Abraxas has plenty at 20

Rob Wendy Mike Abraxas crop
Abraxas MD Rob Woodward, financial director Wendy Woodward and sales manager Mike Nixon.

There is much to celebrate for Abraxas Catering Equipment in its 20th year. The Kidderminster-based distributor has grown by a third in recent times, from an annual turnover of £700,000 to the current forecasted turnover of £1.2m.

Having steadily maintained revenue of between £500,000 and £700,000 since Rob Woodward started the company in 1998, he wanted to move the business forwards and so hired experienced industry executive Mike Nixon as sales manager around 18 months ago. Nixon recalled: “Rob was quite aware that the business couldn’t stand still, otherwise it would eventually start going backwards.”

The two put their heads together and analysed that the reconditioned equipment market wasn’t massive and that future growth would be more likely on the design and build projects side. “Our recent growth has very much been from the bigger projects we have gone out and successfully won,” said Nixon. “But we won them through offering the service and support rather than offering them cheaply.”

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He praised Woodward’s technical knowledge and skills, as Abraxas’ MD is an engineer by trade, both Gas Safe and electrically qualified. Woodward established the company himself in a local mobility shop, and through several office moves around Kidderminster, the firm has been at its Firs Industrial Estate premises now since 2006.

Headcount has increased over the years, starting from one engineer to currently a team of three plus Woodward, Nixon in sales, Woodward’s wife Wendy as financial director, and Tony White as office administrator. These seven could soon be joined by two more engineers, as the dealer is looking to add one in the install team and another in the service team. “We’ve already got a nice mix of engineers, with a couple of specialist fault finders and a couple expert at installation,” commented Nixon.

The 20th anniversary hasn’t gone unmarked either. As well as a logo redesign to celebrate the milestone, the distributor has chosen to fundraise for the Midlands Air Ambulance Charity (MAAC) all year. Wendy Woodward and Tony White both abseiled down the full 18 stories of the Hampton by Hilton Hotel, Birmingham, in May, while the dealer also organised a World Cup sweepstake. Together these events have so far generated over £600. Then throughout 2018, Abraxas is donating all the scrap metal profits from the sale of second hand equipment and fabrications to MAAC.

For new fabrications, Abraxas uses an external company, and this side of the business is ramping up, as it is progressing into front of house installations including counters. Having already completed some combined kitchen and servery jobs at venues such as cafes, Nixon detailed: “We are incorporating more design presentations to our customers and we wanted to get to a point where we can do almost everything for them: design a scheme, install it and service it afterwards, combining a holistic approach.”

This turnkey aim has seen the firm’s engineers carry out PVC wall cladding and design and install ventilation systems, plus it has partnered up with a sub-contractor for both safety and feature flooring. Further partnership with a joinery company also allows Abraxas to now offer its shopfit counter solutions, including Corian worktops and laminate facades.

The combination of Nixon bringing with him existing contacts and Woodward’s engineering knowledge and skills is really driving the expansion into larger projects. “We can offer the type of relationship management our customers want, whether that’s technical or sales query answers, because we have different skills in the business,” said Nixon.

These complementary skillsets have seen recent projects such as a £160,000 scheme for Proctor & Gamble’s head office in Weybridge, Surrey, on behalf of contract caterer Compass, a kitchen for Asda’s new concept café in its Patchway, Bristol superstore, and an upcoming large installation for the University of Exeter. Nixon revealed: “These relationships have developed slowly and are taking us further afield, but mainly we are trying to stick to a 30-mile radius from Kidderminster. Going further is a learning curve for all of us, especially about how to manage customers’ expectations in terms of service response levels.”

Abraxas is moving more into front of house fitouts, such as this recently-completed café.

It is the contract catering, education and business and industry sectors overall which have been generating the mainstay of Abraxas’ recent portfolio, with Nixon estimating 30% of its customers are schools, 30% independent restaurants and the remainder local venues such as tourist attractions or garden centres. According to Nixon: “We have a nice mix of customers and we are working to iron out project peaks and troughs so we can maintain a level turnover throughout the year.”

In terms of the overall company profile, design and install comprises around 40% of work, with 40% on servicing and the other 20% on one-off sales.

As the size of projects has grown, Abraxas has bolstered Woodward’s own CAD capacity and freed up some of his time by outsourcing some work to a local CAD designer. “It works in an-almost employed capacity for us because they understand how we like our designs done and they are very good,” said Nixon.

