy and were operating 1,500 contracts between them by 1945.

They came together under Trust Houses Group, which acquired Lockhart Catering Equipment and its Peter Merchant subsidiary in 1961. John Gardner bought Lockhart and Merchant Group in 1964 in a deal that made it a Trust Houses subsidiary.

They merged into Gardner Merchant (GM) the same year that Pierre Bellon set up Sodexho SA (Société d’Exploitation Hôtelière) in Marseilles with a FFr 100,000 investment, building upon his family's  prominence in the cruise ship and luxury liner industries.

Gardner Merchant became part of the Trusthouse Forte empire in 1970 when Trust Houses merged with Forte Group. GM and its future parent expanded both at home and overseas and by 1990 they were considering forming a joint venture of their complementary businesses.

Forte's decision in 1991 to hive off its contract catering business to tackle its £1b debt sparked approaches from both institutional bidders and rivals - Sodexho made a £400m bid, Compass offered £590m for Gardner Merchant and Forte Airport Services, and both Granada and Sutcliffe Catering expressed an interest.

But in December 1992, Forte opted for a £402m management buy-out headed by chief executive Garry Hawkes (which excluded Forte Airport Services).

By 1994, GM had a presence in 20 countries and Sodexho in more than 60. During the year, GM became a key player in the US market with the $100m (£64.3m) purchase of Alabama-based Morrison’s Hospitality, shelved a planned £600m stock market flotation and again became a rumoured target of a £700m takeover by Granada, which planned to merge it with its recently-acquired Sutcliffe Catering busines.

Instead, Sodexho snapped up GM in January 1995 for £750m to create a world-leading £2.5b-turnover company - only to be supplanted by Compass's £589m acquisition of Eurest International in July. Sodexo had just 20 healthcare units in the UK, which merged with GM's healthcare arm under the Gardner Merchant Sodexho banner.
The French parent changed its name to Sodexho Alliance in March 1997 after buying a 49% stake in US-owned remote/off shore operator Universal Ogden Services. In October it merged its £480m-turnover North American operation with Marriott International's £1.8b-turnover food service and facilities management businesses. In the UK, this involved GM's £30m acquisition of Marriott Management Services, which had entered the UK with the 1995 purchase of Taylorplan in 1995 and Russell & Brand in 1996. 

Other key GM acquisitions included Gwent-based chilled and frozen food supplier Tillery Valley Foods (1996), the merger of its offshore division Kelvin with North America's Universal Services (1999) and a host of leisure brands - Town & County (1992), Gilmour & Pether (1994), leading Scottish player Wheatsheaf Catering (1995), Surrey-based Cadogan Catering  (1997) and Lawson Beaumont (1997).

In addition to catering in B&I, healthcare, education, sports and leisure and remote/offshore sites, Gardner Merchant also targeted hotels (most notably striking a deal with 44 Friendly Hotels in early 2000).
In 1996 it teamed up with celebrity chef Gary Rhodes to open two Michelin-starred public restaurants in London (City Rhodes and Rhodes in the Square) and two Rhodes & Co brasseries in Manchester and Edinburgh.

The group's diversification from pure food service into a multi-service offer prompted the change of name from Gardner Merchant to Sodexho UK and Ireland in February 2000 - a move that temporarily plunged brand awareness from 98% to 15%.