Distributor OBCE bids to branch out

Phil Alexander, owner of Olive Branch Catering Equipment, is candid enough to admit that after several years of sustained turnover growth, there is a distinct possibility that the level of business it does may “plateau” in 2014.

But this revelation is not linked to any troubled conditions that it foresees in the market, but a direct reflection of where the business has come from, where it is going, and the transitions it is currently undergoing to reach there. Olive Branch brought in sales of just over £3m last year, a million more than it did the previous year as it won a host of larger supply and install contracts.

While the company will naturally do all it can to repeat that performance in 2014, Alexander concedes that its first priority is to get its house in order so that it can really push on in 2015.

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“We feel that we may well plateau slightly this year, we might reach £3.5m, at a push we might get to £4m,” he explains. “But the idea this year is to reform the foundations and make sure the back-of-house operations are water-tight to push forward to 2015 when we are going to be aiming for above £4.5m.”

The internal changes that the Cambridgeshire-based distributor is implementing are being carried out on multiple fronts and even include the relocation to a larger office building.

“The new office is four miles up the road, it has got a larger administration area upstairs and a larger warehouse downstairs. The offices upstairs will enable us to have administration staff of up to 20-plus,” explains Alexander, who adds that the company is also close to securing ISO 14000.

While the building is currently larger than it requires, Olive Branch is confident that it can grow into the facility, safe in the knowledge that it has additional room to scale. Not surprisingly, then, expanding the workforce, which currently totals 11 people, is on the agenda for 2014.

It is on the look-out for sales, project and regional service staff, while it has recently hired a new area sales manager to build the service division and manage light equipment and spot sales, and promoted an internal sales junior to a project-based role. It hasn’t all being incoming traffic, however. The reshuffle has seen Olive Branch sever ties with some former employees in order to rebuild the structure.

Perhaps most significantly on the personnel front is the recruitment of Garry Bilbow in the role of operations director — Olive Branch’s most senior appointment to date. He brings with him an extensive management background from his time in the logistics sector and will take some of the operational burden off of Alexander.

“Garry is very experienced in back-of-house operations, strategy and analytics, so him coming into the business will enable me to start getting back out there to see the clients, the consultants and generate business.”

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Olive Branch will be seven-years-old this year, and while changes are afoot internally, Alexander insists the emphasis has always been on achieving “steady growth”. Relationships it has developed with building contractors such as Wilmott Dixon, Balfour Beatty, Leadbitters and BAM have been a fundamental part of this, leading to lucrative repeat business.

“These companies are coming back to us because they can see the ethos of Olive Branch and understand the customer values that we have got. So even though we are a small business in many people’s eyes compared to some distributors in the market, the repeat business we are getting is just absolutely phenomenal,” he says.

Subsequently, Olive Branch has progressed from delivering projects typically worth less than £100,000 to schemes valued at upwards of a quarter of a million pounds. It currently has quotes out for larger scheme work in the region of £750,000. One of the latest projects to land on its plate involves a staff catering facility at Arcadia in London. It will install an open kitchen designed by foodservice consultants Tricon, with work set to commence in July.

Up until now, Olive Branch has been heavily focused on the education sector, delivering more than 20 school and college projects in August and September of last year alone. While that emphasis will continue, the award of the Arcadia contract, coupled with projects such as the Everyman Theatre, which took it into the leisure and hospitality sector, signal its intent to diversify. A large brewery chain is even understood to be considering appointing the company to carry out projects for it in the south.

Alexander says the firm recognises that it needs to spread its wings if it wishes to reach its long-term growth targets, which is one of the reasons its latest recruits are tasked with developing sales in sectors it hasn’t traditionally been associated with.

Tellingly, it also preparing for a degree of sluggishness within the education sector at some stage next year, underlining why the company feels it is important to break into new markets.

“We think education is going to drop off towards the end of this year, but we do believe that the hotel and restaurant sectors — especially the hotel sector — are going to pick up at a fast pace. You are going to see a massive change in the market in the third quarter, there is going to be a lot of hotel work going on.”

As long as it’s getting a slice of the action, it will have no complaints.

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