CAD isn’t the only outsourced element of the company however. The human resources and health and safety roles are also provided by partner companies. “So many of the support services you can buy in, you don’t need to have all those people under your own umbrella,” Nixon believes. “For us, it’s really about developing the frontline staff like service engineers, people that support our customers.”

When asked what he believes Abraxas’ unique selling points are, Nixon responded: “We give people honest and frank advice, we’re approachable and we’ve got the skills in the business to look at both the back and front of house. As I used to be a chef, I can advise which equipment to use for a specific type of menu, while Rob can immediately advise on technical works.”

While Wendy Woodward emphasised: “We offer a personal service and we’re family-oriented. It will always be a named person answering the phone – customers are not put through to a call centre.”

Nixon added: “We deliver what we say we will too, and we don’t walk away from any job afterwards, we always diarise a follow-up call and servicing visits.”

The distributor can offer kitchen ventilation design and outfit.

Another cornerstone of the distributor’s success is its financial stability. The firm negotiates incremental financial terms with its customers that are beneficial for both parties, getting deposits upfront and arranging payment in instalments. Furthermore, for smaller repair jobs and the like, Abraxas asks for full payment upfront with pro forma invoices.

These measures help the firm to negotiate payment terms with its own suppliers, with Wendy Woodward underlining: “I like to pay the bills on time, it’s something I am very aware of.” Nixon added: “It buys us loyalty from our suppliers, and because of that they will put themselves out for us.”

The distributor has built up long-term relationships with its suppliers and regularly uses Blue Seal and Lincat for prime cooking equipment, Rational combi ovens, Maidaid Halcyon or Hobart for warewashing and Foster for refrigeration. In addition, Nixon reported the firm has bought its first Synergy Grill for the University of Exeter project, and has also started using Induced Energy cookers. “We trade on relationships with our customers and our suppliers. We choose suppliers who look after us – that can answer queries quickly and assist us.”

Abraxas also sources brands through its membership of buying consortium Cedabond. “Our membership helps us obtain good payment terms and special offers, and we get to hear about business developments first as well,” said Nixon. “It gives us peace of mind that Cedabond has vetted the suppliers, because there are a lot of foreign products coming into the markets nowadays. We are also set up on CaterQuotes and all our Cedabond suppliers are our primary choice on there because there’s a degree of faith they are of reasonable quality.”

Over the past 12 months the company has made several investments, including upgrading its IT systems, updating its website and expanding the office space. “We’ve still got an extra bit of the mezzanine level available so if we need to we can still expand further without affecting the space on the ground floor for our workshops and warehouse,” revealed Nixon. The warehouse can be used to temporarily house stock, while the workshop is used to repair equipment. In total, the distributor has 3,800ft2 of space to play with.

Abraxas is always looking at greener ways to operate, especially with three vans on the road. Nixon himself is setting an example by driving an electric car, while the whole company aims to demonstrate it is selling energy efficient equipment.

In fact, this is one point of the company’s ‘Abraxas Way’ ethos, which sets out its promises and commitments to its customers. Its policies include treating clients and staff with respect, working in partnership and giving honest assessments and practical solutions, nurturing and building relationships, encouraging innovation and exceeding expectations.

Going forward, Nixon commented: “I would like to see turnover doubled, but with the client base fairly static, so I’d like to get as much value out of our existing customers as possible. We want steady growth so we can remain a friendly, approachable company, growth that matches what we are achieving.”

New services

Abraxas Catering Equipment is adding new strings to its bow with the recent introduction of rental packages for dishwashers. It already has several customers who have taken up leasing packages, and it also works with Hobart to offer 0% finance.

Nixon detailed: “We are offering an all-encompassing maintenance contract for these machines to certain types of customers within a small geographical area from us, so that we can manage it. If they have a problem we will go and fix it or replace the machines.”

The Snak Shak kiosk has been designed by Abraxas for schools.

Nixon reported that the distributor is potentially considering expanding the leasing to upright refrigerators too. “We are trying to capture some of the price objections that smaller customers have. However, we will only deal with limited companies and not sole traders.”

Plus another latest offering from Abraxas is the Snak Shak, a foodservice retail pod developed particularly for schools. “We have installed these across the country for schools that are looking to expand their food offer, and it’s contract caterers which tend to order them,” Nixon said. “As it is an interlocking system it can be any size, so we are also talking to one customer at the moment about using it to put a kitchen in.”

The kiosk can be permanently pitched, but it is also designed for easy removal and repositioning. Each unit is externally water and weather proof and requires electric and water supplies, with optional drainage.

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Clare Nicholls

The author Clare Nicholls

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