At the table with… David Allen

14/03/2013 - 14:47
G4S ran into the choppy waters over Olympic security, but keen sailor David Allen stands steadfast behind the group’s increasingly successful catering team. The G4S FM solutions director explains why to David Foad

David Foad: When you were at school, what was your dream job?
David Allen: I always wanted to be a round-the-world sailing champion, but the best I managed was a UK National Championship win. The dream is still alive, so who knows?

When you left school, what did you end up doing?
After leaving college with an HND in hospitality management, I joined a family-owned hotel company called Stakis Hotels on its management development scheme.

How did you get into hospitality?
Stakis was the start of many years in hotels, working all over Scotland and England. During my time here, I ended up as the food and beverage manager for the four-star St Ermins Hotel in Victoria, London.

What did you do after that?
After my time with Stakis, I joined a contract catering company called Stuart Cabeldu, which was later acquired by Aramark. I held a number of senior operations and sales roles at Aramark – I was the company’s ‘sales manager of the year’ for two years in succession and I also became the company’s youngest (at that point) operations manager, with responsibility for its City region.

After nine years with Aramark I moved to Compass Group, where I successfully worked across a number of business units including healthcare and education, in both senior operational and business development roles.

How did the opportunity to join G4S come about?
I was approached by GSL and joined them in the December of the year prior to its reacquisition by G4S. I was initially brought in to develop the company’s acute healthcare business and was appointed as a bid director. Within eight months of joining, we had won a major contract with the Food Standards Agency and a contract for North West London Hospitals, the first acute hospitals full soft services contract that the company had secured.

Did you realise just how big the company was?
I joined GSL knowing that G4S was interested in reacquiring it. One of the big attractions for me was that I was joining a growing FM company that was part of a large, well-established international company. It is true to say that you never know how big a company is when you join, but I was very aware of the significant scale of G4S’s secure and critical operations.

What was the challenge you were set?
Having had a few years of great business wins, I was asked to look at the catering offer being delivered by G4S FM with a view to setting up a catering business that would give it the ability to self-deliver catering to our bundled FM clients. To do this, I have assembled a highly experienced catering team including Terry Tredget, G4S FM’s head of catering delivery and development. Over the last three years, Terry has worked hard to develop our catering operations, while I have also focused on refining our retail concepts and offer.

How did G4S’s catering offer develop?
A key part of my work has been in developing G4S’s retail offer Quattro. It is our new retail catering concept, which aims to provide a high-quality and cost-effective alternative to branded concessions. Quattro can be provided as a deli, restaurant or retail concession and, where appropriate, we have rolled it out to our healthcare, education and police client base, as well as a select number of Ministry of Justice sites.

Each Quattro facility can be individually tailored to complement a client’s corporate branding, and we are able to coordinate the whole process of design, fit-out and operation. We have invested significant time and resources to develop this flexible retail product, which I believe is comparable in quality to high street and sector competitors. Our research showed that many customers want catering facilities that can be custom-designed to reflect their corporate branding, while not sacrificing product quality and customer experience.

Which sectors does G4S catering operate in?
We primarily operate in secure and critical environments including: healthcare, education, prisons and the wider justice portfolio, and policing. That’s not to say that we won’t be looking at how to expand this reach in the coming months, as we have already been approached by a number of the group’s B2B clients.

Do you have a long-term market strategy?
The market strategy for our FM business is to self-deliver all soft services and avoid the need for ‘margin stack’, a feature of companies who rely on subcontracted solutions. We are increasingly looking to support our secure and critical business by being able to offer ‘bundled’ FM services or total FM contracts where the client is looking to outsource all of its building and maintenance services.

What are your strengths as a catering operator?
I believe our flexibility is a key strength and due to our increasing scale, we can develop high-quality and tailored client solutions. Crucially, we are not constrained by high street brands or a fixed supply chain, with discounts and supplier rebates returned to the operating business and our clients. As a relatively recent entrant into the catering market, which has worked hard to develop its catering service, I strongly believe that we also offer new service innovation and a fresh approach.

What are the major business challenges you face?
As a business known for its secure and critical work, educating the marketplace to understand the full spectrum of our available services is an ongoing challenge. There are also significant opportunities for us to leverage existing G4S group and client relationships. Working with our colleagues across the G4S group, we are demonstrating the efficiencies that bundled service contracts can offer to these customers.

You are part of a global enterprise, how does that affect your work as a caterer?
The present focus for catering is the UK business, but we have found that a number of our international clients are looking to take UK best practice in all areas of service into their global FM contracts, and this opens up some very exciting opportunities for the next few years. With a diverse workforce from many ethnic and cultural backgrounds, we have found no shortage in ideas for menus to meet the needs of local communities.

Do you believe that ‘bundled service’ contracts are becoming more common?
The majority of opportunities coming to market are typically to deliver more than one service. Some clients are looking to bundle all of their soft services while others are combining a couple of elements such as catering and cleaning. These trends are happening across all of our business sectors.

