THE BIG INTERVIEW: Gratte Brothers reveals latest company facelift

L-r: Gratte Brothers Catering Equipment MD, Colin Barden; Ian Gratte, group MD, Gratte Brothers; and Gratte Brothers Catering Equipment sales director, Paul Gilhooly.

As one of the grandees of the UK catering equipment industry, Stevenage-based Gratte Brothers Catering Equipment is ensuring that it doesn’t rest on its successful laurels. While it has over 30 years of trading to its name as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Gratte Brothers group, it also strives to remain a modern progressive business.

The distributor is currently in the process of undergoing a bit of a facelift, in terms of both its headquarters building and investing in the latest technology for its employees.

At the beginning of this year it initiated a staff engagement process, dividing its 70 personnel into three teams, with a good cross-section of each department represented in every team. They were all then charged with discussing and reporting back on their opinions of the company, analysing what it does well and generating ideas for any improvements.

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Sales director, Paul Gilhooly, recalled: “They came up with some fantastic ideas and pitched them to senior management. We were then able to distil that, understand the common threads and prioritise them.”

The conclusions fell into three key areas: customer first, business excellence and business development and growth.

One of the main findings was that the headquarters building required investment. “We’ve been based in Stevenage for 20 years, but our current headquarters was originally meant to be a 5-10 year stop-gap,” revealed Gilhooly. “We did look at trying to buy alternative premises on a number of occasions but we never found anywhere that ticked all the boxes.”

Therefore, Gratte Brothers Catering Equipment’s management decided that it was time to overhaul its building to make it fit for the next 20 years and ensure its staff were comfortable and proud to work there. “If we have got a happy team then they are more likely to be engaged, perform well and do a great job for our customers,” Gilhooly commented.

As part of the £1.2m investment, the premises is being extended both outwards, to fit in another bank of desks and allow for future staff additions, and upwards, raising the ceiling height to give more of a feeling of space for its workforce. Plus air conditioning is being installed. All external work is scheduled for completion in January 2019.

According to Gilhooly: “The investment shows the commitment of Gratte Brothers to the catering equipment division and its future. This is part of getting the groundwork right.”

Alongside the main construction works, the distributor reorganised the internal layout of the building, making it more open plan so that departments were not segmented from each other. The firm brought in new telephony, allowing it to move to digital phone- and video calls. Said Gilhooly: “Staff now have wireless headsets so they are free to walk around within the premises. It’s also stopped the phones ringing, as calls come through their computers. When you open up an office you want that balance of having a nice buzz without it being too noisy. The digital calls have greatly helped with that.”

The distributor won this year’s CEDA Grand Prix Award Small Project category for its work at Steve Drake’s Sorrel restaurant in Dorking.

The company also swapped the sales, projects and design teams into the smaller of the headquarters’ two wings, firstly as the firm created a new business support department, which slotted in nearby the servicing and finance teams, as Gilhooly explained: “Business support are the glue of our division because they interact with sales, projects and accounts, processing orders and undertaking administration including organising project resources such as labour, engineers and transport.”

Secondly, Gratte Brothers Catering Equipment invested in tablets, laptops and smartphones for the sales and project teams so that they can more often work remotely. This means that their area at headquarters is now mostly used for hot-desking and when meetings and brainstorming are required.

Another factor in these moves was the introduction of the Call2Field service management software for the 36-strong engineer team. Last October, Gratte Brothers Catering Equipment began to migrate from a spreadsheet-based, more analogue system, to this fully digital and online portal. All engineers were equipped with tablets, with each of their vans installed with location trackers and being digitally stocked.

“When we pull that all together, it means we are able to give our clients much more information, and over the next 12 months we will further expand the services we offer,” revealed Gilhooly. “Eventually our clients will be able to access asset and service call information online and analyse their spend over a specified date range.”

However, the distributor will still keep its 24/7 service line open to maintain a personal service and ensure the enquiry is dealt with in an agreeable timeframe to customers’ requirements. Gratte Brothers’ engineers work across the country, with resources primarily focused in the south east and midlands, while a third party covers national contracts in Scotland to the distributor’s agreed standards.

The Call2Field service department overhaul has many benefits, according to Gilhooly. “Clients can access more information a lot easier, quicker and remotely, so they can make an informed choice.

“The fact that engineers are using tablets means they can respond and report back to us a lot quicker than traditional engineers’ worksheets. As soon as they finish a call they press a button and all information, photographs and videos are automatically and instantly uploaded onto that customer’s records. So if a spare part or quote is required for a fix, that process can start immediately.”

He further explained: “The fact that the vans are digitally tracked means we can see where our resource is and allocate the engineer accordingly. The critical KPI for service and maintenance is first time fix, which is where digitally stocking vans also helps. We know in real time exactly what parts are on each van at any moment. It may well be we have an engineer closer to a customer, but they don’t have the part we think might be required to effect a fix there and then. So we make a call using our expertise and experience to send the right engineer, with the right skillset, with potentially the right parts to the client. Which means that the client gets their product fixed quicker.”

Additionally, if none of the firm’s engineers have the required part, Gratte Brothers Catering Equipment partners with spares specialists to perform an overnight parts delivery straight into the back of the engineers’ vans to enable a next day fix.

Gilhooly said that all these steps are “a good example of our ‘customer first’ focus, comprising initiatives, software, technology and our commitment”, adding: “It also shows business excellence because it’s an example of how we are improving the products and services we are offering to the client.

