The Caterer interview: Nelson Williams

The Caterer interview: Nelson Williams

The managing director of schools caterer Pabulum talks to Janie Manzoori-Stamford about the monumental changes free school meals will make to the education sector

Your hospitality background started in hotels before you moved into event catering. You then spent 10 years as executive operations director at Searcys and latterly you were managing director of concessions at Elior. What prompted the move into school food?
When I went to work at Elior, it wasn't dissimilar to Searcys in that it was contract catering with more business and industry and sports and leisure, and I'd done all of those things. However, Elior was the largest company I'd worked for and I didn't think my personality suited a large organisation.

While I was there, I spent some time talking with a career coach to learn a bit more about myself, and one of the things that came out was that I wanted to run an organisation where I could live and die by my own sword.

When I started going back out to market I was looking for those types of opportunities. The attraction to Pabulum was led by the chairman, Deborah Harvey, who was really inspiring, but it was also the fact that Pabulum did fresh food and was very passionate about it.

There are many common traits in hospitality, whatever the sector. What have you encountered for the first time since you took over the top job at Pabulum in August 2011?

We do an annual presentation to the governors and head teachers on what our aspirations are for their school for the year ahead. We also do focus groups with the students and staff, talking to them about what they like about their facility or what they would change. We also want to understand what they do when they go outside of school, which helps us shape and inform our offer. And we do parents' evenings, lunches and open days, so they can see the facilities for themselves.

How many schools does Pabulum operate in?
It's about 120 at the moment. We only work within a 125-mile radius of Fleet in Hampshire, which is really nice because we all go home to our own beds at night and that's quite important. We've no aspiration to go beyond that. We think there are plenty of opportunities out there within that geographical range.

Pabulum is part of the Quarr Group, which counts cleaning firm Nviro and building and maintenance company Mountjoy in its portfolio. Do the three business strands of Quarr work together?
Not at the moment, but it's something we're talking about. We're not out in the marketplace presenting one solution - each company has its own board of directors and level of autonomy. The Quarr Group is made of four shareholders, three of which are the founders of the three companies. We see them twice a year: once to present our annual business plan and then six months in to give them an update. Outside that, we're given a huge level of empowerment to go off and run the business.

Operating in the education catering sector comes with some unique and frequently evolving requirements. What are they?
In terms of what is being driven centrally by government, there are three things. The first is free school meals, which will be available in primary schools to all key stage one pupils from September. We're getting ready by writing to all the parents and getting a sense of what that uptake will be. I believe the first two or three weeks will be very high, close to 100%, but it will settle down to 80%. This will be made up of some children eating school meals every day and some coming in on specific days, according to what's on the menu.

We're also gearing up the schools. Have they got the right equipment? Have they got enough staff? Is the facility big enough to support the increased number of children? Is there sufficient time in the lunch break to accommodate those extra numbers?

We're working really hard to get as many children as we possibly can to take school meals, but while it's getting better, the perception of school food - among parents - is often based on what it was like when they were children. Our view is that just because the children are entitled to it, that doesn't mean they'll take it. We've still got to market the menu and give parents some reassurances about how we plan and write them - that we use fresh food and don't use processed ingredients.

Number two is the allergen labelling legislation, which is coming into force in December. We start by being quite clever with the way we create our menus to avoid as many of those allergens as possible, but there also has to be some form of communication with customers with regards to what the allergens are. What's not clear from the Food Standards Association is how we do that. We also have to consider the very tight windows in which we operate. The average lunchtime is around 45 minutes and sometimes we've got as many as 600 or 700 children in that time. We're working on the best way to communicate the allergen information without slowing down the service.

The third is food-based standards. The Leon guys [John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby] presented the School Food Plan to government, which is principally about good, healthy food, creating a social experience and that being supported by the leadership team and the head teacher, so that everybody is engaged with that journey and believes in doing the right thing. That comes in next January.

When the Leon co-founders were appointed in 2012, the announcement of another school food review was met with frustration. What were your thoughts?
The frustration was driven and felt by those people who have been in the industry for some time and have been through several cycles of the government being involved. There was a sense of 'here we go again'. But being new to the sector, I didn't have any expectations at all.

