Industry milestones can’t be celebrated as usual in these chaotic Covid times, but it’s worth pausing for a moment when your company has reached its 40th anniversary. That’s exactly the situation for Basildon, Essex-based Swift Catering Equipment, which in September passed four decades in business.
Directors Bill and Ashley Munro, a father and son management team, believe that in the current climate, the most responsible thing to do is to have an in-house office celebration. They are hoping to mark the occasion with larger festivities later down the line.
Bill commented: “It’s a family business – I’ve always regarded my employees as my second family.” And many have shown familial loyalty to Swift, with several long-serving employees, including office manager Sylvia Marks, who has been with the company for 35 years. While at the other end of the scale, the Essex distributor is keen to foster young talent such as service desk administrator Sian Vinent, who has spent 5 years at the business after being taken on as an apprentice at 16.
Apprenticeships are something the dealer has wanted to maintain, including taking on older apprentices and those who want to change careers. However, staff shortages at the local educational authority, forcing the abandonment of a refrigeration engineer course, mean that currently Swift is unable to train the technicians it would like to.
The distributor now numbers 17 employees, including five engineers, but it was very different for Bill in 1981, starting as a one-man band. Quipping that it was unusual to see him in a suit, as Catering Insight did when we spoke to him, he recalled: “I’m an engineer by trade. My colleague Alan Palmer and I had worked for a company called Catermart and he had taken me on as the engineering service manager.
“He left and started up Maidaid (Eastern) and I offered to come with him and run a service department for him. He said he wasn’t getting involved in that but if I wanted to start my own business, he’d give me some work.”
And therefore Swift Catering Services, as it was then, was born. Bill took inspiration for the name from the birds he had seen in his locale. “I’d got all these swifts flying around and they were catching flies on the wing. I thought, well they are fast, efficient and reliable – they come back every year. So fast, efficient and reliable became our motto.”
Focusing initially on catering equipment maintenance, Swift’s first base of operations was Bill’s house, starting in his children’s nursery and then switching into the dining room area. Just a few years later, the firm branched into sales in 1984, when one fish bar client in Cressing, Essex, asked Bill to quote for a replacement fryer. “I’d never been in sales and I didn’t know anything about it. My client explained the process: that I go to a manufacturer, get a discount, give him a little bit, keep the bulk for myself, and the deal was done. Then we progressed from there.”
By 1988, the company was gaining enough success to move to a small office warehouse in Billericay, later moving into a bigger warehouse and premises nearby.
Then in the early 90s, full project work came calling, courtesy of Anglia Taverns, which was a subsidiary of the Scottish & Newcastle pub group – now known as Star Pubs & Bars. Bill detailed: “I was doing maintenance work for them and they had been let down by a supplier who’d gone bust. They asked on a Monday whether I could put a project together for them by the Friday. Fortunately I was given all the drawings – by Tuesday I’d got most of the equipment organised to come in and I installed it on Friday morning, ready for opening on Friday night!”
Describing projects as a “steep learning curve”, Bill persevered with adding design to Swift’s offerings, throughout the era of printed blueprints and tracing paper, and onto CAD systems in 1994.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing throughout the years though, with the recession in the 90s proving a particular pinch point. “We just had to put our heads down and keep going, same as everybody’s done for this last 18 months,” said Bill. “I think we’ve been through so many recessions as a company, that we know you’ve just got to put your nose to the grindstone.”
Another tough time, the banking crisis in 2008, inspired the firm to branch out into fabrications, with Ashley converting the then-showroom into a workshop. With the current abundance of fabrication work post-hospitality-reopening, it’s a decision that has served the distributor well.
So how did Swift cope through the coronavirus-impacted period? Bill revealed: “When everything kicked off, I furloughed most of the staff, but kept some in maintenance and one in sales, just to keep things ticking over.” He gradually brought staff back from June 2020 onwards and was back up to a full complement by February 2021.
It was at this point that demand started to spike, according to Ashley: “Once Boris Johnson laid out the roadmap for reopening, the phones just went ballistic. Since then, it’s not slowed down.” While Bill added: “Like everybody’s saying in the industry, we have more work than we can cope with – we can’t get the staff.” He further revealed that Swift is looking for new employees in its sales, service and fabrications departments. “We have been working all hours and have even sub-contracted some manufacturing out.”
