There are not many companies in our industry that can be said to have had ‘a good pandemic’ but Lincoln-based dealer, Commercial Catering Equipment Specialists (CCES) is certainly one of them.
The brainchild of ex-Sprint Group and Lincat executive, Simon Dann, CCES began life in mid-2019 – blissfully unaware that less than 9 months later the world would be shaken by Covid. But Dann described his company’s 2020 as “astonishing”, so how did the dealer buck the trend?
Dann drew upon his previous experience in the motor trade to quickly build and expand the company. Within the catering equipment industry he could also draw on stints spent on both sides of the manufacturer and distributor fences, at Lincat and then Sprint Group.
“I had some ideas of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it, and it was very different from how the industry already looked,” he recalled. “Having seen the relationships between manufacturers, dealers and customers, I felt they could be better.
“The dealer network is almost too diverse, even smaller companies will be dealing with tens of manufacturers and suppliers and I can’t see how that could ever work. You can’t have specialist knowledge for that many different brands and you can’t necessarily offer up the right piece of kit at the time, because there are too many other factors to consider: commercial factors and personal relationships.”
Dann instead saw the motor trade’s model of specialised brand dealerships as being preferable. “As a new start-up, my spend was never going to beat what the big boys’ was. So what I am spending needs to go into one pot to give me a chance at a commercial offering.”
Being based very close to the Lincat factory, and given his knowledge of the brand, Dann partnered with the manufacturer when he began as a sole trader in mid-2019. “Because we’re on Lincat’s doorstep, it gave us a fighting chance against the big boys,” he said. “It is a product that I know and with Brexit on the horizon at the time, being a UK manufacturer was a big deal.”
While the relationship with Lincat grew and is still going strong, Dann wanted CCES to be able to offer the full range of equipment types for a commercial kitchen fitout. So for appliances not within the Lincat or associated Middleby group portfolio, such as warewashing and cabinet refrigeration, the dealer sought to find a few extra key partners to take sole ownership of each channel.
For warewashers, Dann picked Maidaid Halcyon as it offers both the premium Maidaid range and the more entry level Halcyon Amika models. In terms of refrigeration, CCES chose Pentland Wholesale’s Blizzard brand. According to Dann: “The advantage of Pentland is they have a premium, budget and middle-of-the-road products all within one supply chain. So it enabled us to be able to compete whether we were looking at the budget end or something slightly higher.”
Food preparation equipment has a dedicated supplier in Sammic,
then lightware and utensils are provided by Chef Set.
Dann detailed: “We were very clear with everyone that we wouldn’t be diluting the offer, so if a Lincat product exists we won’t offer a Middleby alternative, and likewise we don’t sell Pentland’s warewashers because we use Maidaid Halcyon. But we give each one 100% of our business in each product category.”
To those who would claim this streamed approach restricts the breadth of CCES’s offer, Dann responds: “I would agree. There is the odd thing that comes up where I tell a prospective customer ‘that’s not our bag’, but it shows we know what we’re doing – and what we can’t do.
“It may mean we can’t take on some work with some national accounts if they like to specify certain manufacturers, but on the flip side we’ve aligned with brands where we know the products inside out. We’re not diluting our knowledge base, so what we lose in one hand we more than gain in another.”
As to the types of end users the dealership has been working with, Dann reported there has been much variation. “We’re very adaptable and we’ve made ourselves available. We’ve been able to supply the public sector, including a big project with a county council in Wales during the first lockdown period. They needed products in a hurry and there weren’t many people working to facilitate it.”
Other notable work included at a local catering college, plus bits in the pub sector, and everything from single pieces of kit through to takeaways or full restaurant fitouts. However, one-off appliance sales currently comprise around two thirds of the dealership’s trade.
In January 2020, CCES became a limited company, setting its first yearly target of £250,000. But adapting to lockdown requirements and picking up jobs that others were unable to fulfil meant that the dealer nearly doubled its projected turnover for the year, reaching almost £500,000. “This was partly because we were forced to continue working,” detailed Dann. “Having gone limited on 1 January there was no government support for us – we were in the same boat as lots of people where we slipped through the cracks.
“But we proved that we could survive if we got our heads down. We diversified – we continued to offer the product range, and Lincat were very good at coming forward with new innovations such as hand wash stations.”
On the financials, he added: “I forecasted a very tight margin and it’s nowhere near as tight as I thought it was going to be. We’re very efficient and lean; we keep our overheads low and it’s worked so far.”
Indeed, Dann spent 6 months as a sole trader, but then added another permanent staff member, ex-RAF man Alan White, to manage servicing and logistics. He assists with prepping and cleaning equipment, as well as transporting it onsite. Business then grew so quickly, Dann took on Zoe Baumber last September as sales manager. She shares his background in the motor trade and is based at the firm’s Lincoln’s headquarters.
