When Cannock-based First Choice re-branded from First Choice Catering Spares to the First Choice Group this year, it was a statement of intent as to its ambitions.
“We have been established for 15 years and so First Choice Catering Spares has become a familiar name in the industry,” detailed director, John Whitehouse. “But as we evolve and grow, we have found new areas we can move into, offering added value to our current customer base.”
The group has come a long way from its inauguration in 1999, when it employed just three people. “In our first year we turned over £134,000, now we do that a day!” Whitehouse revealed.
The company has seen double digit growth every year, moving to larger and larger premises in the process. It now employs nearly 130 people and it is still expanding.
Aside from the firm’s original spares strand, since its inception it has added laundry and refrigeration spares divisions, as well as a training arm, First Choice Combico, and its waste management system branch, First Choice Environmental Solutions.
“The new name brings all of these divisions together under one umbrella to show that we can provide the full spectrum of spare parts and services to the catering equipment maintenance industry,” said Whitehouse.
Combico was First Choice’s first acquisition, as it bought the training company from Rational last year. “We knew that there was a demand for engineers to be trained, and as we don’t undertake servicing or sell equipment, we can be neutral,” Whitehouse said of the decision.
“We felt offering a training programme would give us an advantage and added value to the customer. We are looking to offer this to other brands as well, such as Retigo and MKN.”
Currently First Choice Combico teaches 30-40 engineers a month using training rooms which incorporate large interactive screens. These display 3D CAD drawings and enable the technicians to virtually strip down the appliances.
The group’s on-site test kitchen is also on-hand to host manufacturers’ test days and dealer days. “Our facilities are open for our entire customer and supplier base to use if a Midlands-based venue is suitable,” commented Whitehouse.
Further developments at the firm include the introduction of a centralised computer system, incorporating departments including warehousing, training, online and accounts, as well as a customer relationship management (CRM) package. This is a move which has been under consideration for around 18 months but is now due to go live imminently. [[page-break]]
The system should allow the company to communicate directly with customers’ PDAs. So if engineers need to order a part when at site, they can check First Choice’s stocks through their PDAs, then present the end user with a quote and process the order on the spot. The information will be sent directly to First Choice and a part will be immediately dispatched.
First Choice also gained ISO 9001 Quality Management System accreditation in June, an achievement which has been a labour of love for quality and HR manager, Denise Whitehouse (John’s wife).
“She has lived and breathed it, taking a 2 year night school course to enhance her knowledge,” Whitehouse detailed. “We have been able to document all our procedures and ensure they work efficiently and are auditable. It’s set us up beautifully for our next steps.”
Those forthcoming steps include relocating once again, as the firm is outgrowing its current headquarters. It is intending to move in the next 18 months to a premises where all of its departments can be housed under one roof, rather than in five units as it is at the moment.
Capacity is being reached because the company is shipping around 850-900 spares orders daily. “Around 70% of orders get sent out on the same day; our first time shipment is very high,” remarked Whitehouse. In just the last financial year, from July 2014 to June 2015 the spares division grew 26%, and this has been a similar figure, year on year.
So what is the secret to First Choice’s success? According to Whitehouse: “Our philosophy is to network, to communicate, to support and to listen to what customers want. We have carried out customer surveys to understand what they require and where we can improve. We try to remain flexible and impartial, and focus on trying to give the most professional solutions.”
An element of this is promoting the sale of genuine parts. “We work well with manufacturers now, but they did not trust us at first and would not give us bulk discounts,” said Whitehouse. “Our industry has been very rigid and familiar, but we came into it at the right time when carriage charging was increasing and people were starting to think about how to make this easier.
“Now everybody works with us, and manufacturers have been able to concentrate on their dealers and let the non-dealers come to us. We become approved agents and they can focus on their core customers. It’s a win-win because they have fewer companies to transact with, so it costs them less money. And we’re a safe bet as a customer; our credit ratings are good.”
First Choice’s grand plans are not slowing down: it has a vision to turnover £50m per year by 2020. “Over the next 5 years we do intend to grow that quickly, explained Whitehouse. “We may be able to do that through natural, organic growth, or we may undertake some acquisitions. This is why we have to get our infrastructure correct now: a future-proof computer system and premises big enough to cope with our future stocking and administration.”
He indicated that First Choice may be looking to target other refrigeration and catering spares companies and ancillary-type firms. “They would be component-based rather than service-based. And there are a few out there that we will be trying to buy.”
The catering equipment industry should be watching this space, as First Choice only knows one way to go, and that’s up.