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Growing Scotland Into A Host Nation

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Growing Scotland Into A Host Nation

October 21
20:07 2013
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When Alan McDonald joined Host Contract Management in 2012 he did so after two decades of working in operations for various multinational catering companies. His move to Host – the independent contract caterer founded by Jerry Brand in 2004, and led today by Bill Toner – was a natural progression for the trained chef, whose mission to shake up contract catering is now well underway.

Having left his previous position as operations director for Avenance in Scotland after more than 12 years with the company, he took the job of regional director for Host in the firm’s fast-growing market north of the Border.

At 43, and with 24 years’ experience, Alan manages to match the ideal criteria required for the position: young and ambitious enough to drive the company forward and promote growth, yet with sufficient experience of market, clients and competitors to do so with an appropriate mix of level-headedness, caution and realism.

‘I’ve never known a company to place so much emphasis on the two main areas that I’ve been trying to prioritise for years,’ he continues. ‘For me, consistent use of the highest quality raw produce, allied to a rigorous staff training and development philosophy, are the mainstays of a robust business plan. Without these, a caterer might as well give up and move into a different profession because they won’t last long in a contract if they can’t evolve with it. 

Born, brought up and educated in Scotland, Alan is the archetypal example of a man who knows his market. A trained chef, he spent several years with the former Gardner Merchant (now Sodexo), under whose tutelage he completed a management training programme in order to gain a foothold and qualification in management:

‘My time at both institutions provided me with a range of skills and experience that helped prepare me for my role in operations, but it was my initial training as a chef that really laid the groundwork,’ he adds. ‘Having worked my way up through the different levels in a kitchen – the shop floor, you could call it –  I fully appreciate and understand the role, and can draw on my experience when working with our own chefs in Host’s Scottish contracts

 

‘Additionally, the fact that we have the freedom to use Scotland’s unrivalled fresh produce essentially means we can take full advantage of operating north of the Border. There aren’t many places you can draw on the vast reserves of a larder such as this and still claim to use local suppliers!’

Currently operating catering contracts from as far north as Fraserburgh right down to the Borders – and in much of the central belt in between – Alan and his team are keen to roll out the Host philosophy ever further:

‘I think we offer a genuinely different and refreshing service,’ he explains, ‘and it seems to me that many caterers out there appear to fall into one of two groups: Those who are too big to respond to the unique needs of individual clients; and those who are too small to cater for multiple sites with consistently high standards.

‘However, because we are an independent, national operator with a flat, accessible management structure and the processes, resources and infrastructure of a much larger organisation, we can do both.

‘Important, high-level decisions can made through a phone call or face-to-face meeting, rather than by committee or management board, and we are structured in a way that allows us to cater for both large and small clients.’

Much of this flexibility is arguably down to Bill Toner’s influence at the company’s helm. As a Scottish-born star of the contract catering market, Toner came to Host as a non-executive director in November 2010 after a successful career working with Gardner Merchant and, latterly, as CEO of Aramark UK.

Having grown the latter into Britain’s third-largest caterer, Toner left in 2005 to pursue other interests, and is now focusing his attention on growing Host’s 85 business-and-industry, education and healthcare contracts.

‘Ask me for my priorities and vision for the future of Host,’ he explains, ‘and I have a very similar outlook to Alan’s: Training; staff development; customer-focused policies and an innovative growth strategy.’

And, like his regional director, Toner has also placed staff training at the very top of his agenda:

‘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,’ he continues.

‘One of the worst things for this industry was the loss of Trusthouse Forte in the mid-1990s, because without the training infrastructure that company boasted, I’m concerned that the innovation and emphasis on craft skills is being driven out of the industry. Consequently, the education and inspiration of staff is paramount, and it was one of the first things we began to address in detail since I took over.’

Host’s ongoing investment in staff training and career development is a case in point: ‘Throughout all our contracts – and particularly in Scotland – we’ve been underlining the need for innovative training initiatives to educate and motivate the chefs and managers within them,’ adds Alan.

‘While the inclination at the moment might be to reign in spending and cut costs, we’re bucking that trend and trying to emphasise how important these areas are in encouraging growth.’

The establishment of the HostFoodAcademy – a mentoring platform from which the firm’s head chefs can glean inspiration and learn new skills – is one such example of this forward-thinking strategy.

Conceived several years ago – before even Bill Toner joined the company – the academy soon became a priority after he was installed as Chief Executive. Following a search for an appropriate mentor and figurehead – and the subsequent appointment of Andrew Fairlie in this capacity – the concept began to gather momentum and is now a principal focus for management and staff alike, as well as the envy of rival caterers throughout the UK.

Led by Stephen England, the academy is positioned as a centre of excellence for Host’s top-performing culinary stars. Under the arrangement, the company’s head chefs travel to Gleneagles in Perthshire to spend a couple of days with Andrew and his team in the famous kitchens, picking up hints and tips for their own applications and learning about food at its highest level.

The education and inspiration of our staff is paramount, and we want our chefs to take pride in their cooking, and to see that there is a definite place for innovation and culinary skills in contract catering,’ explains Alan.

‘With that in mind, Andrew assesses each chef’s needs, develops an individual training programme and then mentors their progress after they visit his restaurant.

 ‘The aim is to inspire, educate, and hopefully encourage them to use new techniques and ingredients, develop recipes, share best practice and bring back a few ideas they can use in their own kitchens.

‘Ultimately, it’s about honing the cooking skills of our most valuable assets, and the arrangement with Fairlies underlines our commitment to getting the best out of our people. At the end of the day, they are the vital link to our clients, and our reputation depends on their motivation and knowledge. We care about our people, and if we can demonstrate that we are prepared to train, develop and grow them, we think we will attract a better quality of applicant.

Plus, it motivates the 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.’

So, what does the future hold for Host in this dynamic, constantly changing industry?

‘I think the current market presents more opportunities for smaller companies than ever before,’ continues Alan. ‘Clients may be more demanding, margins tighter and competition tougher these days, but we as a company have the added bonus of offering a very personal, bespoke catering service which means we can adapt to accommodate the individual characteristics and demands of different-sized organisations.

‘Some starry-eyed contract caterers have in the past blurred the boundaries between what they are good at, and what they think they could be good at. As a result, they try to expand or diversify into areas that are not really within their traditional skill set, such as maintenance, reception, grounds-keeping and so on.

‘As self-confessed foodies, we’re focusing on the food market first and foremost before diversifying into other areas.

‘As it stands, we have a great team in Scotland, including our project chef manager, Jim Williams, and I believe we can do a fantastic job by concentrating on modern ideas and freshly cooked food, and by listening to our clients’ needs and working with them to fulfill their expectations.’

With all this experience, knowledge and enthusiasm, I’m tempted to ask the obvious question: Aren’t Alan’s colleagues in England worried that another ambitious caterer will try to poach his expertise for themselves?

‘No,’ he replies emphatically. ‘Our business is based on openness and trust, and that applies as much as to our staff as it does to our clients. When I took this job I made a promise to Bill – and to myself – that I would do whatever it takes to ensure the company’s growth and development in Scotland.’

However, as admirable as this loyalty may be, there’s another reason why Toner is so proud of Host’s new recruit: his philosophy is remarkably similar to the company’s founding principles:

‘The key difference between Host and our competitors is that we can give the client whatthey require, not merely what we want to give them. Our message is simple: With Host, there is a credible alternative to what’s already out there.’

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Alex Buchanan meets Alan McDonald, Operations Director for Host Management in Scotland…

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