THE BIG INTERVIEW: BFES ownership passes to Sean Cooper

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BFES continued installations throughout lockdown, such as this one at Stoneham Park Academy in Eastleigh.

By the time you read this, the historic handover of BF Engineering Services will be complete. Founder Eddie Barlow has metaphorically sailed off into the sunset to retire in France and the MD, Sean Cooper, is now the new owner of the business.

But this is a move long in the making, as for the last 5 years, Barlow has been teeing Cooper up to make this final step up at the Hampshire-based distributor. Cooper first came onboard BFES in 2011, having previously worked as an engineer specialised in electrical equipment.

According to Cooper: “When I joined, my thoughts were that I was probably going to be an engineer forever. However, opportunities came around and I was happy to grab those.” His first progression was to the role of senior engineer 5-6 years ago. “However, I was getting involved in so many more things with Eddie at the time and then it just progressed from there to the point where he was happy to keep promoting me!” Cooper quipped.

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The next rung on the ladder was becoming operations director in 2018, before officially reaching MD level about 18 months ago, though in each case, both men acknowledged that the title was the last thing to move, with Cooper carrying out the work required ahead of officially changing roles.

Barlow praised Cooper’s attitude and aptitude, saying: “Sean was hungry for it, he wanted more. He was taking on responsibilities rather than me giving them, so it was a natural transition. We worked well together so it was easy for me to impart information and to Sean’s credit he was like a sponge, he learnt accounts, business strategies and budgeting. If you put it down the number of hours he’s put in over the years he’s probably been on below the minimum wage!”

Sean Cooper is now the owner and MD of BFES after 10 years with the company.

While Cooper responded: “I found it all very exciting. All of a sudden removing myself from the tools to be able to assist in running the company and learning on the job, I just seemed to grasp it.”

2020 was originally intended to be the year when Barlow was stepping further back and slowing down, but the pandemic of course put a spanner in the works. In the initial stages of lockdown Barlow was logging onto conference calls from his property in France to assist Cooper with working out strategies and planning how BFES could best manage through this disrupted period. Barlow said: “I was still able to be involved on some of the strategy, but Sean had been running the day-to-day organisation the company anyway, so he didn’t really necessarily need me there on the doorstep, and anything we needed to discuss we could. IT and technology made the pandemic controllable for us.”

Cooper detailed: “The pandemic has affected us as it has the whole industry, but due to Eddie’s good management over many years, the business was in a financially stable position, so we have been able to build on the strong foundations. Eddie has worked very hard. I can see what it takes to run the business and it’s very rewarding but at the same time it can be painful.”

While Barlow emphasised: “Having been in business through the financial crash in 2008 when it was very difficult, I adopted a strategy during that period that it was going to be last man standing. Unfortunately I knew that some of our competitors would not make it through, and when you get to the point where things are beginning to open as they are now, the idea is to still be alive and the name on everybody’s lips.”

This concept prompted the distributor to develop a marketing strategy which encompassed revamping its website and increasing its social media profile, at the very point that many rivals were scaling back on that front. Barlow revealed: “Our website designers said how positive our view was, and they then adopted the same attitude and used it as an impetus to push forward with their other clients. So we generated our own little circle of positivity.”

While regarding the website design itself, Cooper revealed: “I wanted to make it look cleaner, crisper and brighter. The website did a great job for many years, but the new design draws you in more and is easier to navigate.”

Not only that, the firm took the opportunity to make some wholesale changes to the business, investing in new field service management software, staff training, reviewing all health and safety-related systems and restructuring the business.

The IT investments involved using Microsoft Sharepoint and building a company intranet, plus loading more information such as appliance manuals onto the cloud for engineers to access remotely on tablet devices. Cooper commented: “We want to come out the other side of this and be able to offer up improved support and systems to our clients in the challenging months ahead.”

While Barlow added: “I knew that when we came out of the pandemic we’d be in a good place, because of what we’d done. If we’d have been running at 100% over the last 12-15 months, we wouldn’t necessarily have had the time to commit to all these changes that we’ve made. The business is going to come out of this period in a far better place and far better equipped to cope with expansion and increased demand, going forward.”

However, he acknowledged: “Sean has made the best we could of a bad situation. Nobody wanted it, but if it’s forced on you, you’ve got to take the positives out of it.”

Eddie Barlow founded the distributor in 2000.

The restructuring also naturally followed as a result of Barlow’s gradual withdrawal from an active role. According to Cooper: “With Eddie doing less there would be no way for me to be able to pick up everything without having a strong team of individuals around me.

“We’ve created departments within the company and put managers in place for operations, sales, projects and business development. As Eddie did with me, we’ve approached people within the business who would be interested in these roles and fortunately we’ve been able to fill the gaps with people who already buy into the company ethos and work very hard. We have a fantastic team of individuals –they’ve always shown their support to the business. We don’t just employ numbers, everybody here brings something to the table.”

One of those singled out for particular praise by Barlow was Nichola Plummer, who now runs the projects side of the business as sales office and project manager. “She came in from a catering background and had a lot of experience working in a number of kitchens,” he said. “What impressed us when we interviewed her was that she wanted the responsibility of designing better kitchens, because she’d been in them.”

Plummer worked alongside the previous incumbent, Chris Kidd, for 18 months to gain practical knowledge of commercial kitchen design. “She picked up a lot, and we sent her off on courses,” detailed Barlow. “She’s picked up the gauntlet now, running that side of the business, and she’s doing very well with it.”

