Peter Kitchin celebrates 33 years in the catering equipment business this month and in many ways his long association with the industry was written in the stars.
The managing director of Chester-based C&C Catering Equipment was only just out of his teens when he remembers the garage of his family home filling up with kitchen equipment after his father John, a former catering manager, spotted a need for a local catering equipment supplier.
The year would have been 1981 and it wasn’t long before Kitchin was joining his father on trips around the UK visiting suppliers such as Grunwerg and Lincat. At that stage, every sale was celebrated like C&C might rejoice a half a million pound catering scheme today.
“My father sold a slicer one month to the local baker. I think it was for £300 and that literally was his only sale that month, but he thought he had made it. We then got a unit in Chester, right in the middle of town, which took us to another level,” recalls Kitchin.
From there the company began to hire out equipment as well, but it wasn’t long before the first lot of scheme work presented itself.
“You start selling a few bits of equipment and then it becomes a kitchen and it just develops and grows. I remember we took a call once from a guy at Toby Restaurants who had once given us some work. He had a problem and needed some equipment urgently, so we went and helped them out and we probably got 30 jobs on the back of that. I also remember getting a phone call saying, ‘Toby are going to stop spending so you need to look at other clients’, which we did. A lot of this stuff happens in cycles, you deal with people, then you don’t and you get other clients, it just goes on like that.”
These days C&C is best known for its involvement in large, prestigious catering schemes, often in London and usually designed by FCSI consultants. That isn’t necessarily how the company planned it, however.
“I don’t think we intentionally sought to do a lot of consultant work, I think it just happened,” remarks Kitchin, a former CEDA chairman. “I think we maybe did a job for someone and they thought, ‘this company seems to be good’, and then other consultants hear about it and you get on tender lists. It just comes from giving a great service, not letting anyone down, and if you do let someone down it is how you go about rectifying it.
“We just try and do the best we can on every job. The old adage that ‘you are only as good as your last job’ is completely true in our business. We know another dealer like us who really messed up on a consultant job and they have not done any consultant work since. And that was probably three or four years ago.”
Not all of C&C’s business comes via consultants — far from it, in fact. Whereas once upon a time it was responsible for up to 90% of its work, it is now more like 50% or 60%, mainly because it works with lots of clients that don’t require consultancy input.
However, what the company won’t do is compete with the FCSI, says C&C’s sales director, Peter Farrell.
“We have even walked away from work in the past where we have been called into a meeting and they’ve said, ‘okay, we want you to design this kitchen’ and we have looked at the drawings and advised they go through FCSI consultants and they haven’t wanted to. We have said, ‘well, we think you should’ and walked away from it.”
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Kitchin, meanwhile, recalls an episode where he and his father were invited down to Portsmouth by a main contractor it had worked with previously on the premise of quoting for a hospital kitchen project. But when they arrived on the south coast, it emerged the client wanted them to tender for the design of the kitchen. They turned it down, got in the car and drove 250 miles back to Chester.
“We just couldn’t do it, there was no way,” says Kitchin. “Other companies may have said, ‘yeah, we’ll do it’, but that is not us. A lot of people don’t understand our connection and what we do with the FCSI, which is why they wouldn’t understand that decision.”
Kitchin talks proudly of ‘loyalty’ and ‘integrity’ as values that C&C endeavours to abide by. He says: “We are very loyal to the FCSI consultants and we are very loyal to our suppliers. These people are partners to us and in the real world the FCSI designs it, the suppliers supply it, and then we install and project manage it. We just try and do things the right way. We always play with a straight bat, we never try and rip anyone off or con anyone or do the dirty because you don’t do that when you have been trading for 30 years.”
Life has certainly changed over the years for C&C, whose founder John Kitchin still comes into the office several times a week at the age of 82. These days it employs close to 20 people and has a sister business, C&C Catering Engineers, over in Deeside, Flintshire, run by the long-serving Ian Berrow. Five or 10 years ago, C&C had a warehouse stocked with £300,000 worth of equipment.
Today it probably holds £30,000 while it has completely got rid of its showroom because it simply doesn’t need one. The real ‘showroom’ for the company essentially comes in the form of the kitchens that it fits out month after month.
