A day in the life of McFarlane Telfer

In an ordinary office on a business park just south of Maidenhead, the sound of a printer churning out pages and fingers tapping away at keyboards punctuates the din of people making tea and chatting.

It sounds like any other work environment in the midst of a busy day — only it’s 6.40am and the room contains the best part of two-dozen catering and refrigeration engineers kitted out in company uniform.

And courtesy of an early morning pick-up from one of its vans, Catering Insight is there, too. Welcome to McFarlane Telfer’s monthly comms meeting.

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The catering and refrigeration services outfit, which has been in business since 1992, has become an eminent player within the industry, making a name for itself as a company that operates to the highest standards and serves some of the most prestigious customers in the country, including the Royal household.

Its headcount growth in the last five years provides the best indication of how in demand its services are. Pre-recession you could almost count the number of engineers it employed on one hand. Today the figure stands at 30 — and it is only poised to increase given the company’s aspirations to become more ‘local’ in areas where it currently lacks penetration.

Like any service business, McFarlane Telfer’s existence hinges solely on its engineers being busy in the field. It is paid for the kitchens and equipment that it maintains, services and repairs, which is why the sight of virtually its entire workforce under one roof would make most service businesses anxious. But these meetings — which take place between 7am and 11am on the first Tuesday of every month — are a permanent fixture in the calendar.

Ironically, a couple of refrigeration engineers aren’t able to make it to this particular gathering, instead they’re rushing to an early morning call from an important customer suffering a walk-in coldroom emergency. I’m told it’s the first time it hasn’t been a full house — holidays excepted — for as long as anyone can remember.

For individuals accustomed to life behind the wheel of a van and under the bonnet of a catering appliance, the prospect of four hours’ worth of presentations and management updates doesn’t sound like something that would send many jumping for joy — “engineers generally get a bit fidgety if they are sitting down for too long”, says one — but as the morning unfolds it is clear why these meetings are so important to the company’s identity.

First up is Chris Craggs, managing director and owner of McFarlane Telfer, who spends 45 minutes or so reinforcing the organisation’s USPs.

He touches upon everything from health and safety to the company’s emerging relationship with a particular catering equipment brand and the pitfalls that can arise when working with sub-contractor partners. In this instance, a service organisation it struck an alliance with in Suffolk has let it down on only the second occasion it has had to call on it. “The challenge is coping with the fall-out,” he says.

It quickly becomes apparent that expansion is a key theme for the business. McFarlane Telfer predominantly operates throughout London, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Wiltshire, but as it is pulled further afield by its customers — many of which operate on a national basis themselves — it recognises the need for greater local presence in areas such as Cambridgeshire and the Midlands.

Number one priority, though, is the North West, and it has already begun ramping up its activities in that part of the country. The move is primarily driven by one of its major facilities management customers, which requires a national service for a particular contract. If the company can’t agree to national coverage, it will be excluded from half a dozen giant accounts in London, so only focusing on the south is “not an option anymore” Craggs tells Catering Insight.

He hopes the move can be a stepping stone for winning new blue chip customers in the north, especially as in the past it has rebuffed requests from satisfied clients that wanted sites serviced in areas it wasn’t present. While it won’t be easy, Craggs is excited about the prospect of expansion. “The challenge is that nobody has ever done it successfully and delivered a quality service on a national basis,” he says.

All of this can only be made possible through an effective recruitment and retention policy. It accepts that if it expects to attract the best talent, it needs to pay above-average rates. A significant percentage of engineers earn more than £45,000 a year, while 28 days’ holiday is standard.

“We don’t have a high turnover of engineers — people want to work for us now,” says refrigeration team leader James Chapman. “And we don’t just look for screwdriver skills, it is also about having a commercial awareness and being able to talk to people.”

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McFarlane Telfer makes a large annual investment on training —including refrigeration, electrical (17th edition), gas and health and safety — as well as soft skills. “The thing that drives our business is the customers and the people closest to them are you guys. The rest of the organisation exists only to support you guys,” Craggs tells engineers during the meeting.

