On 24 April, Kent-based kitchen design house KCCJ will be marking its 20th anniversary. And while its staff may find a treat waiting for them on that day, the real reward is arguably celebrating the firm’s biggest ever project nearing completion – that of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club’s new stadium in north London.
But when the company began in 1998, it was a rather different beast. Owner and MD Kevin Slatter was then working for Granada but decided to set up on his own with three of his colleagues. “We started with six core clients which I took with me, including Little Chef, Welcome Break, Jury’s Inn Hotels and Hand Picked Hotels,” he told Catering Insight.
“For quite a few years we kept the company small and looked after these core clients, because having worked for a big organisation, I’d always thought the pressure of that was just a bit too much.”
However, KCCJ did grow steadily over that period to around 11 employees, and then a big break came in 2004 when the firm was invited to be part of the fit-out for Arsenal Football Club’s new Emirates stadium. But when the original designers and caterers stepped away from the project, KCCJ stepped up to take the whole thing on and score its first major stadia and arena sector win, worth a massive £8.25m.
These blue riband schemes have formed key milestones along the distributor’s two decade journey, with a project at the O2 arena in London starting the very next day after the Emirates completion, followed by stints at the Hydro arena in Glasgow, Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club, and other major London venues including Olympia, Lord’s Cricket Ground and ExCel.
Being well known for these mammoth undertakings can have unintended consequences though, according to commercial director Kerry Slatter: “It does have its side effects, in that it frightened a lot of smaller clients.”
Kevin added: “We still have our core businesses that we started with and they are really important to us. Although the big jobs are nice, they are not continuous, and they are all hard work and extremely time consuming. But every Travelodge or Welcome Break we do, we have to put the same level of effort into it and still look after the client. We would love to win more smaller projects and we are trying to get that message out there.”
The larger projects have not necessarily meant a massive expansion in permanent staff though. Kevin emphasised: “We always have a team of top people and project managers, bringing the management structure together to make sure we’re employing the right people on behalf of the client.”
The rest of the personnel usually comprises agency hires and subcontractors (around 160 people were onsite at the Emirates, for example), who work under the guidance of the KCCJ management team. Currently, permanent employees stand at 32 people, with 10 taken on at the temporary office onsite at Tottenham to oversee the project until completion, in time for the 2018/19 Premier League season. “This scheme really brings into play all of our services, from consultancy, through projects and construction. We’ve actually been developing it for 8 years, helping Tottenham to make its new asset work better,” said Kevin, adding: “There’ll be enough core work for our extra personnel once Tottenham finishes. We have got other projects we are working on, so as one comes to an end, another one matures.
“We have always been recognised and praised as striking up a good working relationship with the client and the main contractors, bridging the gap between the two.”
He acknowledged that the distributor struggled with these huge workloads when it first broke into the stadia sector though. “A lot of projects took up so much of our time that when finished them we found we had a gap, because nobody was looking at where we were going.”
The business has worked on smoothing out these gaps in recent years and to that end, Kerry explained: “The projects side has been expanded so that it can grow and develop new business, so that when Tottenham finishes, everyone can be absorbed back into that.”
While KCCJ was using subcontractors for the construction work to floors, walls and ceilings, Kevin reported that this was sometimes not going in the direction the dealer wanted. “A lot of the work we were doing was quite small and to a builder it was not necessarily its main priority. Although we were still doing a good job for the client, those elements were letting us down a bit.”
Therefore about 8 years ago the business took the decision to bring the construction project management in house too. Expansion continued in 2016 when it opened a dedicated design consultancy office in Rochester, alongside its Dartford headquarters, which remained the home for its projects and construction operations.
“We couldn’t fit any more people in our existing building,” revealed Kerry. She now is heading up the search for a new, larger joint headquarters to bring all teams back under the same roof, which the company is pencilling in to take place in the next couple of years.
Kevin said of the consultancy expansion: “When we started in consultancy, there were still views that you could not be a consultant and have an interest in projects. Our experienced consultancy team are not influenced at all by the projects team, they actually always work on the client’s behalf.
“A lot of the designs we create are purely initially as consultants and then we get asked if we want to tender for them and take on the whole package. Sometimes the tender is awarded to another distributor and we make sure we give them every bit of support to ensure the client gets the job we designed. But we do find more clients now feel that one company works better for them.”
More very recent change at KCCJ involves an expansion into interior design. “As so much of the industry has moved towards open kitchens, the look and feel of them have generally been led by the architects,” Kevin revealed.
“We’ve worked with many architects and we have a great rapport with them, but they tend to lead from a different angle, in that from their perspective, look and feel is all that’s important. Whereas we are working in an environment where we need to consider operation and hygiene. When the two approaches clash, it’s because the architects are coming up with finishes that don’t work from a practical point of view.
