A new era has begun at Peterborough based catering equipment distributor, Caterfix, as founder David Iacono has now retired and handed the business onto brothers Ajaz and Idris Akhtar.
Ajaz is a familiar face in the industry, having spent 23 years in sales at refrigeration manufacturer Foster. He first encountered David when he was assigned as the Foster area manager for Caterfix in 1999, the year the dealer was established. “We became really good friends over that time, so I knew how Caterfix operated and what its line of business was,” recalled Ajaz. “David always used to jest with me and say ‘One day you are going to buy this business,’ and around 18 months ago we started to look at it a bit more seriously, did our due diligence and took it from there.”
Jumping the fence from manufacturer to dealer is a big step, especially when Ajaz was happy at Foster’s. “I knew the job inside out and I’d worked with some of the people there for my whole career. But the idea of buying a business with and for my family, which we could leave for our kids, was a lure. I’m at that age where if we didn’t do it now, we probably never would.”
So the Akhtar brothers took the plunge and raised the finance to buy the company, with Ajaz believing that the combination of his and Idris’ skillset is complementary. “My brother’s always run his own business and I’ve always been in the corporate world, so that combination gives us an angle on both of those sides,” he said.
And entrepreneurial innovation seems to be in the Akhtar blood, as they were the first Asian family to operate an ice cream van in England, back in 1977. Akhtar Ices was established by the brothers’ father, and Idris was involved in the business too.
Then in 1984, Idris started his own driving school. “I was the first Asian instructor in Peterborough and the first to cater for Muslim ladies,” he detailed. He also manages a property portfolio in the area.
As Caterfix’s commercial director, Idris focuses on the logistics side of the dealership, managing the firm’s warehouse, as well as equipment deliveries and collections, while MD Ajaz heads up the sales and business development aspects.
The family vibe is spread throughout the 14-strong staff roster too, as one of the siblings’ nephews is the company’s CAD designer for project work, with another starting a gas engineer apprenticeship at the firm, and Ajaz’s daughter Keeran is marketing executive.
Before Ajaz took over the day to day running of the business in November, he spent the couple of months prior getting to know the ins and outs of its operation. “This allowed me to start planning, because although I somewhat knew how the company operated, we came in with a vision. David had built up a fantastic business here and he’d learnt many lessons over the years on how to construct it, but we felt that to take it forward it needed a bit of modernisation such as a new website and a more professional warehouse.”
The reconditioned kit sold in Caterfix’s warehouse is arguably what the dealer is best known for, and previously David had an encyclopaedic knowledge of where any given piece of equipment was located. However, the appliances were not sorted into dedicated areas, and so the Akhtars set aside a whole weekend removing all the equipment, organising it into types, labelling everything and placing it back in a clear order. “That really required some hard physical graft,” Ajaz explained. “The machines are not light, so to move them around, clean them and print labels off for each one was a massive task.
“We have probably done 2-3 years’ worth of work in our first 6 months, it’s been a real 7 days a week effort – it amazes us.”
He reported that reorganising the warehouse has brought huge benefits. “Customers used to come in to pick up appliances and David would take them straight to the machine. Now we see people coming in to browse and shop, and they stay here for an hour. The longer they are here, the more they buy and enquire, and the more you get to know them.”
To mark the official reopening of the warehouse, Caterfix held a ‘Big Bash’ open day at its premises on 16 April. Manufacturers such as Foster, Rational, Hobart and Lincat exhibited in the dealer’s upstairs showroom and held cooking demonstrations. “The event was designed to show ‘look, we are the new Caterfix’, but it actually brought in business and we received £70,000 worth of orders off the back of it,” detailed Ajaz. “We also had leads for new kitchen projects, so we might turn it into an annual event.”
Furthermore, when Caterfix launched its new website in May, for the first time in the company’s history, it features an e-commerce section for its reconditioned equipment.
The site highlights all the reconditioned products the dealer has in stock at its warehouse, with full individual specifications and pictures. With over 2,000 appliances currently available, for the first time the new site offers Caterfix customers the ability to order online and arrange delivery across the UK.
Ajaz detailed: “In the marketplace now you have to have an e-commerce website. We think we’ve got a good product at a good price with our reconditioned offering, we just haven’t had the right marketing tools until this point to really take the company from a walk-in regional business to an online national or international business.”