However, Dann analysed: “Zoe’s role is evolving but very quickly becoming too busy, so we probably still need somebody else extra in the office. I’ll continue to look from outside the industry like Zoe was, as she gives us a fresh perspective.” The company does also have a network of external resources, including a self-employed chef who can act as another field salesperson, subcontractors for out of hours and special deliveries, and a virtual receptionist/office management service.
In fact, a week before the first lockdown, Dann obtained the keys to new premises in Lincoln, renting a 6,000metre2 space to give the firm a large warehouse capacity. But he actually feels the business is expanding even quicker than he predicted, and in the future hopes to take on an even larger space.
Part of the reason the company has been so successful so far is its proactive stance. According to Dann: “As the motor trade does, we were also picking up the phone and calling likely buyers. We brought outside resources in to make the calls and cover some ground, going after the right parts of the market at the right time.” This included strategies such as contacting wet-led pubs with packages to enable them to offer a ‘substantial meal’ when the regional tier system was in place, or calling prior customers at intervals when sundries such as new water filters for water boilers would be required.
Another rich vein of trade has been the second hand or loan market. CCES carries a stock of used equipment that it can lend to sites awaiting appliance repairs. “We’ll often buy used equipment back, even if it’s not working,” said Dann. “We usually recondition it – we’ve only had two pieces of equipment in the last 12 months that we’ve reached the point where we’ve stripped it down to its different materials and scrapped the metals.”
So how has CCES been able to avoid the pitfalls impacting so many fledgling businesses? “I almost think we were quite lucky that we had such a terribly turbulent year,” revealed Dann. “Because we were able to find opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. Lots of the bigger companies furloughed staff and closed offices, so we picked up business that by rights we would never have got a look in for.”
He also underlined that social media engagement has helped build the company’s reputation. “We’ve grown our social media presence to include a number of platforms that some people would think are not relevant to our industry.” As well as the more mainstream LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter accounts, CCES is also on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and Pinterest.
Dann feels: “In the catering equipment industry, content focuses on selling the viewer something or showing something the company has just done – there are no other ideas. Our content includes demonstrational videos – you buy what you can see doing what you need it to do. TikTok especially will be a platform where we’ll get seen – it may be by teenagers now, but they are the chefs of the future and they will probably still be on the platform in a few years’ time. One of our videos on there has already been viewed over 1,000 times, and that’s just organic growth.”
He added: “We’re going to make content for the brands we work with – that may mean someone will still go online and buy it from somewhere else. But if our manufacturers gain market share then we increase our share too in the long term.”
Dann further emphasised that the firm will remain focused and niche with its partner equipment brands. “We need to be working with products that we know. We’ve sold a huge volume of Lincat equipment over the last year and only raised three warranty calls because we’re able to rectify things over the phone. We understand the products without having to put a warranty call in.”
However, he analysed: “Whether we continue to work with the exact group of manufacturers we have, depends on how the relationships continue. There’s no reason not to at the moment – everyone’s engaged, everyone knew what page we were on when we started and were happy to try something different.
“That was a big thing for a couple of the manufacturers we work with that maybe don’t necessarily fit the typical mould of who people would expect us to partner.”
With the market still so uncertain, Dann acknowledged that 2021’s fortunes are unknown. “All the way through last year, even after we’d cleared the first year’s target in July, we still worried about each week. But I think we’ve started to understand that actually next week will be fine. It’s the bigger picture, what the opportunities are now, what they will be when we come out of lockdown this time, and being ready for them and continuing to be proactive.
“We’re not always going to get it right, but we will keep knocking on doors and putting the phone calls in.”
CCES has partnered with the following key catering equipment brands:
Lincat/Pitco/Turbochef – prime cooking equipment
Maidaid Halcyon – warewashing
Pentland Wholesale (Blizzard) – refrigeration
Brema – ice machines
Sammic – food preparation equipment
Chefset – lightware
CCES has recently added another string to its bow in the form of a personal contract purchase offering for catering equipment.
Drawing on inspiration from the motor trade, this new service will allow the dealership’s customers to lease appliances for an agreed term and at the end of this the client can either return the equipment or pay an amount to own it.
MD Simon Dann detailed: “It’s a lease purchase with the option to give it back, where we’re allowing enough capital at the end of the unit’s value. We’ve got a used market and we know what that looks like, so we can value that for 12 or 24 months’ time to help reduce monthly payments.
“It’s a value rental offering with the opportunity for ownership.”
CCES is beginning this offering with light equipment from Lincat. Dann believes: “Those foodservice businesses that come out the other side of lockdown will face a huge amount of equipment failures – there always is when appliances have been turned off for a long time.
“So a twin tank electric fryer at £8 a week, for example, is probably something operators will be happy to commit to, as opposed to an engineer’s call out, which is £100-plus before parts. It’s a big ask for a site which has been shut for months.”