30 years ago this month, Andrew Nisbet followed his father into the commercial kitchen business and spotted a gap in the market to supply essential chef items to college catering students. Today, Bristol-based Nisbets stocks 20,000 products, turns over £180m a year and has been described as “the Amazon of the cookery business”.
Now chairman of Nisbets, Catering Insight caught up with the man whose company has pioneered mail order catalogue sales and ‘next day delivery’ to reflect on three decades in the catering equipment market.
What were your initial aspirations for Nisbets when you launched the business back in 1983? Did you ever envisage it would one day become a £180m operation employing 600 people?
To survive the first year! The initial aspiration for Nisbets back in 1983 was to provide catering students with a wide range of high quality equipment at the best available price, in the shortest timeframe possible. 30 years later and those values still remain at the heart of the Nisbets business, albeit with a customer base that has extended from local students to catering operations nationwide, throughout Europe and across the globe. When I started out, size was never the driving force behind Nisbets. It has always been about ensuring that our customers can rely on us for the highest levels of service, great prices and speed of delivery.
What have been your most memorable highlights over the last 30 years?
In all honesty, it has actually been thousands of small things rather than one or two major highlights. There have been so many achievements and milestones along the way, from opening our first shop to the launch of our website, that it is difficult to pinpoint one or two memorable highlights.
What factors have ensured that Nisbets has been able to continuously grow its business during that time?
I think that by becoming a one-stop-shop for our customers we have helped to ensure that no matter what equipment they are searching for, Nisbets is the first place they turn to. We have also made it easy for our customers to find us. Whether they prefer to order via the web, via the phone or to turn up in person at one of our shops, Nisbets is extremely accessible. Behind of all this is a constant re-evaluation of the basics. It is for exactly this reason that we now offer telephone ordering on a Sunday and an even later cut-off time for next day delivery of 5pm.
We also ensure that our brands are continually innovating, so that we have the very latest equipment developments at a price that our customers can afford. By remaining at the heart of the catering industry, Nisbets is able to ensure that it continues to offer the highest quality products that are key to making a caterer’s life easier. In such a fast paced environment, our customers need to know that once their order is placed, they can forget about it and be safe in the knowledge that we will do the rest. With equipment being such an important part of a catering operation, the slightest downtime can bring a business to its knees.
What would you say has been the toughest moment working for the business over the past 30 years?
There have been a number of dark moments which I would prefer to forget!
How much involvement do you have with the business these days? Do you tend to play a more hands-on role than the ‘average’ company chairman because you founded the business?
The business is run by a very capable team nowadays. I do still get involved in some areas of the business though.
Nisbets is renowned for its mail order catalogues, but in other industries the influence of mail order as a sales channel has significantly declined in the past decade. Do you see the same happening in the catering supplies world, especially with internet sales growing rapidly?
As technology develops, it is important that an organisation is flexible enough to ensure that it quickly forms part of the offering. It needs to be incorporated into what you offer, however in the catering industry the need for chefs and caterers to have something that they can quickly grab is still very important. It is for exactly this reason that we give caterers all options, dependent on their preferred route. It is interesting to see chefs using the technology of Twitter to tweet excitedly when their traditional Nisbets catalogue arrives on the desk — I have yet to see the same happen when they get an email from us!
How much of Nisbets’ business comes from the internet these days and how satisfied is the company with the online presence it currently has?
The internet is obviously a key element of our business and we are constantly in dialogue with our customers about how they use all our websites and how their online experience can be improved. Our independently-operated FEEFO scheme allows users to feedback directly on the Nisbets site on both their purchase and their experience and this is just one way in which we have used the internet to improve our service.
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Seven years after founding Nisbets you acquired Red Ball, which signalled your first move towards serving the trade/wholesale market. How challenging has it been to manage this side of the business given that trade customers ostensibly compete with the main Nisbets operation?
The formation of RB Distributors 23 years ago has allowed us to provide a focused, all-round service to the very important distributor network, which Nisbets would not have been able to achieve alone. Because RB Distributors is operated as a separate business it can quite easily compete against Nisbets in the same way that it would other competitors in the market place. It may sound strange, but although we share central services RB Distributors is dedicated to its own customer base, and believe me they would not let Nisbets come between them and their client!
Nisbets now has a direct office presence in nine countries following the opening of a US subsidiary in Baltimore last year. How would you summarise your international activities today and to what extent are they important to the future of Nisbets?
It is important that Nisbets has an international reach, especially with many groups looking to secure international contracts, rather than just merely national or EMEA contracts. We are continuously looking at the global picture and assessing where Nisbets should fit within it.
What do you regard as the biggest or most significant change to the world of catering equipment and supplies since you founded the business?
I think it would be difficult to look any further than how the worldwide web has changed not just catering equipment, but our life in general. Saying that, I also believe that in an ever-changing world, old fashioned values and good service remain key to success and I hope that by ensuring this continues to be at the heart of all the changes Nisbets embraces, we will be in the perfect place to start building for the next 30 years.
What does the future hold for Nisbets over the next five years?
One thing I have learnt in the last 30 years is that predicting the future is a very dangerous occupation, and one which I normally get wrong! As such, I would like to say what I hope the next five years hold, and that is that Nisbets continues to offer the very best service, prices and delivery to its customers, and that in doing so the company continues to enjoy the successes that it has experienced since 1983.
Nisbets: 30 years of catering supplies
1983 Nisbets is formed by Andrew Nisbet.
1987 First mail order catalogue is launched.
1990 Acquisition of Red Ball takes place. It becomes RB Distributors, the wholesale division of Nisbets.
1996 Irish branch is established in Cork.
2000 Expansion into the Netherlands.
2004 Nisbets moves to new HQ in Avonmouth, Bristol.
2005 Trade counter at Avonmouth is opened and French business is launched in Paris.
2008 Giant warehouse and office built at Avonmouth.
2009 Nisbets takes over famous London catering equipment store Pages on Shaftesbury Avenue.
2010 Australian business is launched following the acquisition of Caterers Warehouse.
2012 Third UK store is opened in Birmingham and USA operation is launched in Baltimore.