Sodexho UK & Ireland (2000-2008)


Sodexho UK and Ireland (formerly Gardner Merchant) is the British arm of France-based contract catering giant Sodexho Alliance. Although it was acquired by Sodexho of France in 1995, it continued trading under the Gardner Merchant name until early 2000. At this point, the Sodexho Prestige name replaced all its niche catering brands except for the city-focused Directors Table name, which continued.

In early 2008, the French parent simplified its name from Sodexho Alliance to Sodexo to boost brand recognition and signal its expansion from a contract caterer into a broader service provider.

The Sodexho years presented some tough challenges against a backdrop of global economic recession. In 2002, the parent company identified a rapid deterioration of profitability in the UK which it blamed on serious errors of management and  accounting anomalies. Key problems included forward sales at Sodexho Land Technology, 20 poorly-performing contracts, poor client retention in B&I, the 'hazardous' launch of the hotel management business, write-offs and restructuring costs.

The recovery plan involved terminating B&I contracts worth £13m a year,  exiting the hotel management business, closing the six-year restaurant partnership with celebrity chef Gary Rhodes and investing £5.5m to train and motivate site managers (where staff turnover had reached 30% in 2001).

Sodexo UK made its contracts more profitable by offering more services at existing sites. By mid-2003, multi-service sites accounted for 20% of existing and 50% of new business.

The UK was showing signs of improvement by 2004 and, in 2006, B&I returned to the black for the first time in five years.

Although the group did well in the defence and healthcare markets, government under-funding, falling uptake and nutritional considerations made the school meals sector problematic and Sodexo elected to shun school catering contracts worth less than 55p a meal.

The problem years were marked by a revolving door at chief executive level. In 2002 Mark Shipman was shipped in from Sodexho's recently-acquired Wood Dining Services in the USA to replace David Ford. Francois-Xavier Bellon, son of company founder and chairman Pierre Bellon, took over in March 2004 but was forced by ill health to quit after just three months, leaving co-chief operating officer Michel Landel in keep things ticking over until troubleshooter Philip Jansen joined in June 2004.

During this period, Sodexho UK sold its Lockhart catering equipment business to Bunzl, moved into railway catering, launched its Organica organic catering service in partnership with chef Steven Saunders to become the first outside catering company to win Soil Association, and hired Anton Edelmann, legendary maitre chef des cuisines at London's Savoy hotel, as principal chef at Directors Table.

The group leased its former City Rhodes restaurant to Marco Pierre White and struck a deal to use his Wheeler's of St James's restaurant brand at its hospitality events. Sodexho secured a similar deal with fish chain Loch Fyne Restaurants to use its brand at cultural and sporting events.