It's been 11 years since husband-and-wife team Andrew Wilson and Carolyne Vale walked away from the job security that comes with working for other people to set up their own foodservice company. They spoke to Janie Manzoori-Stamford about their personal approach to business
Wilson Vale has just celebrated 11 years in business. Has the company grown according to plan?
Andrew Wilson Our auditor accounts for 2012 were around £17m and we had 30% growth last year, which we were delighted with in that type of market. We did write a five-year business plan but we were very conservative and blew it away in the first year. We only wanted eight to 10 new clients a year.
Carolyne Vale There aren't hundreds of clients wanting to invest in the type of bespoke service that we offer. You're not going to get 40 of those a year while at the same time maintaining standards and your relationship with the client, and you cannot develop your people at that rate either. We have eight area managers and six are internal promotions, which is definitely the best route.
What sort of culture were you looking to create?
CV We felt that if we created something that reflected our personal aspirations, then the finances would follow. It's the same principle in the kitchen. If the food is right, the rest will follow. You've got to be passionate and believe in the business to make it grow. If we were in it for purely financial reasons, we'd have a very different company now. We've got about 70 contracts. In the sector that's still quite small, but it's very much a professional but family-style business. Everyone is very supportive and works as a team.
You gave up the security that comes with working for others to launch the business. How difficult was it to make the leap?
CV We'd been saving some money over the previous 10 years because we thought we might do something, so we were fortunate enough to be able to fund it ourselves. We knew we could survive financially for about 18 months without a contract. If it didn't work out, we'd get jobs again. There's always a job in catering.
How much capital did you invest in the business?
AW We started with £50,000 of share capital and another £30,000 in reserve. We operated from the room above the garage at home and used the money for IT, desks and chairs, and to fund our first area manager, as well as general working capital. Also, our supply chain wanted to make sure we had enough capital in the business.
You don't need massive capital in contract catering; it's quite easy-entry. The margin is a lot less but the capital and the risk are a lot less than restaurants, for example, which are quite fad-led.
What are the unique challenges of the foodservice industry?
AW Contract catering is high-volume and low-margin. We've a very a good finance director [Esther Brookes] and we were advised that the one thing we had to get right from day one was our management and financial infrastructure. Having Esther on board was absolutely critical.
Defining a niche is important, too, if you want to be a quality player. Competing on price is easy, in my view. But deskilling and the lowest cost don't float our boat.
How long was it before you took business premises, and how important is that to potential clients?
CV That was a bigger step than setting up on our own. It changed from being something we could switch on and off if we wanted to, to real commitment. It was 18 months before we moved in.
AW In hindsight we should have done it sooner, because it places the business on a much stronger footing. In a proper office you dress and think differently. But from a client's point of view it made no difference.
What did you look for in suppliers in the early days, and has that changed?
AW We looked at suppliers we knew from our experience at Nelson Hind for the dry goods and cleaning materials, and we looked locally for fresh produce. The larger ones definitely wanted to make sure we had enough capital in the business. We've got 250 suppliers, and roughly 75% are family-owned small enterprises.
CV Even with the larger ones, we looked at relationships. Our view is that everyone will inevitably have problems, so if the relationship is strong, you'll be able to work through them. All the suppliers were keen to come on board and we've rewarded them with long-term relationships, good growth, and we've always paid on time and honoured our promises. That's not to say we're not competitive. We treat them with respect in the same way we do our staff and clients.
How did you win your first contract?
AW I was on my way to resign from Avenance when I got a call from [a contact at] SCA Hygiene, who said that after three years of me talking to them they'd like to move forward. I arranged to see her the following week and resigned. When we met I told her what Carolyne and I were thinking of doing and asked that we be considered.
She asked me two questions: how much capital have you got? And can you tell me about the culture of what you're trying to achieve? We got the job, and she's still our client today.
Has the way you source new business changed? I understand 40% is attributable to recommendations or retained contracts.
AW Getting the first contract was relatively easy but the next few were quite hard. You need a certain amount of scale to make people feel comfortable with you.
CV We had six contracts by the end of the first year. We've still got four of them - the other two sites closed. Of those we've still got, three still have the same managers.
Staff turnover is notoriously high in hospitality, but you seem to be good at hanging on to valued staff. How have you achieved that?
CV It's a bit of cliché, but they genuinely love working for us because we treat them all as individuals. I regularly see eâ'mails outlining the work being done on site and I always respond if they have done anything good. It's a lengthy job, but they're people and if they've done something fantastic, they deserve a thank you.
AW All of them know they can pick up the phone to Carolyne, and they do. When we open a contract we speak to all the new staff and get to know their names. We value them all, and we'll always pay the top salary we can.
Where do you have contracts?
AW The majority of the business is between Manchester, Leeds and London, and we have sites in the North East and Hampshire, but none on the South Coast, the West Country or Wales. We don't look at the geography but at the client fit. We look for people who value their employees or, in the case of schools, their pupils, and consider catering as a crucial part of their welfare strategy. It's not about how much marble they've got for the floor but how they want to look after their people.
Why haven't you been tempted by the lucrative opportunities available in the City of London?
AW The City is very well catered for by excellent caterers. We could do a good job, but I'm not sure we need to. Also, City clients feel their contractors need an office base in London.
CV The irony being that a contract in the City is essentially self-sufficient. It's a very different market in London, and similarly it doesn't often work the other way either. Some City caterers struggle in the Midlands market. It's best to stick to what you're good at and the market you know.
Would you say that you've operated with caution? How do you know when to take risks or when to sit tight?
CV We like to be realistic and honest and go in with an operational approach rather than a sales approach. We pitched for a job last year that another operator said they could do for 50% less than us. The reality is it's ending up costing four or five times that. They'd oversold and underachieved, either on cost or service. I would be terrible at poker because I can't lie. If I don't think we can do it, I say that we can't.
AW We've picked up quite a bit of business through a second bite of the cherry. Because we're married, we have a slightly different â¨relationship. I don't want to sell a job and give Carolyne a load of aggravation. What's the point? We have a softer relationship.