Founder and chief executive of Charlton House Catering Services, Robyn Jones celebrated 15 years in business this year. With an eye on the next 15 years she discusses her guiding principles with consultant Jonathan Doughty
Robyn Jones does not have a long journey to the office in the morning. She leaves the family home on one side of a beautifully kept courtyard and walks a few paces to another converted farm building to settle in behind her desk.
In the gentle Berkshire countryside behind her a pair of horses munch away. On her brief journey she passes the long, thin swimming pool specially designed for laps, which she uses every morning, and the ornamental statue of the world, a birthday present from husband and financial director Tim, which is marked with the dates and destinations of the holidays they and their two children have enjoyed. Later in the afternoon the rural peace is broken as Tim roars into the courtyard in a gleaming black Maserati.
Such are the fruits of a contract catering business that has increased turnover by an average of 40% each year since 1994, when it won a contract with Sony's UK head office. Robyn Jones's achievement is unique. Her company, Charlton House, is the only UK contract caterer to have topped £50m in annual turnover without acquisitions.
Her single-minded drive, hands-on involvement in all aspects of the business and her fostering of an open culture in which every employee has a voice also helped her win the 2006 P&G Professional-sponsored Food Service Caterer of the Year Catey.
Group managing director of Coverpoint consultancy Jonathan Doughty went to meet her.
When you started the business did you expect it to be as successful as it has been?
Jones Not at all.
And did you expect to still be as interested as you are in it?
Not at all. It goes back to the fact that the business is constantly changing. When it was first set up I thought, well, talking it through with Tim, if we get three contracts we can tick along with those… I mean, how naïve can you get? No way would three contracts keep me occupied for 15 years. We had no idea that it would be so successful, but it goes back to high standards. Give a quality meal on a plate and the customers will come back and the bottom line will look after itself. I've had that principle all along, and it has proven itself.
What about further growth? Acquisition of other businesses, Europe, spreading your wings?
The future opportunities are immense and quite challenging. We did look at Europe a few years ago now. We weren't, as Charlton House, ready to go into Europe, so I was looking for an association with another independent in Europe, but every single person I contacted was part of a big organisation. All they wanted to do was buy us. Growth through partnership in Europe hasn't worked for us, but who knows?
So what about the next 15 years?
We want to continue. We want to remain independent in the business, because we both feel we are working parents and we want to be a good example to our children. There's nothing worse than a kid saying, "Ooh, you should be at work today, Mum," while I'm sat around having coffee mornings. That's not a good example. They've been told quite clearly that they're not getting the business on a plate. They're going to get their own career, and they'll have to work at it.
Have you considered acquisition to achieve growth?
Yes, it is definitely something that we would look at. But, as you probably know, Jonathan, it's an expensive business.
Do you look at what BaxterStorey has done, and does that work as an inspiration to you?
Well, they have not just grown organically, they have also acquired. They've done extremely well. They're a good company. But it's not the way we want to grow, because Tim and I can put our hat down and say, "We did that," rather than "We bought that."
Is there a difference between being an operator and a deal maker?
We would acquire if it took us into new areas. It would probably be in a different sector, and so it would be a different arm to Charlton House.
So, we're seeing a change here in the overall range of services that might be offered?
Yes. We have recently taken on the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). That's a concession, and it's doing really well. We went into it cautiously, but professionally and determined, and we've reaped the rewards. We gave a commitment to RIBA that [food innovation director] David Cavalier would be based there for three months to give a real foundation, and we've been delighted with the success we've had.
So that's an area of real potential: concession food service?
It's an interesting arm of the business that we've got, and the learning curve has been useful.
Something I've noticed you've always stuck to is this net profit margin of 2%. It's almost part of your mission statement.
We'd love to ramp it up but, unfortunately, we keep spending money, as we are constantly reinvesting in our support services. Just this year we took on Trevor Jones as our commercial director and so, sadly, our 2% is pretty static, because we're good at spending money as quick as it comes in.
There are always contract wins that are particularly satisfying. In the last 12 months what's been the most satisfying for you?
The Welsh Assembly, as Tim is Welsh. He's absolutely delighted. He's had the cuttings from his mum and dad, and it's been all round Wales since that came through, so Tim is absolutely delighted with that.
And what win here are you most pleased with?