Alain Roux’s Brasserie Prince at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh was one of Gratte Brothers’ recent projects.

“Ultimately it demonstrates how we should be able to grow and develop our business with new customers. We have always been successful at gaining great recommendations and referrals from existing clients to new ones. That is our best sales resource.”

New technology has also played a big part in keeping the firm’s design department at the forefront of the market. The department was previously able to produce CAD and DWG drawings, but the firm then recognised through the requirement to work to BIM level 2, on public sector projects especially, that “DWG is good but Revit is great”, according to Gilhooly. The switchover started around a year ago, with Gratte Brothers defaulting to drawing using Revit software in January 2018.

“Using Revit required us to retrain our staff and invest in both software and hardware. What we found is, although Revit is slightly more involved in terms of taking longer to produce an initial drawing, the quality of the drawing is dramatically better.

“We are also able to do 3D perspectives, walkthroughs in virtual and augmented reality, and quick- through to photographic-quality renders for our clients. It’s improved the aesthetics and helps our clients better understand what their kitchens will look like in reality, with revisions changed quicker. Then when it flips to being a technical drawing, it is more accurate, has more information and is far easier for our subcontractors and tradespeople to understand exactly what we require.”

Further technological investments include a forthcoming new website, due to initially go live in July, along with the firm’s first foray into social media. One of the third generation of the Gratte family, Victoria, is managing the transition, as social media and digital platform manager.

Gilhooly said: “We have an incredible story to tell and we are embracing new methods and ways of telling it.”

He analysed: “All the measures we are putting in place should translate into growth. We are fully committed to maintaining our focus on giving great customer service to our existing clients, but like any progressive company our aspiration is to grow.”

The business review and staff engagement process was prompted in part by Colin Barden’s arrival as MD last year, taking over from Ian Wolfe, who had worked his way through the firm from engineer to the top over 43 years. “Ian gave us 12 months’ notice that he was going to retire, which afforded the business the opportunity to plan a managed and phased process,” said Gilhooly.

Gratte Brothers was impressed with Barden’s wealth of commercial experience, having been in the catering trade towards the start of his career, and, immediately prior to his appointment, for an American fire and flood restoration firm which had comparable sales and maintenance departments to the distributor itself. Barden worked alongside Wolfe for 6 months to learn about the company and to strategise how to move the business forward, before starting to put those ideas into practice over the next 6 months.

Other recent staff additions are Dean Johnson and Lloyd Vivier, both as senior account managers. Johnson is well known in the industry, having worked for several well-known distributors – latterly at Bristol-based Tailor Made Catering Equipment Services. He is based in the midlands and will be proactively developing that area for Gratte Brothers. While Vivier is based locally to the distributor and will be focusing on growing the local region.

Gratte Brothers’ project at Bibendum involved installing a live oyster tank.

Gratte’s catering equipment division has also taken its first step into apprenticeships with the appointment of 19-year-old Saul Smith. “Saul is a local guy who had a passion to get involved with design, but he hadn’t managed to find the right opportunity since leaving college and was working in a local warehouse,” said Gilhooly. “He had the initiative to hand in his CV to us, so we used some of the group’s apprenticeship levy to train him to follow his dream. We have a responsibility to train young people and equip them with the skills and knowledge they need, because we want them to be here long term.” As part of the induction process, Smith has been out with the installation and project management teams, as well as visiting the Commercial Kitchen show.

The distributor is perhaps most well-known for its kitchen project prowess, winning three CEDA Grand Prix awards over the last few years (this year in the Small Project category for Steve Drake’s Sorrel restaurant in Dorking), as well as triumphing in last year’s Catering Insight Awards Distributor of the Year, Project Management category.

Gilhooly was at pains to emphasise that the firm can undertake all kinds of projects: “There really is nothing too small or large – we do a lot of work for independent operators as well as the larger end. We also carry out a lot of singular equipment replacement, where we still bring the same level of customer focus and service as a full project. We will use our expertise to advise our clients on the most appropriate replacement and give them good, better or best options.”

One large scheme which has just begun (though it won’t kick off in earnest until towards the end of this year) is the massive Society General scheme in Canary Wharf, London. The new 34 storey building will not be completed until early 2020, with Gratte Brothers tasked with installing catering areas on seven of those floors for its more than £1.6m contract.

The firm is also finishing off a job for the Crowne Plaza Hotel in London’s Embankment, as well as recently completing Brasserie Prince for Alain Roux at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh. Claude Bosi’s Bibendum in South Kensington, London, proved to be an unusual project, with the distributor outfitting the lobster and oyster bar which involved installing a live lobster tank.

An ongoing process for the kitchen design house is working with the famous Ritz hotel in London, with five projects already completed, refurbishing the dishwash and potwash areas, the silver room, the chemical store and the room service and Rivoli bar section, with more to come. Gilhooly detailed: “Each time we have completely stripped an area out, then re-built it from scratch to match with existing areas. The main challenge was to keep each section operational during the works, as The Ritz is a very busy establishment to work to very high standards.

“For instance, when we were doing the dishwash room, we ensured the hotel had additional dishwash provision in other areas of the kitchen. We actually went so far as to loan them dishwashers for the period of the project to help minimise disruption.”

Looking forward, Gilhooly believes: “We will continue to evolve and we will see further advancements in the design department in what we can produce. There will be a far bigger emphasis on flexible and remote methods of working. The initiatives we are putting into place will be successful and this will still be a great place to work.”

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