Power Players 2020: number 1

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Airedale is currently undertaking its largest ever BIM project at the University of Manchester’s Engineering Campus Development.

*Position held*

Top of the tree once again in the Power Players rankings is the Bradford-headquartered Airedale Group. Thanks to the combined revenue of its various divisions including Airedale Catering Equipment, South Coast Catering, Airedale Technical Services, Caterform Stainless Steel Fabrications and the Catering Design House, it retains its lead. Subsequent to these results, at the beginning of 2020 the group acquired refrigeration and air conditioning servicing specialist, Flowrite Refrigeration.

As its 2019 financials won’t be published until around this October, we have to count back to its previous annual report for the 12 months to 31 December 2018. Although group turnover did slip slightly by 3%, from £40.7m to £39.7m, there is still a massive gap between Airedale and the rest of the pack.

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The group did see a huge upturn in its operating profits in the 2018 financial year though, totalling £1.1m, a 705% rise on last year’s dip of £0.1m – and heading back towards 2016 levels. Likewise, gross profit margin grew to 26.9% from 2017’s 24.8%.

Airedale Group’s CEO Rob Bywell told Catering Insight that the key is the company has historically focused on its people. “Developing people and a commitment to training has been key – most of our management team have started in different roles and we have developed them into more senior roles.”

The group’s expanded servicing expertise, now totalling around 200 engineers across cookline, warewash and refrigeration maintenance, is also a big aid according to Bywell: “All of the learnings we get from the servicing business as to what causes equipment failures goes into a value loop when we design and install kitchens. We define what behaviours cause critical assets to fail and how to effectively mitigate them or manage out in the design process.”

Like all companies, Airedale had to quickly react to the coronavirus crisis, with Bywell emphasising: “It was about transparently communicating to all stakeholders what we do and don’t know, because ultimately it takes a long time to build trust and a short time to lose it.” While the distributor furloughed many employees, it is moving quickly through the gears to return to operation, particularly taking into account a sharp increase in servicing calls.

Rob Bywell, CEO, Airedale Group.

“The profits in our group are now more derived from service than projects, even before the pandemic,” Bywell reported. Nevertheless, the firm is in the middle of its largest ever Building Information Modelling (BIM) project, designing the catering facilities for the University of Manchester’s new facility, the Manchester Engineering Campus Development. This scheme, with an overall value in excess of £245m is one of the largest single site public sector live projects in this country. Full occupation is scheduled for April 2021.

While Bywell feels that the project market will be distressed for some time, looking ahead he analysed: “If the new reality is there is going to be fewer people enjoying the hospitality experience in the way that it has been designed, then it needs to be fundamentally redesigned. The hospitality sector as a whole will ultimately be successful in innovating out of this, but I think it will take time.

“This year will be challenging, and will be reflected in everybody’s numbers, because once that revenue is gone, it is never going to reappear. Everybody’s P&L is under stress, but the question is then: how strong is your balance sheet?”

Expert advice

Airedale Group CEO Rob Bywell is positive that the kitchen design house community will thrive: “It’s a landscape dominated by entrepreneurs, and it’s a massive advantage in a crisis because entrepreneurs innovate better than any other type of individual in a business environment. They can learn, adapt and pivot their business into other areas. Design houses are almost uniquely placed to come out of this in the strongest possible position.”

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Clare Nicholls

The author Clare Nicholls

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