Currently the overall team numbers around 40 people, with the prospect of adding some engineers on the horizon. However, Cooper emphasised: “We just need to be careful that the engineers we select buy into the same ethos.We rely heavily on the strengths of everybody.” He hasn’t begun the search yet though, as: “I have been waiting to see how things are settling before I make any decisions.”

But when Cooper does start his recruitment drive, he will be wary of hiring via agencies: “Engineers tend to stay with their agencies, and the agency itself is only loyal for a short time. A couple of years later an engineer is approached by that same agency offering them another opportunity at a company up the road. I would much rather that engineers approach me directly.”

BFES takes its responsibility to its employees seriously, especially through these challenging times, with thorough training encouraged. Cooper believes this delivers a dual benefit, by also ensuring better customer support and satisfaction. Engineers are sent to catering equipment manufacturers’ factories for training, as well as undertaking electrical training. Barlow emphasised: “We multi-skill our engineers, we invest in our people.”

This is a key element of its manufacturer partnerships too, with Barlow adding: “It’s no good us buying equipment if a manufacturer refuses to teach our engineers because they have their own. If we can’t service the equipment we install, and take the warranty ourselves, then we don’t sell it.”

One of BFES’ key manufacturer partners is Rational.

The distributor’s major supplier partners include AlexanderSolia, Blodgett, Blue Seal, CED, Charvet, Classeq, Falcon, Garland, Hobart, Hoshizaki, Houno, Lincat, Mechline, Meiko, Moffat, Rational, Valentine, Wexiodisk and Williams.

An emphasis on quality runs throughout BFES’ operations, with Barlow acknowledging the firm attracts a certain type of client, as it maintains a variety of accreditations, such as ISO 9001 quality management, SafeContractor, F-Gas certification, JOSCAR (the Joint Supply Chain Accreditation Register) and is a member of CEDA, Constructionline and the Gas Safe Register. “We are also externally audited, and that takes a lot of time and money, but it’s attractive to a number of larger organisations that require that in place,” he said.

Over the last year or so, the distributor’s client base has shifted like most of the rest of the industry, with the hospitality sector’s forced closure. Cooper weighed up: “As everywhere starts to reopen I feel we’re still trying to find how the new normal will look.

“We believe there will be a change in staff dining, with more companies looking to fast food and grab and go, rather than sitting down in a canteen.

“We’ve been waiting to see what our clients and potential customers’ requirements are and at this stage there’s a lot of uncertainty. The initial step is done and sites are busy again, so everyone wants servicing done and everybody seems to have a piece of equipment that’s broken down in kitchens that may have been mothballed for a very long period of time. So we’re still dealing with reactive service calls.”

The firm ensures its engineers are fully equipped and fully trained to provide excellent customer service.

However, he added: “We are already starting to take on calls from customers we’ve never dealt with in the past. These next couple of months are really going to show us what our customers’ requirements are going to be, and when they decide that, we will be ready and waiting to take that on.”

Summing up the direction of the transformed BFES, Cooper analysed: “Having played a part in implementing the many changes that we have over the last 5 years, it’s business as normal. Eddie has been a great mentor to me and continues to provide me with sound advice. The business model works, so I will continue along the same path which has brought us the success we have today.

“It’s about steady growth at a comfortable pace – we won’t overstretch ourselves. This way we can continue providing our clients with the very best level of service. I will take every opportunity that I am presented with and think about whether it’s best for the company, but the plan is to continue growing at the rate we have been, because everything is in place to allow us to do that.”

Two decades of engineering excellence

BF Engineering Services (BFES) has now passed its 20th year in business, though as the milestone came in 2020, the pandemic put a stop to marking the celebration at that time.

Eddie Barlow founded the firm in 2000 after a 5-year stint at portable kitchen specialist, Container Kitchen Systems, as general manager. Prior to that he learnt his trade as an engineer while serving in the Royal Navy for 26 years.

At the turn of this century though, Barlow felt there was a gap in the market for servicing and maintaining commercial kitchens to a high standard in his local southern England area. Therefore he established BFES as a limited company, alongside one of his Container Kitchen Systems colleagues, Hamish Foulis, who served as the fledgling firm’s MD.

Barlow recalled: “We started off with not very much, just working from the boot of our cars in the original instance. That lasted about 5 weeks and then we got a couple of vans because we were very busy at that point.”

Major clients who signed up early on included Bourne Leisure, for its Warner Leisure Hotels brand, which helped push BFES to expand and take on further staff 18 months later.

The firm started out purely specialising on catering equipment servicing and installation, as Barlow detailed: “Engineering was our background and what we knew best. At that point I have to say I didn’t know anything about running a business. I learnt very painfully!” Barlow was put in touch with Andrew Walter, the owner of local business advice firm, Business Prophet, who helped him along the way. He additionally undertook business studies at night school.

“There’s nothing like being out there, flying by the seat of your pants,” he said. “I learnt an awful lot more very quickly.”

But due to client demand, the business expanded into equipment sales and project management. Therefore in 2012 Chris Kidd joined as head of equipment sales and projects to run the department, though he himself retired last year.

Also in 2012, Foulis decided to depart for the facilities engineering sector, which is when Barlow began to search for his own successor.

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Clare Nicholls

The author Clare Nicholls

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