He believes that the e-commerce step will open up the business to custom further afield, adding: “If we can get on the first page of Google when people search for used catering equipment, then we will sell lots of stock.”
The new site’s homepage features a comprehensive video profiling the Caterfix business and its offerings, plus a news section will keep visitors up to date with the latest happenings at the firm.
If the popularity of the reconditioned offering grows further, then the Akhtars could even look to add a mezzanine floor into its warehouse to house more equipment. “I’d say within the next 2 or 3 years we would either be looking for a bigger property or a second floor,” reported Ajaz. “The more products you have, as long as you can shift them quicker, the more revenue you generate.”
A lot of the products that end up in the dealer’s warehouse come from kitchen clearances, but Ajaz explained that his staff only tend to pick out equipment which needs minimal work. “Idris and his team pick up suitable products and then we safely dismantle everything and bring it all back to our workshop to be cleaned, tested and issued with gas and health and safety certificates, if necessary. Then each item gets transferred into the warehouse and now gets listed on the website. We give a 3 month warranty for everything.”
The firm has just taken on two more workshop engineers too, including an apprentice. Ajaz commented: “The biggest issue companies like us have is finding and retaining engineers so to train up your own people is a good option – we’ve done that several times. We do need younger blood in the industry too.”
But if anyone in the industry thinks Caterfix purely focuses on reconditioned appliances, then they are mistaken. In fact it is one of four evenly-spread pillars of the firm, with each one occupying around a quarter of the revenue. The rest comprise new equipment sales, kitchen design and project management, and service and maintenance.
Ajaz detailed: “I’d like each section of the business to increase in value, but proportionally. In this day and age as a distributor, you need to offer a good selection of services to survive, you can’t focus on one in particular. That means you can be a bit recession-proof.”
He ensures the maintenance side of the business concentrates on customer service, revealing: “You have to offer a 24/7 service these days. Once we get an enquiry or lead we have to get back to them quickly, and then keep them informed as to when the engineer is going to arrive.”
In terms of new equipment sales, Caterfix’s biggest brands are Hobart, Rational and Foster. “We only work with top manufacturers, because our entry and mid-level customers tend to buy the reconditioned equipment, so it’s only high end sites who want the new equipment – there’s no middle ground,” said Ajaz.
The projects side of the business usually works with smaller, independent sites such as nursing homes, local restaurants, hotels, schools and churches.
It is also an informal relationship with another dealer, General Catering Solutions, which offers another unique string to Caterfix’s bow. Ajaz worked with General’s MD, Amjad Alikhan, during his days at Foster, when he managed the sales to the distributor. “Amjad’s business is more of a traditional design- and national account-led dealer model,” said Ajaz. “But he is now getting more into reconditioned equipment.”
Amjad added: “Our skillset is synergistic. Ajaz’s background is predominantly refrigeration, whereas I have experience of all types of catering equipment, plus extraction and ventilation. Caterfix is very focused on the engineer side and we are really focused on logistics, so we are using both of our strengths.”
While Ajaz further explained: “Sometimes General does equipment pick-ups for us and vice versa, sometimes we buy in bulk together and also look at suppliers together.” Additionally, General looks at supplying unique equipment, such as the Rog Roll ’n’ Grill fully automated grill and roast system which the dealer officially launched at the Commercial Kitchen show in NEC Birmingham on 5-6 June.
Ajaz also believes that his and Amjad’s ethnic origin is a real advantage. “More than 70% of our customers are from an ethnic background, so to be able to speak the language, understand their culture and their way of thinking makes such a difference.
“The lack of Asian people at dealers and manufacturers amazes me, considering how many customers are from that ethnic angle. I think this might be because the Asian community only knows restaurants and retail stores, they don’t know the trade behind them.”
Amjad further posited: “We are a people that build very careful, small block-type companies. We don’t take big risks, so we restrict ourselves to small businesses.”
Nevertheless, Ajaz has taken on the Caterfix management with gusto. “I’ve got back to what I enjoy doing, speaking to customers, selling, negotiating, looking after people and offering good, professional service,” he enthused.
The company’s turnover has been consistently around the £1.25-1.5m mark for the last 10 years and Ajaz wants to see that grow steadily, within the business’ limits.
He concluded: “I’m wary of making mistakes I know distributors have made, in terms of stretching themselves too far. I’ve had really good relationships with dealers over the years and I learned what happened to them, so now I want to take that knowledge into my own business.”