But if there is one topic that frustrates Craggs and his colleagues — other than the fact that customers’ stated perception of the kitchen maintenance industry is pretty low and therefore many make decisions based only on cost — it’s the lack of benchmarking around catering servicing standards.

There are codes of practice published by trade bodies and associations, of course, but question marks surround the extent to which they are enforced and audited, not to mention the likelihood of penalties being imposed if broken. “There are no benchmarks that categorically state what the standards are you that are aiming at,” laments Craggs. Furthermore, he says, there are few incentives for excellence among kitchen maintenance providers.

Consequently, his philosophy is that the company should go beyond what might be considered the norm. Engineers undergo mandatory British Safety Council training, carry Construction Skills Certificate Scheme (CSCS) cards and are qualified to Risk Assessment NVQ level 2. Risk assessments are completed by all engineers prior to every job.

As we are to learn from an update given by people development manager Kate Smith later on in the meeting, the company has delivered 110 days of compliance training (around 3.5 days per engineer) and 36 days of health and safety training since the start of the year. Engineers have also participated in 98 days of manufacturer training involving the likes of Hobart, DIHR and Frima.

Craggs admits he wishes there was some way it could independently qualify how its services rank against its peers. “How do you assess how much training is enough? How do you assess that against the competition? How does the customer evaluate it against anybody else?” he asks.

It is an irritation to him that there are few barriers to entry in what he terms the “funny little niche” the company operates in, even though its work involves dealing with mission critical, expensive and potentially dangerous kit.

Its CSR commitments build up a further picture of a company whose journey has, in Craggs’ words, involved the gradual awakening of a pursuit of excellence. It champions numerous local community and charity initiatives, and every year plants the exact number of trees required to offset the carbon emissions of its vehicles.

Most of McFarlane Telfer’s business is generated from facilities management companies and contract caterers, who in turn tend to serve business and industry clients, private schools and hospitals, and public sector accounts,.

It makes a point of not focusing on restaurants, pubs, fast food outlets or hotels, and on the basis of its growth that doesn’t seem to be doing it any harm. The company has just delivered its first ever £400,000 month, renewals are on the rise and business from its catering division is at an all-time high.

While an order book up 15% cumulatively on last year falls short of its budgeted expectations, the pipeline for the rest of the year suggests it shouldn’t have too much trouble making up the lost ground.

As Craggs brings up a slide showing the company’s latest financial accounts, it’s clear that employees are afforded total transparency when it comes to the company’s activities and performance.

That even goes for the way that engineers run their vehicles, as quality and compliance manager Louise Reynolds demonstrates when she publishes a series of charts and graphs on everything from the latest monthly fuel consumption figures to the number of speeding incidents. The data, mined from the Masternaut vehicle tracking software the company has adopted, even exposes which engineers waste fuel by leaving their engines idling.

The slides show that engineer Nigel Gardiner clocked up the most miles during the month of June — some 3,519 miles spent on the road — while combined company fuel costs average out at £1.36 per litre. Monthly miles per gallon work out at 34, which Reynolds suggests is largely consistent with the rest of the year.

Then comes the bit that used to make engineers feel twitchy. Tables are put up revealing the precise number of speeding incidents above 15% by engineer, making it instantly known which drivers could do with easing off the gas a little. But it is not intended to be a naming and shaming exercise, simply a way to reinforce the collective responsibility of employees to drive safely and economically.

Speeding as a percentage of mileage has gone from 11.5% to 5.4% over the course of this year, suggesting the approach is working. “By addressing it we have halved it,” notes Reynolds.

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Business improvement manager, George Roberts-Smith, meanwhile, provides some insight into how crucial technology has become to its activities. McFarlane Telfer has virtually become a paperless operation in the last 12 months, with quotations, orders and parts deliveries co-ordinated online and engineers accompanied everywhere they go by their tablet PCs.

