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Issue 9 - Westbury Street Holdings

Alastair Storey

Mr Bright Side. The Chief Executive of the UK’s largest independent caterer tells Mel Flaherty why he has got so much to be positive about.

Alastair Storey hates the term ‘contract caterer’, which you can see might be an issue if, like him, you are the Chief Executive of the UK’s largest independent catering firm. On the whole, Storey, who heads up Westbury Street Holdings (WSH) – which encompasses BaxterStorey (a business and industry caterer), benugo (the deli-café, high street and industry restaurant brand), Holroyd Howe (a private education caterer), Caterlink (a state sector education caterer), and Portico (a reception management service) – seems a very positive, easy going yet driven personality. However, misperception of the industry really bugs him. “I want to see the death of the term ‘contract caterer’. It is awful. It sounds so unsexy,” he says. “We run cafés, bars, venues and restaurants – we should be seen the same as high street operators.” Storey himself clearly loves the industry he is in, whatever people call it, and he wants more people to understand and share his enthusiasm.

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“I don’t think people realise what a fantastic, fun, creative and energetic business we are in and how quickly you can progress in it,” he explains.

“Making good food for people is a nice thing to do and in hospitality you don’t need to be a rocket scientist, you need a good attitude towards people and to give them a good time. As an industry I don’t think we have pushed that enough.”

Storey is involved in some upcoming industry-wide initiatives, due to be launched later this Autumn, that he is hopeful will make a difference, particularly at a time when future employment prospects for young people look so bleak – a situation that genuinely seems to upset him. While he does not give details, he hints that there is an opportunity to use social media to better communicate stories that show how young people enjoy and progress in hospitality careers.

His own story is inspirational in itself. Despite initial thoughts of art school, Storey followed some friends who were working at a hotel on the coast of Scotland and had his eyes opened to the higher education opportunities in hotel and hospitality management. Storey met his now wife, a fellow Scot, and decided after completing his BA, that hotel management would be too time consuming and so got into industrial catering instead.

“At 26 I was an area manager with 600 staff and running 40 client sites – I was amazed that they let me have so much responsibility and that I had my own company car!,” he recalls fondly.

Storey insists he had no deep desire to set up his own company, he just remembers reaching a point in his career when he was being asked to make cuts that he did not believe in and realised that unless he was his own boss he would always be expected to implement other people’s strategies, even if he didn’t agree with them.

Bucking the trend

He is not being falsely modest when he says it did not feel a risk to set up Wilson Storey in 2000 with his former Finance Director Keith Wilson, it is just a reflection of his opportunistic, yet common sense approach to business.

It is obviously an approach that works. Despite the challenging economy, in March 2011 WSH reported a 12% lift in year-on-year organic turnover for the 12 months to 31 December, taking total turnover to £406m, up from £362m in 2010. Storey also adds, sales in the first half of 2012 showed 12% growth compared to the same period last year, and he is confident there is room for more growth in all the company’s divisions. BaxterStorey’s recent win of the five-year, £100m contract with RBS, from Compass Group’s Restaurant Associates (reported as one of the most prestigious contracts of its kind ever awarded to an independent operator) will surely help achieve some of that growth.

He chooses his words carefully when asked about the challenges of integrating the RBS contract into the rest of the business. “I think we have got a different vision – we start with the customer. Clients give us expensive real estate and we have got to maximise that so we start with fresh, seasonal food, investment in people and real coaching and encouragement,” he smiles. “I am not a fan of that matrix sort of stuff where the purchasing people decide on the ingredients that chefs can use, because it kills sales. Our chefs lead our supply chain by finding great ingredients. I also believe in paying suppliers promptly and giving them a fair return so our chefs get the best possible fresh food and service.”

Storey says culturally his firm is very different to the other major caterers because it is independent and many of the shareholders work in the business. He has received industry accolades for his entrepreneurship although he believes the word ‘entrepreneur’ is generally misused: “You can have large corporations that are still entrepreneurial and you can have very small companies that are the opposite. It is not about doing things that are weird and wacky, it is about seeing opportunities and being able to act quickly.” Storey says the company structure at WSH allows important decisions to be made quickly, but he is not about acting rashly, rather he focuses on things that he knows the company can do well. Having said that, he is prepared to take on a challenge; in fact he relishes it.

“If I start to feel I am in my comfort zone I quickly move myself out of it. If I am a little bit worried, I am far more creative,” he says. He believes his ability to thrive under such circumstances, is due in no small part, to his “very happy and stable” family life (he and his wife have five children and are now grandparents too). Taking on the contract for catering to around 15,000 members of the media at the recent Olympic Games seems to fit squarely into the ‘challenge’ category. After all, the end users had the potential to be the most vocal of critics.

“To mobilise a contract with almost 400 staff in such a short time window was certainly hard work, especially in the first few days when we were getting everything up and running,” Storey admits, “but the team did a great job and I am glad we did it. Overall the Olympics were such a great advert for Britain – business in London may have been quieter for a few weeks but that is worth it for the medium term gains.”

Business for Baxter Storey was ahead of targets overall in August as it happens, but Storey says that was down to everywhere outside London more than compensating for the reduced traffic to its London sites.

Storey is definitely a silver lining seeker. Generally he doesn’t look back, but when pushed he admits that every time (which he stresses is really not very often at all) any of his companies lose a contract it makes him “feel sick, just the same as it did the first time”. Losing the bid for a multi-million pound turnover contract for Clifford Chance, back when the law firm moved to Canary Wharf, is a particularly painful memory but he believes the disappointment spurred the company on to up its game to win the next available big contract, which would put Baxter Storey “into the premier league”.

Forward thinking

Storey believes the firm has plenty of room for growth within its existing businesses, with a healthy pipeline of contracts to bid for.

Further acquisitions (the last was benugo in 2007) are not planned but not ruled out either and the same goes for further stand alone high street foodservice brands to join the successful benugo. As well as the Olympics and the RBS business, Storey is particularly fired up at the moment about benugo, which recently opened units at the British Museum and at the new mezzanine at Waterloo Station, both of which have so far traded well. Storey adds that WSH is currently bidding for further work in Northern Europe. The firm has been operating in Ireland for about six years now and more recently has dipped its toe in slightly further afield foreign territories including Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and France, through a contract with Cisco. Although Storey insists he has no great ambitions to be a major player on the Continent, he says he has been surprised how few the challenges of operating in different cultures proved to be.

What is proving more difficult, particularly this year, is balancing his dedication to his business with his personal life. He didn’t have time to get along to any of the Olympic action in person and this season has not yet managed to go to any of the Formula 1 meetings that he so loves. “I work very long hours and I don’t take any more time off than anyone else in the company – and that is the one bone of contention that I have with my wife.”

Just one gripe at home and one bee in his bonnet about his industry. No wonder looking on the bright side comes so easily to him.

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