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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Catering Equipment Support is on the brink of becoming a medium-sized firm

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MD Simon Tavender has ambition plans to expand his dealership.

Eastleigh-based Catering Equipment Support is in a transformative phase of its development. On the cusp of becoming a medium-sized company, the distributor is currently laying out expansion plans as it passes the eighth anniversary of its founding.

Owner and MD Simon Tavender explained: “We had our first 5 year plan and we’ve exceeded that, so it’s given us a good footing to move onto the next stage, which is to expand into new markets and areas, and be able to go for larger contracts that a small new business wouldn’t have necessarily been able to do.”

With turnover hovering at an average of £1.5m (with spikes of £3m), the company’s development has encompassed large contracts for businesses such as Kier Building Services, the London Fire Brigade and the American Embassy at Winfield House, central London.

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Plus, 3 years ago, thanks to its listing on the ESPO public procurement framework, the firm won a contract with Hertfordshire County Council. This prompted the establishment of a Letchworth office. “It gave us a sound foot-holding in the area, with guaranteed stable work, which allowed us to expand off that,” detailed Tavender.

There are now six staff members there, led by contracts manager Carole Hogg, adding to the 10 at the Hampshire headquarters. Hogg is joined by four engineers and an administration assistant, with Tavender revealing the branch will be looking to add another engineer and engineering support to the staff roster soon.

Catering Equipment Support’s new greener fleet of vans.

Catering Equipment Support is thinking big but green for a fleet refresh too. The dealer increased the size of the vans to enable its engineers to be more flexibly by carrying more tools, but the engines are actually greener than the previous generation, according to Tavender. “As we have taken on three extra staff, we were having to buy new vehicles anyway, so it was a good opportunity to get a good deal and upgrade the fleet,” he commented.

One of those new staff members is industry stalwart Colin Stapley, joining as business development manager to help field the growing amount of enquiries the distributor has been receiving. Plus Melissa Smith was hired as HR manager to reduce the administrative burden on Tavender himself.

Another two fairly recent additions are support engineer apprentices, which Tavender found through his father, who works at a college as an assessor for commercial catering equipment and gas. Being from outside the catering equipment sector, they have studied to gain their electrical qualifications and are currently doing the same on the gas side of things. “This time next year they will be fully qualified catering engineers,” said Tavender. “It is hard to find the right engineers, so the only way to get around that is to grow your own. It’s been great to invest in them and they are very loyal.” Both also have the support of three senior engineers at the company.

Catering Equipment Support has also been branching out into the ventilation sphere of late. The dealer has dipped its toe in the water with small scale canopy installations, using its own designs which are then actioned by its manufacturing partners. Tavender forecasted: “We are now looking at larger projects with air handling units so we can offer the complete package.”

To that end, the distributor is even eyeing acquisitions. “We have already been looking at buying a fabricator so we can take everything on in-house,” said Tavender. And the next service target to take in-house is refrigeration maintenance and installation.

However, Tavender does feel that the company’s growth has been dampened a little on equipment sales, due to the internet. “If you quote a customer, they’ll got straight online and find it cheaper. But it might be a different appliance or it just gets delivered to the door. The biggest challenge is showing what we offer over and above that – free survey and design if you’re having a kitchen built by us. We’ll get the right equipment and do the whole package from an empty room right up to a fully working kitchen.”

While he creates many of the designs himself, Tavender is sharing the load in that regard too, with the rest of the sales team being experienced in design, and former office assistant Hayley Scott now being trained up in CAD. “In August she designed her first kitchen, for Hampshire County Council, which has been accepted, so it’s a real achievement for her,” he reported.

Catering Equipment Support’s workscope has dramatically changed since its founding in 2011, when Tavender and two engineering colleagues decided to go it alone after being made redundant from maintenance-focused firm, MSA. “Primarily for the first 5 years, 80% of our work was design and installs, such as small refurbishments,” recalled Tavender. “But that put all our eggs in one basket, so now design and install only accounts for around 50%. The rest of it is made up of long-term maintenance contracts. And being a service provider for maintenance opens the doors to sales and design.”

