For most companies in the catering equipment supply chain, 2020 has been a year to forget. But microwave and accelerated cooking appliance servicing specialist, Marren Group, has really been bucking the trend with a steady stream of work, investments in technology, its own brand microwave launch and a major anniversary to boot.
In fact, once the first UK-wide lockdown was lifted the Earls Barton, the Northamptonshire-based firm was deluged with jobs, according to business development manager, Kelly Barrell: “We had a lot of work coming in, as with kitchens being mothballed during lockdown and then re-starting afterwards it caused issues. We continued to communicate with our customers to make sure we were working in line with what they needed.”
During the lockdown period, Marren did slim down to skeleton staff, which meant even operations director Malcolm Skinner had to head back out into the field to cover maintenance jobs in the north. The firm managed to complete not only reactive repairs but also planned preventative maintenance (PPM) visits throughout that time. But eventually the full force of the engineering fleet came back onstream to manage the flood of work Marren received, initially from major coffee shop chain operators, fast food outlets and subsequently pub groups.
And ahead of the second English lockdown which began on 5 November, Barrell reported that Marren had already strategically planned for such a situation, holding back work which the servicing firm could continue in shutdown periods.
But the workforce made sure they were keeping their skill levels up to date though, utilising the lockdowns for training. Training manager Stuart Blane and technical manager Kane Needs have been filming a variety of ‘how to’ videos, uploading them to a central repository called the Marren Vault. Barrell revealed: “The engineers can access these videos for new learning and development or a general refresh. The Marren Vault is getting filled day by day with different videos and the lockdown periods have really given us the opportunity to expand that.”
Also proving even more useful for the span of time with skeleton staff were the ‘smart glasses’ Marren invested in a couple of years ago. This ‘wearable computer’ gives a live real-time feed from the field back to headquarters, enabling Blane to see exactly what an engineer is viewing and use augmented reality to solve any issues. Barrell detailed: “If a job needs a second pair of eyes then the engineer can have that, and it helps new starters as well. It’s been really successful – we’ve got a specialist on the other end of the feed able to guide engineers through.”
That’s not the only technological investment Marren recently made, it also upgraded its IT systems at the beginning of the year. This includes an integrated asset management system. “We can now offer customers an asset report,” said Barrell. “If we’re working with a client that wants to look at their assets across the board, we can produce condition reports. If we’re covering a whole estate then it gives them the whole picture, especially if we are carrying out PPMs, so they stay more up to date on an annual basis. And when it comes to replacing equipment, they know exactly where to allocate their funds; it’s worked really well with some of our clients in the retail sector.
“It’s quite surprising that operators’ asset management isn’t where it needs to be, so it’s been really beneficial. It helps them to change their mindset and prioritise opex more.”
Another benefit of the software is that it means Marren has gone almost completely paperless now, which is a boon for sustainability too. “We can now invoice by email and internally raise tasks – it has improved the service levels we can provide customers.”
Continuing the digital improvements, Marren updated its website in October for only the second time in the group’s history. A year in the making, the main thrust of the re-launch was that the previous version was more geared around e-commerce, but the company wanted a site that was equally balanced with detailing Marren’s service offerings, according to Barrell: “We’ve extended our proactive maintenance service plans and taken on more service partnerships, and we wanted to be able to convey that to our customer base. So now there are a lot of individual pages that relate to specific brands; the customers can visit the pages and really learn about the brands, for example the warranty and service work that we do for Turbochef.”
The online shop has been updated with all Marren’s latest products, parts and accessories, which can be searched by brand, product name or code to facilitate quickly finding what is required. Plus the new LiveChat option gives users instant access to a member of the Marren team to answer queries.
The website has been built to operate on a mobile device, to enable browsers to access content on the move, or to order parts or accessories onsite.
Other new features and resources added to the website include ‘find a drawing’, for those unsure on which part or accessory is required. These drawings, manuals and parts lists provide detailed information on every aspect of catering appliances.
Barrell continued: “The website is a go-to for everybody that is interested in accelerated oven technology, cook and hold, and microwaves. There will also be how-to videos uploaded, and as we add content on, we’ll share that through our social media.”
Marren is hoping to work with its manufacturer partners to host tutorial videos for their appliances, such as how to program an accelerated oven. Barrell added: “Another advantage for the videos is from a customer service point of view. If customers contact us with queries about how to clean the filter on their microwave, our team can direct them to the videos on our website.”
The brands the servicing specialist works with include Turbochef, Sharp, Panasonic, Hatco, Menumaster and Samsung. “We will always be a specialist, there isn’t a plan to become a generalist,” emphasised Barrell. “But we are trying to slightly diversify into cook and hold appliances, partnering with brands such as Alto Shaam and FWE.”
