Judith Tatham isn’t one to mince her words or skirt around an issue for the sake of diplomacy, especially when it’s a topic she feels strongly about.
Take main contractors, for instance. “We don’t do much work for builders — it would just depress us to hell if we did!” declares the managing director of RH Morton, a Glasgow-based kitchen house that works all over Scotland.
While Tatham is the first to admit that this attitude towards main contractors precludes the business from what might otherwise be a nice chunk of turnover, she insists it also saves the company from endless aggravation and risk. “I actually had an architect on the phone this morning for a new job in Dunfermline involving the Salvation Army and the very first thing I asked him was would we be having to work for a main contractor?
‘Not necessarily,’ he said. ‘I’m very interested then!’ I replied. The most important thing out of all that is they [main contractors] don’t care. I can’t bear doing a job for people who don’t care, you don’t get any satisfaction out of it.”
Tatham was a management consultant before moving into the catering equipment sector. That was 25 years ago and she has been captivated by its intimacy ever since. “I don’t see this as an industry to make a fast buck in at all,” she says candidly. “However, the saving grace is that I personally have enjoyed it enormously and I still do. And you are never bored — we have met some great people over the years.”
This honesty, combined with an infectious work ethic, has endeared her to customers and helped preserve the legacy of a business that stretches way back to 1859 when the Morton family first began manufacturing confectionary and bakery machines, which they eventually exported all over the world.
Robert Henry Morton gave his name to the current company in 1948, but it was his nephew George Robert Morton Watson — Judith’s late husband — who designed and manufactured commercial kitchens and marine galleys, setting the high standards that the company’s tradesmen endeavour to uphold today.
RH Morton provides catering, laundry and refrigeration equipment throughout Scotland and also operates a dedicated marine division that has steadfastly served the shipping and offshore industry for three decades.
Tatham has played her own part in moving that marine business forward, most notably by masterminding the acquisition of W. Christie & Company, a marine galley equipment supplier and the sole UK agent for specialist Norwegian brand Beha-Hedo Industrier.
Tatham’s path into the catering equipment sector could, in some respects, be described as unorthodox given her career background in a completely unrelated field.
“I came here in 1987 — I was engaged to be married to George at the time — but for 10 years prior to that I was a management consultant for the Volkswagen Group, so my background was in the motor trade really,” she recalls. “There were an awful lot of catering suppliers up here at the time and the business was really struggling. I remember thinking at the time that a few people needed to go in Scotland. They have gone, and we are still here. And I think we are feeling the benefit of that, although at the same time we have seen internet buying come in.
“We don’t see people walking in anymore to buy a fryer or a six-burner, they get it from a web supplier or a food company that carries it on their truck now. But we see ourselves as the ones providing the value added service. We will take the old machine out, fit the new one, properly commission it, provide the warranty, look after the equipment and try and keep the customer happy.”
Although RH Morton’s 12-strong workforce has shrunk dramatically since its heyday, the company still turns over more than £1m a year. Three years ago it did a rig job worth £400,000, its largest contract to date.
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Tatham says that 2013 is so far proving to be a more fruitful year for the business than the previous three, although she admits that growing the company’s revenues significantly beyond where they are now is a challenge.
“One route to go is obviously to buy another business and if I had the opportunity to buy a service business then I would definitely see that as an option. When I first came here from the motor trade I was very well aware of what the GP levels were for labour as opposed to selling equipment, where you are cutting to the bone, and it was my intention to build a service department up.
“What I didn’t bargain for was the difficulty of getting the quality of engineers. When you are dealing with things like gas you need a safe pair of hands. I have sacrificed turnover on the service side rather than take on unknown quantities, but it has been difficult.”
This dilemma certainly doesn’t mask the pride she feels for her loyal and trusted team. Several senior employees have worked for the business for more than 20 years, while its policy of taking on at least one apprentice on the workshop floor every year continues to ensure that a high level of in-house fabrication expertise is retained.
“I am a big believer in trying to get the right people around me, but if you get the right people you have to give them some rein and that is not always easy to manage. So we have a bit of a lateral management style; there is not too much pyramid in here. The line of communication is very direct, so the decision-making is immediate, unless it needs some consideration and discussion,” she says.
Tatham would like to add a couple more staff to the business, but admits that new appointments are only viable if there is a significant upwards change in sales or profitability. But, she says, it would give her close-knit team the breathing space they often require.
“We don’t have the luxury of a full management structure with people who are just managing, so everybody here is ‘doing’ as well as ‘managing’, and that is probably why we are still here. If things are difficult we will buckle down and get on with it, but that means you don’t always have the time or are able to make the time for enough planning and organisation. My marketing has generally been rubbish! I had the finances to sort out when I first arrived and that took a while, and having done that we have run a tight ship ever since. From pushing an overdraft when I came, we don’t owe anybody anything in terms of the building, vehicles, borrowings or overdrafts. If something breaks tomorrow we can just replace it. But it has taken 26 years to get to that point!”
RH Morton’s work has taken it all around Scotland and its islands, and that has led it to cement relationships with brands such as Falcon and Garland over a period of many years. The company is also a leading Charvet partner in Scotland and carries out a number of projects in the country for the heavy duty cooking suite brand every year.
“When Charvet first came to see us they brought a trailer around with their equipment and we could see that it fitted in with the standard of our fabrication. We pride ourselves on producing a very high standard of fabrication, so when we see something that is very good from someone else we admire it, especially as there is a lot around that isn’t.”
The Lodge on Loch Lomond was RH Morton’s first Charvet customer in Scotland some 18 years ago, and since then the operator has spent something like half a million pounds with it. More significantly, its partnership with Charvet has opened it up to the sort of premium restaurants that had previously been hard to come by.
“Charvet has enabled us to go into the Michelins,” says Tatham, whose company has done work for the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Martin Wishart as well as prestigious clients such as Inverlochy Castle and the Isle of Eriska hotel.
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Restaurants and hotels represent the biggest portion of RH Morton’s business, but in truth it will cater for any sort of establishment that requires commercial catering facilities.
“I would say we probably do between six and 10 church halls, for example, because that business has built up over the years,” says Tatham. “I like doing those because I can’t bear it when I see their hard-earned money being wasted on a domestic kitchen that will only last five minutes!”
Tatham’s English accent gives no hint of the fact that the majority of her career has been spent north of the border. However, there is no doubt where her allegiances lie given all the work that RH Morton has carried out across Scotland over the years. “There is quite a lot of business done up here by contractors south of the border, and I nearly choke every time that happens!” she says.
One thing’s for certain: there is never a dull moment when you are managing one of Scotland’s most historic catering equipment enterprises.
Name: RH Morton
Address: 22 Crownpoint Road, Glasgow, G40 2BS
Tel: 0141 551 8136
Established: 1948 (in current format)
Focus: Commercial kitchen design, manufacture, installation, after-sales service, fabrication