Ashley additionally noted: “Last year we were down on turnover, but 2021 is probably close to being our best year ever. I think with the crisis last year, we had orders lined up and they got delayed. All of that was spread out over 6 months, but as soon as business came back, operators all wanted everything in that first month.”
Ashley has grown up with the business being an integral part of his family. In 2002 he first joined the company, but took a 6 month sabbatical to then return in April 2003. While he started off in the engineering side of things, enrolling in a national diploma, halfway through the course: “I got thrown the AutoCAD manual and was told to learn it! I moved on to designing and sales from then on.”
It’s a domain that he still oversees, with Bill focusing on the fabrication factory alongside office manager Marks. Ashley’s first design and sales project was at Leatherhead Leisure Centre, but there’s another scheme that particularly stands out for him: DP World port at Stanford-le-Hope. “It was a nicely put together project but it was a challenging install,” he said. And one of the reasons for the challenge was explosive: “When we had our induction on site, we had to be wary of bombs, because they were digging it all up and finding WW2 bombs from the Blitz!”
Typically, most of Swift’s work has come about through word of mouth, and while the firm has usually stuck close to its Essex location, it has also ventured across the country with one particular repeat customer having sites in Leeds, Glasgow, Birmingham, Southampton and Eastbourne. The mix of end user sectors has developed throughout the years too, with cafes and fish and chip shops dominating in the early days, while pubs, restaurants and schools were latterly added into the portfolio to create a broad remit of capabilities. Nowadays, sales and project work are around 80% of the distributor’s undertakings, with the remaining 20% as servicing and maintenance.
Back up the supply chain, Swift regularly works with big names including Rational, Falcon, Liebherr and Maidaid. However, Brexit has definitely affected the decisions the distributor is making, with Ashley commenting: “I think Brexit has impacted our industry a lot. The majority of the manufacturers are coming from the mainland continent, so it was always going to affect us, but it’s been a lot more than we thought.
“When we got past the red tape of importation, it made life a bit easier until Covid struck and the container prices went through the roof.”
While Bill underlined: “The shipping costs now outweigh everything so we are back to effectively trying to buy British. We have always tried to stick close to home for purchasing though.”
In terms of what attributes the company looks for with regards to suppliers in general, he said: “Reliable service, stable and quality. A lot of cheaper manufacturers are cheap for a reason! Our suppliers have to not just uphold their name but ours too, because we are the ones that have recommended them.”
Swift is now looking to make a bit more noise about its own capabilities, taking on a dedicated marketing manager in the form of Debbie Denton. According to Bill: “We are raising our profile and making people more aware of us. It’s something I’ve never done – I’m an engineer and I’m not that way inclined. But we have been here 40 years and it’s an achievement.”
So what does he think is the secret to the company’s longevity? “Attention to detail. We don’t always get it right, but when anything goes wrong, we fix it quickly.” Other recent investments including taking on the experienced Ian Foster to expand Swift’s CAD capabilities, as well as using the Specifi configure, price, quote platform to gain easier access to 3D design.
Bill is making gradual moves to retire in the not so distant future though, cutting down to a 4-day week for the past couple of years. While Bill is transitioning to more of a supporting role, Ashley teased: “Swift is another one of his babies. He is never going to walk away completely. Even in his 80s I bet I could call him up for advice and he’d be at the office door within 10 minutes!”
For when the baton is officially passed to Ashley though, he would like to expand the fabrications side further, and create own-branded and bespoke products to sell onto others, not just for Swift’s projects.
The distributor is once again looking for new local premises to purchase too, as it finds it is outgrowing its current Basildon base. Bill also hinted that there is another big development coming down the track, but was tight-lipped about what it could be. So for the next 40 years of Swift, the message is: watch this space.
To mark Swift Catering Equipment’s 40th anniversary, the company’s first customer, Alan Palmer of Maidaid (Eastern), was given a tour of the firm’s Basildon-based workshop.
Swift’s founder Bill Munro showed Palmer around his company’s factory, and Palmer commented: “Although it was 40 years ago when we first dealt with Swift Catering, I recall our staff were always happy dealing with them as they were professional, reliable and paid a great deal of attention to detail.
“Bill Munro seemed to be everywhere, making sure we and our customers received a top rate service. I highly recommend this company and a huge congratulations on 40 years of trading.”