One big recent win on the maintenance side of things is an expansion of the servicing contract for the Goodwood Racecourse complex, which now encompasses the entire Goodwood Estate. The firm focuses on the public sector – education, hospitals and the MoD – for these kind of services, with Tavender detailing: “They were my target from day one, because they don’t tend to fluctuate too much in the market. They invest year in year out.” He also mentioned the marine sector as being a future expansion aim.

The previous government’s Universal Infant Free School Meals programme represented a big fillip for the dealer, with the local Hampshire County Council tasking the firm to supply 290 MKN combi ovens in 2014 as part of a strategy to overhaul school cooking procedures and prepare fresh food onsite. Tavender recalled: “When we won that contract we were still operating out of a small office and warehouse area. Because it was only a 4-week turnaround over the summer holidays, we needed to get all of the equipment in.

“Even using logistics companies, we needed to react so quickly and in such a small window, therefore we hired a lot of containers and filled those.”

The distributor’s onsite demo kitchen.

This prompted him to look for larger premises and invest in owning a tangible asset, so the company moved into its current Eastleigh headquarters in 2015. As well as office space, the building also houses warehousing space and a demonstration kitchen – prominently featuring MKN equipment, continuing the companies’ fruitful relationship.

Tavender reported that many manufacturers and suppliers have been supportive of his company’s endeavours, including Rational, Smeg, First Choice and CCS. “I have got great relationships with all of them. It’s about brand loyalty; we become part of their company, doing warranty work for them. They want us to grow as much as anybody because it means that there’s potential for more business for them.

“This industry is all about relationships. Don’t worry too much if your competitor wins a contract you really wanted – there’s plenty of work out there if you are willing to work for it. And we all support each other – we’ve helped out competitors when they have needed it and I’m sure they would do the same in return.”

So with many fledgling dealers falling foul of the market, how has Tavender and his team ensured that Catering Equipment Support has survived and thrived? “It’s about not growing too quickly, staying within your capabilities so you don’t let people down,” he said. “We had a good business plan and I used my 24 years of industry experience.”

Looking ahead at the next 5 year plan, Tavender hinted that there may be a dealership acquisition on the horizon. “We are seeing where there is a gap in particular regions and using the model we have in Hampshire and Hertfordshire and moving it to that area. Within 5 years we want to increase our business footprint, where we are geographically and, off the back of that, increase employees and the services we can offer.”

He concluded: “Our ethos is about trying to make work life as easy as possible. That comes about by investing in the people that work for you and that shows because we’ve always had really good retention. I’m really lucky, I’ve got some great people around me – and getting the right people is my number one priority.”

Polish progress

One of Catering Equipment Support’s aims is to start up an operation in Poland. MD Simon Tavender revealed: “We have been doing research and development around opening in Jelenia Góra, southern Poland. It’s a great location as it’s in the middle of Europe which means we can also cover southern Germany and the Czech Republic.”

He first broached the idea when one of his UK-based founding engineers decided to move back to Poland. “I didn’t want to lose Pavel’s skills, so we have invested in starting up there. We are going to expand on that with sales and we have been looking at major manufacturers that are happy for us to operate as their agents in Poland.”

The subsidiary would begin with catering equipment sales, and then add design and installation advice services. “This would be around the same parameters as the UK, all in line with European standards,” said Tavender. “It’s bringing up standards in some areas and meeting the required standards in others, so quite a lot of work has gone into it. Probably we will open up a website first and lead off that.”

CES has put in 2 years of groundwork so far, with Tavender flying out to meet potential clients and research other businesses and how everything works there. “There’s a nice gap in the market, so the opportunity’s there and we want to build on that,” he said.

However, progress has been paused at the moment due to Brexit. Tavender reported: “Our banks were happy to invest, but want to wait to see where everything lies with Brexit. We could put a lot of money into it and quickly have to come out of that market, so we are being cautious.”

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Clare Nicholls

The author Clare Nicholls

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