Schools in their Court

Business has come full circle for London distributor, Court Catering Equipment, according to its MD, Nick Howe.

“We have gone back to our roots, as 90% of our business is in house,” he reported. The firm still takes on some consultancy work, but the majority of its orders are for complete turnkey projects.

“You have more control if you are designing a kitchen,” Howe added. “And with consultant-led business, the opportunity of making any profit on it is slim, so you have to work on the volume.”

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As Court has always had a strong focus on design, its existing experienced team is more than able to cope with the shift back towards fully in-house projects. The firm still can and does take on stand-alone work too, however.

Over a third of its 28 staff is in the service and maintenance side of the business, and this is another focus for the company. “We are looking to grow our maintenance arm over the next 18 months to 2 years,” detailed Howe. “A lot of companies don’t like working in London which is understandable, as servicing is carried out outside working hours. That is the only time the kitchens are available.”

To this end, in the past 3 years Court has taken on two apprentices in its service department and trained them. Both now have full commercial gas qualifications and one of them will obtain electrical qualifications towards the end of this year too. “The service department is the backbone of any company, so we are looking to hire more apprentices,” said Howe. “We always strive to provide the highest level of service we can.”

The distributor is very strong in the educational market, as well as winning contracts with hotels, stadiums and casinos. In particular the UIFSM programme provided a spike of work last year, with Court set to record more than a 25% turnover increase at the end of this financial year in April. “There was a lot of business; we had a projection last year and we’ve exceeded that by quite some way,” said Howe.

However he is not so sure that the same volume of work will be available this year. “It’s not certain, as budgets won’t be released until the next government comes in, which won’t be until May.” Nevertheless, Court already has school work booked in during the July and August holidays.

Howe hopes that some of his company’s suppliers will not be caught out as they were last year. “A number of the refrigeration and server companies couldn’t meet the demand,” he recalled. “Fabrication was also a problem. This year, one of our fabricators is already fully booked for August, partly through us.” There may be even more primary school work in the future too, if the new government decides to include junior schools in the UIFSM scheme. [[page-break]]

Court is always looking for new suppliers, particularly ones which have innovative products that can meet the demands of its broad client base. “We look for the level of service and support too, not just from our particular contact but also the internal staff that get to know our team,” Howe said.

“We pride ourselves on specifying and providing the right equipment for the right job,” he added. However: “All too often the client’s budget won’t go to the level of equipment they should have for the service quality they want to provide.”

The distributor’s existing suppliers seem to be very pleased with their relationships though, as cooking equipment manufacturer MKN awarded the company its European dealer of the year title last year, and warewashing supplier Meiko has given Court the accolade of partner distributor of the year for the past two years. Howe attributes these wins to his company’s teamwork.

Over the last year or two, a number of northern dealers have looked to enter the London market, but this does not worry Howe. “Any competition is healthy. It enables us to demonstrate to the client what we can offer – a higher, quicker level of service. That may not be so apparent when a project is ongoing, because our competitors allocate project managers to it. But once a project is finished, we can get someone onsite quickly if that’s what our customers want.”

Court doesn’t remain in London and the Home Counties for its business, however. “We are always surprised at the number of projects we carry out around the country each year,” explained Howe. “We don’t really go looking for this business, we get asked to do it by clients or somebody recommends us.”

His view on the wave of ongoing distributor consolidation is that it’s good for the market. “There is a lot of competition and I think a lot of the manufacturers are retreating from some of their approaches to the marketplace. The dealer is becoming stronger and there’s always room for more because people move on and change.”

Court’s recent completed projects include aviation catering service provider Alpha LSG’s culinary centre and production kitchen at Heston and refurbishing a kitchen at The Queen’s Club tennis club in London – a catering area which Court itself originally installed over 25 years ago. Furthermore, last year the firm provided advice on creating a Peyton and Byrne restaurant kitchen in the Imperial War Museum.

The business’ forward orderbook seems to be healthy too. “Around 5 years ago we were only planning 3-6 months ahead but now we are looking 6-9 months in advance in terms of our workload,” reported Howe. On an ongoing basis it is working with ramen bar chain, Bone Daddies and Belgian patisserie, Le Pain Quotidien.

Also in the pipeline are turnkey projects for two London universities with big expansion plans – one trainee university and one high profile establishment. Furthermore, Court will be outfitting Living Rooms’ new boutique hotel in Notting Hill opening in May, called The Laslett. “This will have a different approach to catering, as they are bringing food in on more of a sous vide basis,” Howe reported.

The company has also sourced fabricators to build a wine tower for Robert Wilson’s (owner of The Bleeding Heart and Sign of the Don) new wine shop, opening in March. Heading internationally, a big project in Paris is also in the offing for Court.

Howe predicts further growth in the dining out market and hopes for more business from that sector. In terms of challenges in the near future, he sees some of the health and safety requirements from some of his company’s main contractors as onerous and the paperwork duplication can cause issues too.

An ongoing challenge is cashflow. “It’s not that the cash isn’t there, it’s just not come our way,” he commented. “Some of our clients can be very slow in paying and it gets frustrating. Customers and cashflow are the keys. If you’ve got those, you can survive."

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