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Bill Toner: Building Scotland Into A Host Nation

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Bill Toner: Building Scotland Into A Host Nation

October 21
20:07 2013
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When Bill Toner became CEO of Host Contract Management in 2011, the Surrey-based firm forged a new direction in its quest to become the nation’s favourite caterer. Formed in 2004, Host offered a firm commitment to the use of fresh food, high-tech IT systems and innovative business models for transparent purchasing. Keen to make life fairer for clients in all sectors, founder Jerry Brand drew deliberate attention to the practise by some operators of generating additional profits through the murky ‘discount’ system of purchasing. However, now that this particular issue has been dragged out into the open, and seasoned stalwart Toner has newly taken over at Host’s helm, the firm has different aims and objectives it wants to achieve. With the establishment of the Host Food Academy – a mentoring platform from which the company’s head chefs can glean inspiration and learn new skills – he is already beginning to make his mark.

Scottish-born Toner, who came to Host as a non-executive director in November 2010, has spent much of his 30-year career in the contract catering arena. Joining Gardner Merchant {now Sodexo) in his early 20s, he worked his way up through the organisation, eventually spending five years as managing director until he left in 1999. His next move, as CEO of Aramark UK, was to expand the American-owned firm into Britain’s third-largest caterer, with over 1,000 contracts and an annual turnover of £400m.

Now, as Host Management’s chief executive, he is keen to grow the independent, Surrey-based company which operates more than 85 business-and-industry, education and healthcare contracts nationwide: ‘Ask me for my priorities and vision for the future of Host,’ he says, ‘and my simple answer is this: Training; staff development; customer-focused policies; and a forward-thinking growth strategy.’ Of these four elements, Toner has placed staff training at the top of his agenda: ‘The education and inspiration of staff is paramount, and it’s one of the first things we’ve addressed in detail since I took over in March,’ he explains.

‘I want our chefs to take pride in their cooking, and to see that there is a place for innovation and culinary skills in contract catering.’ With a framework for the academy already in place before Toner joined Host, it soon became his responsibility to find a suitable manager – in addition to a prolific figurehead – for the programme: ‘As soon as I started, I actively began looking for a mentor for Host’s team of chefs,’ he continues.

‘Having met Andrew Fairlie some years ago when I was judging the Cateys, I loved his food and his reputation for training, so I went up to Gleneagles a few months ago and ate at his restaurant – and was completely blown away. ‘After that I really wanted to see if we could find a way of working with him to inspire, motivate and hone the cooking skills of our own chefs.’

Together with Stephen English, who was hired by Toner to head up the Academy, Fairlie assesses each head chef’s needs, develops an individual training programme, and mentors their progress after they visit his eponymous restaurant at Gleneagles. Under the arrangement, the chefs spend a couple of days in the kitchens with Fairlie and his team, learning about food at its highest level:‘The Academy is positioned to act as a centre of excellence for the company’s head chefs,’ explains Toner. ‘The aim is to inspire, educate, and hopefully encourage them to use new techniques and ingredients, develop recipes, to share best practice and bring back some ideas that they can use in their own kitchens.

‘Our chefs are the vital link to our clients, and our reputation as a contract caterer depends on their skills and knowledge.’ However, he is keen to emphasise that the tie-in with Fairlie is not a training exercise in the traditional sense: ‘Although they will undoubtedly benefit from it professionally, we are positioning the Academy as an incentive for our chefs, as recognition of the contributions they make to the business as a whole,’ he adds. This cross-fertilisation of skills and ideas is something that Toner pioneered in his days at Sodexo and Aramark, and is once again rolling out at Host. Having forged close links in the 1990s with prolific chefs including Gordon Ramsay, Georgio Locatelli and Brian Turner during his time with Gardner Merchant/Sodexo, Toner also spearheaded a much-publicised tie-in with Gary Rhodes: ‘The culmination of this collaboration was opening of the City Rhodes restaurant in London, and we later developed five further restaurants with Rhodes and three more with Brian Turner,’ opines Toner.

‘One of the worst things for this industry was the loss of Trusthouse Forte in the mid-‘90s, because the training infrastructure that company had was second to none,’ he continues. ‘Without it, I’m concerned that the passion and emphasis on craft skills is being driven out of the industry, and that was a fundamental reason for establishing the Academy. ‘As a company, we care about our people, and if we can demonstrate that we are prepared to train, develop and grow them, we will attract a better quality of applicant. ‘Plus, it motivates chefs to use their current skills whilst simultaneously learning new ones, and it means we can control our portions, minimise our costs and keep our customers happy by providing healthier, tastier food. Eventually the process becomes self-perpetuating, and everybody wins.’

This is surprisingly candid rhetoric from the man who thought he’d never return to the contract catering market. In 2005 he surprised the industry by stepping down as CEO of Aramark UK and Ireland, following a fundamental disagreement over strategy with the company’s American management: ‘The contract catering sector has changed since I left it,’ he admits. ‘So many operators are nowadays preoccupied with managing debt and dealing with costs and politics, that there is an inevitable lack of focus and investment in people for the future.’ Host, conversely, has proven to be a debt-free business which, Toner explains, allows him and his colleagues to focus on the customer and to concentrate on servicing their clients and looking after their staff: ‘I think this current market presents more opportunities for smaller companies than ever before,’ he says.

‘Clients may be more demanding, margins tighter and competition tougher, these days, but we also have the added bonus of offering a very personal, bespoke catering service. ‘I have a great team in [sales director] Andrew Scott, operations director Deborah [Homshaw] and of course Stephen English. I’m getting out and meeting our clients and listening to their feedback and comments, and I believe we can do a fantastic job by concentrating on modern ideas and freshly cooked food, and by listening to them and working with them to fulfill their expectations. ‘In the long run I want to turn Host into a £100m business, and I think we can do it; the product is right, we’ve got a great team of people and while our focus is on growth, our reputation will be built on the quality of the food we deliver and our ability to keep our clients happy. When all is said and done, we’re ready for that challenge.’

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CateringScotland.com meets Host Management CEO, Bill Toner, and charts the success of one of the country’s most dynamic contract caterers…

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