Furthermore the company has formed new service partnerships with ACP and Falcon to support Menumaster XpressChef ovens and Falcon Xpress respectively in the accelerated cooking sector. Barrell explained: “Falcon wanted to use specialists in the field. They wanted to be able to offer the operator confidence that they’re going to get a great after-service. And then ACP followed on from that.”
Another big new addition is Rational. “I think it was only then right to step into the combi oven sector,” said Barrell. “We were already working with a major pub group on their accelerated ovens and they were so happy with our service they asked us to consider the Rational brand.”
The servicing specialist also started working with Rational nationwide over the last 12 months, with Stuart Blane’s recruitment as one of only three Rational-approved trainers in the country ensuring its engineers were equipped with the right knowledge. “We wanted to make sure we had the right trainer on board for Rational, and since taking on the brand, our partnership has grown in leaps and bounds,” commented Barrell. “Originally we were going to keep it very restricted to that one pub group until we felt we could deliver a second to none service, and we feel like we’re there now. We’re happy to put the Rational offering out to all customers across all market sectors. It might be sectors we haven’t worked with in the past so we’ll see what happens over the next 12-24 months.”
And as for those next couple of years? Barrell concluded: “We’re extremely confident that we’re going to come through the other end of this Covid period with no issues whatsoever. We’re extremely strong and we have much in place to make sure we come through it very well. We’re finding we’re working more and more with manufacturers, and we’re all looking to help each other out in these times, which is really nice.”
Own brand microwave
Earlier this year, Marren moved into becoming a microwave supplier itself, launching its own brand, starting with the ISM-1800 model. Backed by a manufacturer 3-year on-site warranty, the new microwave is designed to be quick and easy to clean with removable roof liner.
It features top and bottom magnetrons for a greater and more even heat distribution and has a 17.9litre capacity to allow more food to be cooked in one cycle.
With 1,800W power for faster cooking times, increased efficiency and speed of service, the unit also incorporates 100 auto programs for accurate temperature settings and to help prevent over or undercooking, while bulk program imports can be facilitated via USB for new menu rollouts.
Marren business development manager, Kelly Barrell, detailed: “Marren’s always wanted to launch a microwave but I think in the last 12 months we realised that we wanted it to be based on sustainability, to repair rather than replace. Of course service is our bread and butter, so it does benefit us if it is repaired, but it does create more of a sustainable option for the customer.
“We’re finding now that parts are getting so expensive that it becomes unviable to repair microwaves and operators are having to invest in another unit. Some pub groups are even purchasing units without warranty. So the idea behind our microwave is to encourage repair, which a lot of people are doing at the moment with Covid.”
Marren developed the design with the company’s preferred manufacturer, and refined the construction as the test units came through. “We’ve looked at the components and we feel it is a good quality build, which is what we needed to compete with other major industry brands,” said Barrell.
The Marren microwave has been available to end users since February, with Barrell reporting: “We’ve had lots of units going into trial, especially in pub groups, which we seem to be getting a lot of interest from.”
She teased: “We’ve got another pub group taking it on in February when our next batch comes through, and on the back of that we have another appliance project.”
2020 marked the 35th anniversary of the Marren Group’s incorporation, and despite the pandemic, the team managed to mark the occasion. The Northamptonshire head office held a socially distanced celebration in August, which the directors paid for out of their own pockets.
The company began life in 1985 when Ian Marren established it in a Wollaston, Northamptonshire premises. Prior to that, he’d traded from his own home in Northampton.
Moving to a commercial property in the same village in 1990, the number of engineers and staff increased to over 25 by this point, serving a growing customer base including Tesco, Travellers Fayre, Greene King and Mitchells & Butlers.
A year later, Bob Clifford joined the company to establish the sales team and expand the services department; at that time he was tasked with selling microwave ovens. He took over the MD role just a year later, however, helping to evolve Marren from a sales business to a service-based company.
By 2000 the team had grown to 50, with over 25 administrative and parts department staff, and therefore moved to a larger premises in Wollaston, which was in fact an old Dr Marten’s manufacturing site.
A decade later, Marren bought CES Microcare, a company it had previously sub-contracted in Scotland. The firm’s owner Malcolm Skinner and his employees were all retained by Marren, with Skinner becoming Marren’s operations director in 2011.
Since 2017 Marren has operated from an even larger base locally in Earls Barton, including the operational teams, a dedicated training facility and its spare parts division. And in 2019 the firm moved its regional office in Grangemouth, Scotland to a nearby premises of 1,714ft2, which was twice the size of its previous office.
Today Marren is a company with over 70 employees. So what does business development manager Kelly Barrell believe is the secret to the firm’s longevity? “It’s still an independent business, partly owned by the founder. Decisions get made really quickly, and Marren puts a lot of trust in all of its employees.”