The latest development is a new customer communications system and while it hasn’t been without the odd teething problem, it has made a tremendous difference to operations.

With the quotation process now fully streamlined and customers automatically informed when jobs are scheduled, calls into the service desk from clients desperate to know when they will see an engineer have dropped dramatically. “It feels like a massive step forward,” remarks Roberts-Smith. “In terms of customer experience it is definitely a step change.”

Operations director Alistair Collins and sales and marketing director Mark Brooker provide updates from their respective departments — and they don’t shirk the uglier bits. Eight clients have dropped off the books this month, with the reasons ranging from labour costs and changes in contact at the client end to grievances over an ongoing fridge issue.

A discussion ensues as to how such losses might be averted in future, but with 17 new clients acquired during the month and some meaty deals on the horizon there is not too much time to dwell on dropped catches.

“We are doing more and more to incentivise customers to work with us for longer,” announces Brooker. “We are used to thinking in terms of one year and then the next, but now we are driving the terms to encourage longer contracts.”

A break-out session provides an opportunity for staff to split into groups and partake in a brainstorming exercise, while for the company’s refrigeration engineers the meeting concludes with a visit from representatives at bottle cooler equipment supplier Gamko.

It’s nearly 11.30am and I ask an engineer if he is itching to get back in his van and onto a kitchen. “Yes,” he says without pausing for thought. A glance out of the window confirms he is not alone. The car park that was packed with company vehicles only four and a half hours previously is now almost empty. Engineers are off getting their hands dirty. Which is just how the company prefers it.

Getting the proposition right

McFarlane Telfer’s sales and marketing director, Mark Brooker, came into the Maidenhead-based business just over a year ago and part of his remit has been to bring more structure and formality to the way the company generates business.
It has been a busy 12 months in that regard as the organisation has spent time evaluating its strategy for developing opportunities and communicating with clients.

“I think we are more aware about the process that we go through when we sell something” he says. “So rather than supply a quote and hope we get an order, we are actually far more involved in the process to understand who we are up against, what the customer’s need is, what product should be recommended to suit that and how we can add value to their proposition.”

In addition to strengthening its focus on its core customer base, McFarlane Telfer has developed an airport proposition so that it can begin maintaining kitchens in hubs such as Heathrow. And it has evolved the way it manages new equipment sales, too.

In the past, if a piece of equipment needed replacing rather than repairing, the company would give the customer a quotation on a sheet of paper. Now, if the value of the replacement is above £5,000 it supplies a comprehensive pack detailing all of the options available, including specifications and site drawings.

“We don’t consider ourselves to be a core supplier of new equipment, but we have grown our competence at being able to do it and the scale of it. More importantly, what we can do is give impartial advice based on our knowledge of the reliability or the value for money of the kit,” comments Brooker.

He adds: “If you were to say what are we going to be renowned for it wouldn’t be that we are the biggest or that we have the most engineers, it would be that our engineers are technically the most competent or that we consider ourselves to give the best overall value and our product that we sell is what we think is the best for both our clients and us.”

Culture club

Maidenhead-based McFarlane Telfer saw off competition from more than 500 companies to land the ‘Employer of the Year’ accolade at the recent 2014 Investors In People Awards.

The judges commented: “With an exceptionally open and engaging culture, McFarlane Telfer has shown that they truly value their people and support them to grow and develop. Their leaders devote time and energy to developing and sustaining a culture where everyone is totally committed to the success of the business.”

The win enhances the company’s already glowing reputation. Recently it landed an International CSR Excellence Award in recognition of its approach to supporting worthy causes and received four stars in the EFQM Recognised for Excellence programme on its first application.

It also gained a British Safety Council International Safety Award earlier in the year. Louise Reynolds, McFarlane Telfer’s quality and compliance manager, said she was delighted the firm has gained recognition for its efforts in the field of health and safety.

“We really do try and go the extra mile — from making sure our risk assessments are filled in, making sure our people have top-class training and the certificates to prove it — to site audits to make sure we pick problems up in the field.”

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