Halton Group is a global name in kitchen ventilation, but not everybody knows that the origins of its UK operation can be traced back to a bedroom in Herne Bay, Kent.

It was 34 years ago when Phil Gibson, today Halton’s European technical director, founded a business called Kitchen Ventilation Services (KVS). Back then he wasn’t to know the path that the firm would eventually take to get to where it is today.

After a couple of office moves and the subsequent diversification of the business into manufacturing, where it initially operated from a single, modest factory, the company was acquired by the Canadian Garland Group.

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“At the time it was one of our customers,” recalls Gibson. “I can only assume they wanted a stepping stone into continental Europe and decided it might be advantageous to own a small ventilation business. It was very useful to have Garland’s financial muscle behind us because it enabled us to add five more small factory units totalling 17,000 square feet and grow to 38 people over a relatively short period.”

KVS changed its name to Vent Master Europe and after outgrowing the six factories that it was producing from it shifted across the road to a 28,000 square feet site where it remains today. In 2005, with Garland operating under the Enodis Group, Gibson learned of its intention to divest the business. Finland’s Halton Group — its main rival — emerged as the buyer.

“I was advised that the Enodis Group was going to sell Vent Master and so the question was to whom,” remembers Gibson. “Then came the shock horror that it was going to be to our number one competitor at the time. So the morale of that story is never rubbish the competition — you never know when they might own you!”

Enodis was among the largest commercial catering equipment manufacturers at the time, so Gibson admits that transitioning to life under the ownership of a Finnish company was a complete sea change.

“Their approach to business life generally was totally different,” he says. “But the other thing was that they were totally focused on ventilation whereas at Enodis it was a little sideline to their main game.”

A year after the takeover, Halton’s existing UK business in Essex moved to Kent and the operation rebranded to Halton Vent Master. It stayed that way until 2008 when it became Halton Foodservice Ltd, which it trades as today. Gibson is rightfully proud of the fact that Halton UK now employs close to 80 staff, while its all-encompassing approach means that from its UK office it can design, build, supply, deliver, install and support.

“Until three or four years ago we used to use a third party for our service and maintenance, but we decided to bring it in house and it has probably been one of the best things we have ever done,” he says. “It has meant that we are responsible for the job from initial concept and design right through to looking after it all.”

Historically, around 70% of Halton UK’s turnover has started with a foodservice consultant. Today, it works with most of the recognised foodservice design consultancies in the UK.

The UK operation has gone through some structural changes in the past year as it endeavoured to refocus the business in a slightly different way. Most notably it has added new faces to its sales team, including Andy Wilshaw, its current sales director.

Management insist the changes are getting the response they wanted. Business was up by around 12% last year, the factory remains busy and the company’s order book looks healthy.

The breadth of its product range also remains one of its strengths. On the canopy side it is known for its Capture Jet technology, which purports to deliver a 40% reduction in exhaust airflow rates compared to traditional canopies, while a significant chunk of its sales comes from services distribution units and air purification units, including the Pollustop range.

Ian Osborne, managing director of Halton Foodservice UK, says it is expanding into new areas of the foodservice market and harbours plans to drive deeper into the M&E space.

“There is no reason why over the next two or three years we shouldn’t be able to double the size of this company,” he remarks. “We have got the brand, we have got the technology, we have got the financial clout — it is about aligning it all and executing on it. We have got an awful lot of opportunity in the market going forward.”

One evolving area of the market, albeit still small in comparison to its core base of institutional, hotel and restaurant clients, is the casual dining trade. The growing sophistication of that sector, along with less price sensitivity than in the past, has opened the door to a raft of new business.

“Fast-casual dining isn’t traditionally an area we have focused on but that is changing,” says Osborne. “We have been very lucky in the last eight months that we have won some great partnerships with the multinationals, so it is another sector in foodservice where we would expect to see dramatic growth because there is dramatic growth taking place in fast-casual generally.”

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Life in the ventilation market certainly remains colourful. The prospect of changes in European legislation, combined with operator demand for greener solutions, is pushing manufacturers to innovate. Ventilated ceilings and demand-based ventilation are two areas where Halton has been able to build a compelling product portfolio to supplement its standard canopy range.

Significant investment has gone into developing its ventilated ceiling business, but it is paying dividends. Its Cyclocell cassette ceilings are in many high profile sites, while the Halton Group also owns Wimbock, the German ventilated ceiling specialist.

Gibson admits that many customers are still divided between choosing canopies and ceilings, so it’s never easy to predict what a client will prefer.

“Invariably, a potential client will have made their mind up. If they want a canopy and you mention a ceiling, it is like Marmite — they’ll either really want it because they love it or they won’t. We just have to play it by ear. Some customers like the aesthetics. They make sense in teacher-training colleges or catering colleges because instead of a tutor being at one end and canopies hanging down over the different workstations, the room is clear all the way through. There are lots of opportunities on that front.”

Demand-based ventilation, too, is a growing area for Halton and many of its rivals. Halton’s flagship M.A.R.V.E.L. system uses patented technology to acquire the heat signature of cooking equipment. An infrared beam measures changes in cooking surface temperature to adjust airflow, ensuring the safe removal of heat and contaminants while maximising savings and comfort.

“The cost of energy can represent between 3% and 6% of a business’ operating expenses, so demand-based ventilation is something that is now a great consideration for the market,” says Gibson.

Halton is keen to highlight the importance of a united workforce in achieving its mission of being a market leader through innovation, safety and quality. Osborne says the firm puts an awful lot of effort into its HR strategy.

“Trust and ethics are critical, so is teamwork, continuous learning and a positive attitude. When we hire people the first thing we look for is energy and whether they can energise others. When you have got everybody carrying those ethics and performing, it makes a big difference. We can talk about cash flow and balance sheets and investment, but the real key to success in this business is about people.”

Halton UK sales by end-user sector

51% Institutional and staff feeding (hospitals, schools, military, B&I)
32% Hotels & restaurants
Pubs & leisure
Casual dining
4% Others

Halton Group in a nutshell

Founded: In 1969 by Seppo Halttunen
Owner: The Halttunen family
Chairman: Mika Halttunen
Head office: Finland
Turnover: €180m (£148m)
Workforce: 1,370
Country offices: 29

Tags : catering equipmentextractionkitchensventilation
Andrew Seymour

The author Andrew Seymour

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