For me, T-Mobile was a nice gain. It's a very prestigious contract. It's fascinating going around all their offices, because they're all just mirror images. You go in one and you don't know which part of the country you're in, because they're all just the same. But that, for me, was very satisfying.
What do you see as the greatest challenge in the next two to three years?
As we grow it is constantly a challenge to get quality catering staff into the industry. It does worry me immensely whether we can continue to get the standard of staff that we need. And that's why I'm dealing an awful lot more with industry bodies, to try and make sure we can attract the people to come in and make sure that food service is their first-choice career. I know David [Cavalier] is concerned, because we won't take on rubbish. We don't take on somebody because they're the right price; we take somebody on because they have high standards, they've done a good food test - and it's getting harder and harder, it really is.
You've always been, in the 15 years, regarded as somebody who sets a trend, who steps forward. What further changes do you see?
Clients don't want to pay for catering any more. Why should they? They think: "Hang on. I'm giving you this lovely restaurant, this lovely kitchen. I don't want to pay you any money. Just run it. I don't want to know anything about it, just get on with it." We will do it, at no cost to you, Mr Client.
We started eight years ago competing with the high street, and it was all very new, all posh - you know, Starbucks and Caffè Nero, and all those sorts of people out there - but we are very, very close to them now.
We used to think, "Wow, they're fantastic, they're up there." Well, they're not so much now. We can do as good a job, if not better, than the high street and, thankfully, that's what our customers demand. They expect to get the same service in their staff restaurants as they get in the high street, which puts the pressure on. But I think it's a nice pressure, because it makes us overperform to deliver their standards.
I think the food service industry is going to come very, very close to the high street. There won't be a lot of differential between them, and certainly more concessions, and even more having to pay to use the client's premises. If the volume is there, I don't have a problem with that.
What is your view of the consultants role?
Ninety-five per cent of consultants do play a role, but 5% still think they can get blood. We'll go hand-in-hand with the consultant and client if what they are asking for is realistic and attainable. Sometimes we have to withdraw, or stay the course and hope they see the light. It's volume-related, and educating the client is important. In the USA, clients are significantly more educated. As a country we are still fairly new to all this - coming out of canteens into staff restaurants and now into concessions. In the USA, clients have been paying real money for some time.
What is your experience of e-bids?
Because many FM teams are inexperienced in food service, this is when procurement comes out of the woodwork, and e-bids are our biggest nightmare, because they are so opposite to what Charlton House is about.
I feel very, very strongly that you can't e-bid a catering service. It's a service, not a box of pencils. Our business is not e-biddable, and we get so despondent when we talk to a client and they say, "Oh no, no. It's going to proposal, and it's straightforward, and we're using consultants. No problems." And you hear right at the final stage, "Oh, head office in Europe says we've got to e-bid it." And we always lose, because it's always the big boys that are prepared to do that. We won't bid lower and lower, because that's not the type of business we're in.
But, interestingly, do you think they get a quality service?
No, and I think it's very sad. They have all these ideals of what they want a caterer to provide in their service, and when you e-bid it that becomes poles apart from their original starting point, and I think that's really sad.
How do you feel about recognition in our industry? How do you feel about being a Catey winner?
Pretty awesome, delighted. We are over the moon. It's wonderful, and we're so pleased to finally get the statue on the table, as they say, but we didn't actually think we were going to get there. Over the years my PR agents have been targeting the Cateys, but it seemed it wasn't to be. I should have listened to Winston Churchill a bit more and never have given up!
1981-83 Started as a graduate trainee for GrandMet Catering (now Compass), rising to chef-manager at a private school in Suffolk
1983-85 Catering manager with Gardner Merchant for two big London clients
1985-88 Catering advisory officer for the Potato Marketing Board
1988-90 Senior operations manager for Compass
1990 Business development manager at Gazeway Catering, a subsidiary of construction firm Higgs & Hill
1991 Set up Charlton House Catering Services after being made redundant
Home Wyfold, near Reading
Status Married, with one son and one daughter
Education OND in hotel management, High Peak College, Buxton, Derbyshire; HCIMA at Norwich City College
Leisure Swimming and cooking
Favourite film Brief Encounter
Favourite music Bruce Springsteen
Favourite hotels The White Hart, Nettlebed, Oxfordshire; Sandy Lane, Barbados
Favourite restaurants The Fat Duck, Bray; any of Alain Ducasse's restaurants