It was April 1976 when Trevor Skinner started working at Marshall Catering Equipment, an arrangement that came about by accident after the former navy electrician helped the company’s then owner, Tony Marshall, wire up some dishwashers.
Some 37 years later the business that Skinner ended up buying just a few years after he joined the company is still going strong, testimony to its ability to keep pace with the huge amount of change that has taken place in the industry since.
Skinner has seen the internet completely pull the rug from underneath the dealer market’s feet and speculates on the damage that wafer-thin margins are doing to the industry’s profitability, but at the end of the day he says people will always need equipment supplied and serviced. “In all the years I have been in business there has never been a lack of enquiries for catering equipment,” he remarks.
The real reason for Marshall Catering’s staying power, however, is more likely to be found in the way the company has gone about its business over the years. While it remains as ambitious as any other, it hasn’t necessarily pursued the sort of unrealistic and aggressive growth that has possibly been the downfall of some contemporaries. On the project side, especially, it tends to limit itself to jobs that it only knows it’s capable of doing.
Skinner describes the company as “fairly small”, with four people managing equipment and project sales, and eight people working on the service and maintenance side.
Overall, the business brought in sales of more than £2m last year, but the company still prefers to operate the two divisions at arm’s length of each other to avoid any conflict.
Marshall’s remit has changed considerably over the years, as you’d perhaps except for a company now in its fourth decade of trading. It used to play in the second-hand equipment space, but moved away from that area as legislation tightened. Then, as the first of the discount internet shops sprang up, it ploughed more resources into securing larger project work.
Last year it fitted the main catering facility at Rotherham United Football Club’s new stadium, a £350,000 job that represents its biggest contract to date.
Skinner insists the size of the company is actually one of its chief assets, with employees willingly accepting the need to adopt a “multi-faceted” approach for the sake of the business’s growth. Naturally, Marshall thinks of itself as punching above its weight, which it clearly relishes. “We are all dependent on one another to make it through the year and get our level of turnover enough to provide the costs that we incur,” says Skinner.
The emphasis on service has also shielded the company from the more volatile world of just supplying equipment and the impact this has had on its financial performance can’t be under-estimated.
“We are very heavily into service,” says Skinner. “All our engineers are gas engineers and refrigeration engineers, so we cover the full spectrum. We have got a lot of longstanding service contract customers — we are more into planned maintenance than proactive maintenance but we still offer a call-out service to people.
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While the company’s local patch is Yorkshire, it is quite willing to spread its wings in search of work.
“We like to say we cover the northern region because we are not frightened of going up to Newcastle and down to Sheffield, and across to Lincoln and the East Coast. I think on the [equipment] sales side it is more cut-throat, which is why we are as small as we are. You just can’t build up the overheads. The best thing we ever did was get heavily into service because we control our own cost to a point.”
Fellow director Jonathan Skinner says that in the years the Leeds-based company has been trading it has seen many things change, leading it to develop its own ecommerce website and provide catering and consultancy services to customers.
“Buyers are turning to the internet to find quality products at low prices, often missing the vital service and installation they require by law from a reputable Gas Safe engineer,” he says.
Within the next five years, Marshall plans to expand its online presence and marketing operations to offer its service across the UK.
“The company has always ‘catered for every business’s needs’ — a phrase that has been carried through the years by the company,” insists Jonathan Skinner. “We work with hundreds of businesses in and around Yorkshire and we know that a friendly and familiar face is one that our customers love and trust.”
Name: Marshall Catering Equipment
Address: Unit 417, Birch Park, Street 7, Thorp Arch Estate, Wetherby, West Yorkshire, LS23 7FG
Phone: 01937 842852
Focus: Equipment supply, project management, services and maintenance