“There are lots of finishes that would work hygienically for kitchens and also satisfy an architect’s requirements, so we are trying to be a little different and now giving a proposal where we join the look and feel between back and front of house. Therefore we hired an interior designer at the beginning of this year and she is bringing in different perspectives to what we have previously done.”
Another additional string to KCCJ’s bow is the in-house chef it has had onboard for the last 2 years. “Danny understands how to develop menus and put rotas together,” said Kevin. “He’s been very useful for projects like Tottenham and can help to tailor a kitchen package to our clients.
“We’ve also done work for some clients to help them reduce their spend, looking at rotas and where they could have food made offsite. Having that resource has helped a lot there.”
He further added: “Our projects business has become a little bit more forward-thinking. We’ve tried a few things which I think are long term and will pay off. For instance we have now got our own researcher who came from outside the industry and is doing some fantastic work for us just trying to understand the market.
“The way we’ve done business in the past is to make sure we do an excellent job, and through recommendations pick up more work. That has been very successful for us but we are trying to get out there more and market ourselves.
“When we started that process we were contacting people in market sectors which had already reached their peak. So we took a long term view and we brought somebody in to research the markets to see what was and wasn’t working, and the sectors we should be in.”
This initiative resulted in KCCJ hiring someone to work through main contractors, better supporting them, as well as employing a dedicated salesperson targeting contractors. “We are trying to make sure we are approaching people of a like-mind to ourselves,” Kevin explained. “We would much prefer to find clients who are looking for a good service. We are never going to be the cheapest because we work hard on delivering, and that’s why I think we’ve managed to maintain lots of the companies that we first started with.”
KCCJ has a family vibe throughout, because as well as father and daughter Kevin and Kerry, Kevin’s wife Julie and her son also work at the firm, plus consultant Bob Russell and his design technician daughter Roela Chisnall, and estimator Elizabeth Parsons is aunt to Abby Radenhurst in the service department.
Kerry herself joined the company in 2003 and has worked her way through the ranks since then, starting in administration and estimating, moving on to project management, before coming back to estimation when the team started to build, and subsequently running the project management and estimating department. “When the team is originally quite small it helps because you learn all the facets of a business,” she commented.
And from a small acorn, the firm has definitely grown into a mighty oak. Beginning from an annual turnover of around £3.5m, last year KCCJ posted £11.5m in revenue. With some of the Tottenham stadium and other project revenue coming through in the kitchen design house’s latest financial year, which runs to the end of May, Kevin is predicting a substantial £20-25m total.
“Our turnover does fluctuate depending on the size of the projects,” he said. “But that doesn’t necessarily affect our profitability, because if we are doing a huge amount of work on the design side then that’s more profitable than adding a margin to a piece of kit.”
Kerry added: “Every year the style of job changes. Certain clients will spend one year but not the next, so it’s really hard to forecast what’s coming.”
According to Kevin: “Our business is becoming more diverse. Not as many clients are spending, so we need to develop what we are doing with the ones that are, and ask them to put more through us. For example, we even helped Tottenham to create a bespoke lightwares package.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is KCCJ’s commitment to internal investment, however. “The biggest investment has been in our people, for individual training and software. We have now got five Revit stations, which is quite unusual,” he said.
“Plus we are trying to use more interactive conference calls and go-to meetings, via Skype, and we have invested in a new high tech screen where you can model on the screen, take snapshots and send it off to other people.
“Speed of service is now so important to our customers and so we have huge amounts of technology to enable this, but we are not necessarily linking it together as well as we’d like to, so we are going through a phase of looking at that.”
In terms of the criteria KCCJ uses to partner with manufacturers, Kerry reported: “Sometimes its client led. Certain customers will tell us what they want and we’ll work to get the best deals for them with the brands they’ve requested.”
Kevin further detailed: “Most of the big packages would go out to tender, because we have to show the client we have done due diligence. We rely on our experience as well, the manufacturers we know that have good back-up. We are part of the ENSE buying group too, and they have got some good suppliers in there that we utilise.”
To push the company forward, Kevin reported that: “We have empowered our projects staff, because we were previously shackling them a little, and they are now rising to the occasion. They are getting out there, visiting people and re-establishing links. It’s all very positive.
“My plan is to ease off a bit and share more responsibilities, but I will continue to stay here to support the good people we have. I want to encourage them and help them to gain confidence.”
Kerry underlined: “One of the most positive things I’ve seen over the last 6 months is that the relationships between our staff are good and they are all communicating well. That will be better still when we come back together in one building.”
While Kevin concluded: “This industry changes so rapidly, you need to be able to adapt. We are extremely financially strong as a company – we have to be, because of the size of projects we get involved with – and this also means we don’t mind taking a few risks.
“The last few years we have developed rapidly. We have made a few internal mistakes but we have corrected them and we would now like to operate where we plan each step as we go.”