It speaks volumes that the very first external event to be held at Lambeth Palace was this week’s Arena Face2Face. A key date in the calendar for any food and drink pr agency, this year Alistair Stewart was face to face with not one but two industry heavyweights. With the big news in contract catering being the merger of CH&Co and HCM Group; to have both, Bill Toner – Group CEO and Tim Jones – Chairman, there in person was quite a coup for Arena.
The day started with a tour around the historic Lambeth Palace and its stunning grounds. Home to archbishops through the ages, the palace was stunning and the talk very informative. Then it was onto the main event – the Face2Face. The fact that Tim made it along at all was a real achievement and testimony to his professionalism, in the light of the sad passing of his wife Robyn Jones last week. Alistair paid tribute to Robyn as the hugely respected business woman with a passion for the industry and the driving force behind the merger which it turns out was really her vision.
Alistair Stewart kicked off the interview with a question on how the merger was received by the banks. Predictably with the city, they needed convincing and reassuring that the current brands would retain their brand equity and that the whole would, as they say, be greater than the sum of its parts. Bill, Tim and Robyn were confident that merger was the right course and went to great lengths to ensure the team dynamic worked and the business strategy benefited both parties with high performing brands remaining managed by their separate MDs. The message was clear to the banks and the industry it would be business as usual, but with a tougher business edge.
The interview then turned to what advice Bill and Tim had for the rising stars of the industry. Tim advocated gaining a range of experience in your twenties across a portfolio of companies without jumping around too much. Then looking to set up on your own to reap the substantial rewards, both financial and personal. Whilst Bill, who was very happy as a corporate man, also recommended the startup root, as having experienced both he was happy to say that going out on your own is far more fun.
When it comes to recruitment they of course want people who are driven and ambitious, but equally they have to care about the business and understand it. They look to get exactly these kinds of people onboard and by delegating effectively they have built strong teams where people have the opportunity to shine and show initiative, responsibility, and challenge the business to do better. Of course renumeration is an important part of attracting quality people and the national living wage can pose a challenge for business, but it’s one that is welcomed by both Tim and Bill. Plus, as part of their CSR commitment (which is even written into their investors contract), they support both Hospitality Action and Springboard and offer apprenticeships, as well as a comprehensive staff development programme, which gives them an enviable retention rate and helps attract the best and the brightest.
At the heart of their business is of course the food and with Tupperware their biggest enemy (as consumers often choose to bring in food from home over eating at work – including much to his continuation, Bill’s lawyer son) they have to ensure their food offer is on trend, high quality and offered at a reasonable price. With menu fatigue a constant danger they also have to keep things fresh when it comes to staff feeding with innovation and pop-ups to trial new cuisines and concepts.
As for the ideal supplier…It has to be a partnership where trust is paramount. Innovation and quality are of course very important, but honesty is key, as nobody likes nasty surprises. Whilst purchasing tends to specify supplier partners for each of the operating brands, Tim was keen to stress that clients can be specific if there is a particular product they want, as in his words, “the client is king”.
The interview then turned to the wider world and how the economy affects business. Working in so many sectors of staff feeding they believe their sales offer a fair measure across different sectors, but overall consumers seem to be more confident and are spending with a stabilised economy. As much as things do change, people will always need to work and eat when they are there. So with a growth strategy aiming to get them to £300million in the next 3-5 years and a growth strategy ‘somewhat different to big boys’ it will be interesting to see how Robyn Jones’ legacy develops under the guiding hands of Tim and Bill in the coming years.
With the interview drawn to a close by Alistair, Lorraine took to the stage to announce the winner of the charity raffle along with a new trial format for the rest of the event, based around bowl food and crucially more opportunity to network. Then it was time to adjourn to the great hall to enjoy five delicious dishes (not to mention the amazing canapés) and some rather stunning cheeses courtesy of sponsors, Futura Foods.
With conversation and wine flowing, the afternoon went by in a flash, as yet another successful Arena event came to a close. Well done to Lorraine and her team on breaking new ground and trying both a new venue and new format. The jury will soon be in as to its popularity as the new format was gauged via live feedback on tablets at the event so everyone got to have their say.
But here’s a worrying thought – the next event on the Arena calendar is the Christmas Lunch at the Mandarin Oriental on 7th December which will doubtless be with us before we know it so I’d get booking now if I were you! Maybe see you there?