July 4th 1993, a small office in Glasgow. The phone rings. Two men look at each other across the desk. It rings again.
A hand picks up the receiver. “Hello, this is FEM. How can I help you?” As it happens, it was the BT engineer, but that first ever call represented the fact that Foodservice Equipment Marketing (FEM) was in business.
As the company celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, it’s an opportune time for it to reflect on where it has come from and where it is going.
Back in the early days FEM consisted of just two people — the founders, Harry Hogan and Jim Doherty — and one brand, Vollrath. Other than that, their main assets were a small warehouse and bagfuls of enthusiasm.
Today, East Kilbride-based FEM is one of the UK catering equipment industry’s most recognised importers, employing 26 staff, and managing a raft of market-leading brands in its portfolio. Whereas it started with 3,000 square metres of warehouse space, it now has a facility spanning some 35,000 square metres and can offer customers next-day delivery.
For an outfit that opened on July 4, it’s fitting that many of FEM’s partner manufacturers are US companies. That’s mainly to do with the founders — who incidentally met at a CEDA conference in the early 90s — spotting an opportunity to bring in quality kit from across the Atlantic.
“At that time most of the imported equipment came from Italy, but we knew there were plenty of excellent manufacturers based in the USA,” explains Hogan. “FEM was formed to import and distribute US products in the UK and Ireland.”
The pair have since become one of the best known ‘double acts’ in the catering equipment market, utilising their different skill sets to make the partnership a success. Hogan serves as MD, while Doherty is sales director.
FEM’s inaugural agreement with Vollrath — which it still represents today — was actually forged at the NRA Show in Chicago in 1993. Deals with Prince Castle, Manitowoc Ice and Hamilton Beach, all of which are still working with FEM, soon followed. More recently, Cambro, Sirman and San Jamar have joined the portfolio.
The company’s ability to form long-term relations with supply partners has no doubt been enhanced by the stability of its employee base over the years. Many key members of staff have worked at FEM for almost 20 years, while Hogan’s PA, Loretta McDougall, has supported him for 37 years as they worked together at their previous company before FEM was founded.
FEM’s product range has expanded to encompass just about every area of catering equipment, from volume storage to prime cooking, refrigeration and display, from the kitchen to front of house. Alongside lines that are appropriate for any kitchen — safety gloves, cutting boards, combi ovens — are specialist products such as salt and season portioners for quick service outlets and high volume, hot holding bins.
“The variety and breadth of the portfolio is one of the things that sets us apart from other importers,” insists Doherty. “We’ve got products from spoodles to smoker ovens. I think the variety also reflects our ‘can do’ attitude, which filters through to everyone in the company. All of us are willing to go the extra mile for our customers and our suppliers.”
Two years ago, FEM began working with Alto-Shaam and Hogan says that has been a significant development. “It is one of the biggest and most respected brands in the industry,” he says. “The relationship underlines FEM’s position in the market in 2013. The company’s product range has added a new dimension to our offering.”
As any catering equipment supplier will know, the last few years have been challenging for the market due to the wider economic climate. FEM attributes the calibre of the brands that it represents as one of the main reasons that it has been able to emerge from that period in strong shape. “When every penny counts, a reputation for reliability and performance helps get the sale,” says Doherty.
With the 20-year milestone reached, FEM’s immediate priorities are to invest in its infrastructure. It has recently recruited an executive chef whose job is to support end-users and help them exploit the full potential of its products. It has also expanded its sales and support team with a national accounts manager and a sales manager for its Irish customers.
As FEM prepares to crack open the champagne, it only needs to think back to those early days trying to get manufacturers on side to see how far it has come in the past two decades.
“These days, while we still keep our finger on the pulse in terms of innovative products and opportunities, manufacturers are as likely to approach us as we are them,” says Doherty.