However, I believe the plan has reinforced the fact that this industry is maturing. The sector should sit alongside restaurants, hotels and [the rest of] contract catering. We're feeding children, but they're still customers. We have a job to do to get them set up for life - I feel passionate about that. We're teaching them about trends, good eating and the whole social aspect. We have a huge part to play.

The food-based standards are set to replace the nutritional-based standards. Will they be harder or easier to manage?
With the nutritional-based standards, you send off a menu to be analysed and it has to hit certain points in terms of its content and its healthiness over a week. But not every child will come in for a school meal every day. Some parents will look at the menu cycle we send home and decide not to opt for a school meal on certain days according to what we're putting on and their child's particular tastes.

I've always struggled with that, because we do all this work to get the menus analysed and spot on, but then the children aren't all using the facility every day. The food-based standards talk more about what healthy food is, the volume of meat and oily fish you should have on in a week, and it gives you a little bit more flexibility. It's a welcome change.

What do you think the long-term impact of the free school meals initiative will be?
It's generally agreed that it is great for now, but there's a level of cynicism out there that asks what will happen if there's a change of government or if it's no longer a coalition. And some have said that it's been great for [deputy prime minister] Nick Clegg to make the announcement [last December] and ring all the bells and whistles, but when you actually get into it, what is the detail? Where is the funding? How are they going to support the process? That's all been quite late in coming out. I suspect a lot of people will say it's a great initiative, but it's a shame that more wasn't revealed at the time it was launched.

One thing that's proven is that if you give a child a good, balanced, healthy meal, their attention span remains very strong throughout their school day. That's been in a number of different reports over the years. Schools that are good or outstanding, according to Ofsted, are strong because they have excellent leadership teams that recognise the importance of giving their students a good school meal.

Is it difficult to attract good people?
The honest answer is yes, it is. Attracting good people is not just around the pay, the package and the benefits - it's also about creating a really nice environment and a culture in which to work. That's something we're able to do really well. When people come on board, we tend to keep them for quite some time and they become part of the journey.

We've made quite a bold move in that we've appointed Anita Slater [formerly at Charlton House] to a new position of head of people. We made an investment to create that senior position within the organisation to focus on people. The job title in itself demonstrates the work we want to do in that area. Any successful catering company will tell you that the culture is driven by the personalities within it, and we've got some good ones. That helps attract more good people into our business.

Have any roles been hard to recruit? We've gone through a lot of changes with our directors and leadership team and the process has taken around two years. We've got a great financial director called Paul Barber and a new sales and marketing director called Mike Richardson. They both took 12 months to find. We hope to make a new operations director appointment and that will have taken us 15 months. The head of people role took us seven months. We've got some great people, but it has taken longer than I'd anticipated.

We've been quite deliberate about employing people that aren't necessarily from education, so the new appointments have all come from commercial catering backgrounds. Education is no different from Pret A Manger on the high street.

You talked about the industry maturing - what did you mean by that?
It is, and I like to think we're going to be playing a huge part in that over the next five years. I measure that by going into some serious chef competitions and seeing chefs from the education sector. I don't want to be clichéd and say we want to be best in class, but we're keen to invite other hospitality sectors to come in and look at what we're doing. We employ chefs now, and they have the right training, qualifications and experience of restaurants, hotels and commercial environments. And they've got bags of personality, because the students have got to feel comfortable. The chefs become your ambassadors in the schools.

We're a new team and we want to grow the profile of the industry by doing some excellent things within it. Those people with commercial backgrounds understand what good food looks and tastes like and how to prepare it. Equally, we work on very tight margins in education, so they also need to understand how that all translates into a profit.

What keeps you awake at night?
The answer to that changes three or four times a year. I've got three key words I want everyone in our business to think about this year. One is confidence. I've absolute confidence in our people and our proposition, as well as how we're delivering it. Two is focus. We just do education and we do it well. Three is a sense of achievement. Sometimes, we don't celebrate achievement and forget to pat ourselves on the back.

We've got some nice wins coming in September and we've bypassed the celebration of those successes. I was not sleeping at night, worrying about whether or not those wins would come in. Now they are coming in and I'm worrying about how we're going to manage them and we forgot to celebrate the success. At some point this summer, we'll sit back and reflect on them.

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