Transfer of power

09/11/2015 - 07:08
Just over a year into the role of chief executive of Elior UK, Catherine Roe tells David Foad why the French owners are pleased with progress so far since she took over the reins.

International catering and services provider Elior boasts some impressive figures: the first nine months of the latest financial year saw a 5.9% increase in revenue to €4.28 billion (£3.14 billion), which was generated by 106,000 employees serving 3.8 million customers a day across 13 countries.

Although the group does not publish separate financial data on the UK, its 10,000 staff working across 650 client sites have obviously contributed significantly.

The latest nine-month data, released in August, mentioned the acquisition of Lexington Catering in October 2014 adding 0.9% to group revenue growth.

Philippe Salle, Elior’s chairman and chief executive, was moved to praise the part played by the UK in achieving 3.6% organic growth for the group outside mainland Europe, adding: “Business remained brisk in the UK, thanks to a robust showing from existing sites and sites opened in the past 12 months.”

This must have been music to the ears of Catherine Roe, who’s just finishing up her first year as head of the group’s UK operations. “We’ve got things to improve, of course, but generally, I think the French owners are very pleased,” she says.

“Our new group chief executive Philippe Salle has told me he sees the UK market as a very important part of the Elior worldwide business.

“He’s already been over to the UK many times, and the structure is such that I now report directly to him and I’m very happy about that.

“I think we in the UK side of the business are getting more focus, and I believe he has a good understanding of the UK business,” she continues.

“Brisk growth just about conjures up how we’re doing right now. We’re getting on with it, getting our house in order, and I’ve taken what Tim [Hammond, Roe’s predecessor] started to the next level.

“That covers our business relationships with clients, our standards agenda and the Lexington acquisition.

“Add to that we’ve now got a flatter structure than before and I’ve started an operational board, so I’m very close to the business, and this is important because I feel we’ve got a lot of knowledge tied up in it,” explains Roe.

“I have also made a change in the sales force, which is now headed up by Robin Givens as national sales director.

“It’s a very close-knit team; we get on very well and that’s important. It means I’ve always got people I can bounce things off, and I’m confident I’m getting the best advice from them because we’ve got a common objective.”

Roe believes the manner in which she took over from Hammond, a succession phased in over several months, worked well for her.

“Tim and I are still close, and we had worked closely while he was CEO, so I had been behind the scenes with the various initiatives he launched and he mentored me.

“That’s not to say I haven’t changed a few things, but my approach is generally to have good relationships because I prefer to work without conflict.

“I don’t see that as weakness – it’s more about trying find a way that works with people.”

She says that while the succession may have appeared to happen slowly to the outside observer, it “happened very quickly for me”.

“I was suddenly the boss of people I had worked alongside, but the board members had told me they wanted me to take the job, so we worked together.”

A key pillar of Elior’s strategy in the UK has been the focus on customer service that Hammond introduced but Roe had been working on even before he joined the company.

She says: “You can’t get away with bad service. Our business is all about relationships among clients, customers and employees, and all have to work well.

“It’s easy to launch something but difficult to sustain it, and I suppose there are several ways we’ve approached it.”

The original staff-training programme for customer service has been extended and revised in recognition of the fact it has to work for Elior across a number of different markets and with many different clients. “We keep coming up with new ideas for it, so it keeps some vitality that way,” according to Roe.

Not that the programme ever trumps what lies at the heart of the company. “You can have the greatest customer service programme in the world,” she says, “but without the food to go with it, you’re wasting your time in the hospitality market, so we’re evolving the food side of things too to make sure it works with service.”

Turning to her approach to running Elior, she says: “I’m absolutely obsessed that the management are out in the business all the time so everyone feels a part of it.

“We’re the size of company that we can still be hands-on when we want to. I can’t visit every site, that would be impossible, but our ops board meets every month, and every second month I have these meetings away from head office at a site.

“It’s important because we get to see the business. We’ve made our lives much more difficult by doing this, but we’re seeing at first hand what the customer feedback is like.”

She says the board gets mystery-shopper feedback on a whole range of key performance indicators to help it.

“It’s all consuming, but it means I’m very confident we have a customer service programme that is working. In fact, it’s so ingrained now that when I go to restaurants outside the Elior portfolio, I’m still very aware of the customer service – seeing what’s good and what’s bad. And I pass these thoughts back to the team.”

Asked if women bring a slightly different style of management, she says there may be more empathy, but is quick not to get bogged down in any argument of quotas or ‘positive discrimination’.

“You want a mix of genders, and my attitude is that I’m pleased to hire females, but it’s the right person for the job. I can think of many instances where a female in the role seems the right choice, but it must still be the right person for the job. You mustn’t be afraid to make the decisions that are right regardless of gender.”

Another important part of Elior’s approach to business is the commitment to staff training and development.

Roe says: “We monitor the stats every month, but you have to check that what’s on paper is really what’s happening. We enjoy very low staff turnover, which is important because if you don’t have the right people and they don’t care, then the food won’t be good and the service won’t work.

“In the Sunday Times Best 25 Big Companies To Work For annual award, we got a good result and made it in, as we did previously in 2013, and to me, that’s an indicator that we’ve got a pretty engaged workforce.”

That is why she takes pride in Elior’s staff development and why it’s also important to tell them about how well the company is performing.

“We’re very good at communicating our successes to our staff, clients and customers. When we’ve already got good people on the team, we want to keep them and not have to recruit from outside too much.

“We want everybody who joins Elior to develop; we’re taking on graduates and apprentices, creating a working environment that allows people to ‘breathe’. We want to attract them and to make them want to stay with us,” says Roe.

“We want to succeed business-wise, of course, but you can measure success in more ways than the bottom line, and I believe the reputation of the company is also important.

“Ultimately, I suppose, I want to help everyone to understand the enthusiasm I have and to feel it too. That goes for clients as well. I want Elior to be the kind of company that they want to be associated with.”

Elior UK has garnered more than its fair share of awards over the past year, including being named the Cost Sector Catering Contract Caterer of the Year in April.

“We communicate this sort of thing internally very well using social media and our monthly staff newsletter. We get very excited; it’s nice and this enthusiasm is great to see – at all levels of the company.

“We also have regular meetings with clients and pass it on where relevant. The influence on clients is there, the Cost Sector Catering award is not so easy to get, so they know we must be doing something right.”

And the ‘something right’ they’re doing has been a feature of Elior UK’s work over the past year.

“The Lexington acquisition has helped our growth, and our priority is to grow even more, though this can only succeed in the context of keeping your existing business,” explains Roe.

“The way I see it, the operational teams must focus on the business they have and nurture it. It’s a competitive market, so even when contracts go out for tender, we still have to work hard with the salespeople to keep current clients and use them as the base on which to win more.”

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