Procurement teams and consultants have started to see the real cost benefits that can be achieved by bundling services from one supplier who can self-deliver and apply LEAN (not a programme; used to describe how companies create more value for customers with fewer resources) management techniques. The avoidance of ‘margin stack’ is just one way that costs can be reduced without any negative effect on quality.

What do you say to people who insist that catering is a specialisation that can suffer if a contractor tries to be a ‘jack of all trades’?
I strongly agree that catering is a specialist area, and that is why our catering offer is solely delivered by experienced, high-skilled catering professionals. We have our own in-house dietician, catering procurement team, health and food safety manager and auditor. We always treat each service as a specialist service and ensure that those people who deliver that particular service are experts in that field.

You have developed a deli and dine concept called Quattro. How does it work and how do you use it?
Dine Quattro is a staff and visitor restaurant concept that provides a large selection of hot and cold options focused around a chefs' table, where our chefs prepare dishes in front of the customers. Deli Quattro is a more restricted offer, typically two hot dishes with a large range of made-to-order and preprepared grab-and-go items. This concept is aimed at the smaller office or public catering food court.

Café Quattro is a Barista coffee bar providing the range of products and services you would expect from any high-street brand. In addition, Café Quattro offers the opportunity to integrate a retail shop facility. This option was taken, for example, by Warwick Hospital to replace a newsagent that was losing money with a unit that now makes a healthy return to the trust.

Are public sector spending cuts having an impact on your business?
Yes, spending cuts are having an impact across much of our client base, which in turn means that we have a responsibility to be in a position to bring forward innovations and LEAN working practices that help deliver savings while maintaining customer satisfaction.

By building strong partnership-based relationships with our clients, we have been able to achieve win-win outcomes for our clients. Becoming an integrated part of a client team has never been so important in unlocking efficiency savings without compromising service quality and delivery.

Food prices have risen sharply recently. How much of an issue is that for you?
It is a clearly a challenge for everyone in the industry. We work closely with our supply chain partners to minimise any price rise effects. Working with our dietician, the catering team constantly reviews the menu ranges, and looks for exciting new products and dishes that use seasonal, local produce. In this way we are able to support our local producers while sourcing produce that is good value for money and kinder to the environment.

Through its Responsibility Deal, the UK Government is encouraging private companies to help improve people’s diet and nutrition. What’s your view of this?
As a responsible caterer operating in public and private sector organisations, we understand that we have a vital part to play towards improving people’s health by offering them the opportunity to eat and drink more healthily, promote healthier diets, behaviour and lifestyles, and provide informed choice and support to our consumers and staff.

In order to support this goal, we have developed our ‘Steps 4 Health’ programme, which forms the core of our nutrition, health and wellbeing initiatives. This focuses on four important areas:

  • food facts – simple, easy-to-understand, evidence-based messages on nutrition and health provided throughout consumer communications
  • food choice – healthier and sustainable food choices in all our menu offers, with nutritional information and visual signposts to help the consumer make an informed choice
  • education and training – training for catering staff to equip them with the knowledge to provide better menu planning and healthier cooking practices, and to help them embed the basics of nutrition and healthier eating into their catering operations
  • lifestyle change – focusing on consumer engagement and encouragement of behaviour change in individuals to help them adopt healthier lifestyles.

What’s your forecast for the UK economy for the next 12 months?
I’m not an economist, but with the UK’s debt and ongoing problems in the eurozone, we are likely to be working against a challenging economic backdrop for some time.

Are you optimistic about the future? If so, why?
Yes, I am ever the optimist. We have built up close working relationships with our FM clients, and have a flexible and innovative catering offer within a growing FM division that is continuing to win new work and has a forecast turnover for 2012 of £265m.

If you had five minutes with David Cameron, what would you tell him was on your wish list?
People are the lifeblood of any business and I would look to him to work with the industry to ensure that people see hospitality as a real career choice. That means our schools and colleges get help to promote the industry by producing students with the correct skills to meet future needs. It also means local producers are supported to get loans and finance to ensure the supply of reasonably priced and ‘low food miles’ produce.

On a personal level, what’s your dream three-course meal?
I like my food to be made with a few high-quality ingredients, using UK products from sustainable supplies, cooked simply and packed with great flavours. I would have to go for: warm flaked hot-smoked Scottish salmon with seasonal leaves; Rhug organic Aberdeen Angus sirloin steak, with naughty but delicious twice-fried chips; and in-season English strawberries and clotted cream.

Anything to wash it down with?
Yes, there are now some great English wines, such as: Furleigh Estate Classic Cuvée 2009 or Biddenden Pinot Noir 2011.

If you hadn’t had your career, what would you have liked to do?
When I was young, I was an extremely keen sailor and competed at national level, so I would have probably liked to follow a career in yachting and set up a yacht charter business.

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