“Times change and you have got to move on,” says Kitchin. “Everything is a hundred miles an hour now. We might go and see somebody tomorrow and by the afternoon or the next day they’ll want the drawing and the price. It used to be two weeks. And if people are still working to that two-week thing, they are dead in the water. It is the same with alterations to drawings. If a client rings you up and says, ‘I need you to take out the combis out and put this in’ then they want it back that day.”
Nothing illustrates the maturing of C&C into a reputable and professional kitchen house more than its move from an industrial park six years ago to its current office, a rented barn conversion in the rural Cheshire village of Saighton. The building is part of the Duke of Westminster’s charming Eaton Estate and possesses a number of environmentally-friendly features, including ground source heating and rain water harvesting.
“We used to meet customers anywhere but at the old office,” admits Kitchin. “We have gone through almost two big visitor books since we have been here. We wouldn’t have gone through 10 pages at the other place!”
The company’s belief in bringing through young people and training them the ‘C&C way’ is also noteworthy. Some of its existing CAD staff have now graduated into sales and project management positions, which the company is keen to encourage. With no ceiling on commission, employees are afforded unlimited earning potential.
“Our project managers are well paid; we appreciate what they do and hopefully they appreciate us. You stand and fall by these guys out in the field. We think we have got the best project managers in the industry,” says Kitchin.
In its last financial year, the company generated sales of £11.5m. Kitchin is reluctant to make predictions about what it can achieve in 2014-15 except to say that every year it aims to improve.
There are certainly enough signs to suggest that will happen, as Paul Parry, C&C’s project director, alludes to. “It used to be that one £1m-plus job would come around once, twice or maybe three times a year. I’ve just priced four on the trot,” he says.
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Whatever happens, the uptick in market conditions should only play into the hands of companies such as C&C. And some three decades on, Kitchin is just as excited about what the future holds as when he was helping his father shift stock from their garage.
“When the big lottery jackpot was at £170m a while back we were talking about what we would do if we won and I said I would just keep working — and I would! We’d be the richest catering equipment company in the industry! I couldn’t do anything else, I love it. I love the customers, I love the consultants, I love the suppliers. I think everything about the industry is great. And no two days are ever the same.”
His enthusiasm can only stand this proud distributor in good stead.
London acquisition would interest us, say C&C directors
For a company based a comfortable drive from major cities such as Manchester and Liverpool, it is a quirk of Chester-based C&C Catering Equipment’s identity that more than 80% of its turnover is derived from the work it does in London.
Managing director, Peter Kitchin, says that with train services making London accessible within two hours and at least one member of its team based down there four nights a week, responding to customers’ needs in the capital has never been a problem.
But he admits the company wouldn’t hesitate to evaluate the situation if the chance came along to secure a permanent base in the London area through the acquisition of a company that matched its philosophy.
“We have considered it and it is something we would do,” he admits. “And we are ready to do it now if it was the right opportunity: a service company or a catering equipment company within a three-quarters-of-an-hour radius from London. If there is someone down there who is ready to sell a business or who wants someone to invest in it then we would definitely look at that because then we would have a London base, a London warehouse and a London phone number. What we wouldn’t do is buy a business just for the sake of it because there is no sense in that.”
It could be argued that C&C has done quite alright without a London office. The first big scheme it did in the capital was a £1m job at the House of Lords some 10 years ago. It has been in London “upsetting the competition”, as Kitchin puts it, ever since.
“If we had something down there I could see us generating more business,” he says. “We are looking to do it and I think it will happen. If the right opportunity comes along then we would be ready to go. We’re after engineers in London so perhaps it might be a company that has got half a dozen engineers, which would kill two birds with one stone.”
Recent projects in London have involved clients ranging from the Tate Modern, BSkyB and Rio Tinto to law firm CMS Cameron McKenna, Google’s UK headquarters and Portcullis House, next to the House of Commons.
It is inevitable that more major schemes will follow, particularly as the market recovers. Sales director, Peter Farrell, says the London market is booming again.
“A couple of years back we’d go to London and you’d look up at the skyline and there’d be one crane, and you’d think times are tough,” he comments. “You go to London now and there are cranes everywhere. It is brilliant for the industry and great for us. And we are even tendering work now for schemes that we might have done 10 years ago. Companies are reinvesting in their kitchens, which bodes well.”
Name: C&C Catering Equipment
Address: 1 Smithy Farm, Chapel Lane, Saighton, Chester, CH3 6EW
Tel: 01244 625170