THE BIG INTERVIEW: WilcoxBurchmore details an increasing move to front of house

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Michael Burchmore and Cathy Wilcox believe they have complementary skillsets.

It’s clear to see the passion that WilcoxBurchmore founders Cathy Wilcox and Michael Burchmore have about their work. “I really do love my job,” declared Wilcox during our meeting. Now this zeal is extending to the interior design sphere, and in particular, flooring.

The Ruislip-based kitchen design house is increasingly being asked to take on projects with a front of house or interior component, with both directors reporting that a particular scheme in Central Hall, Westminster really took the firm’s capabilities to the next level.

Burchmore detailed: “It was a complete coffee bar, servery and salad bar refit, refurbishing an old dining room. That established us as more front of house.” While Wilcox added: “Because it’s a public restaurant, people can visit any time and see our design.

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“The more we’ve done front of house, the more it seems it’s in demand. The trend is customer-driven.”

This was also reflected in a job the firm completed for employee benefits company Unum last year, focusing on the counter outfit as well as the kitchen and liaising with the end user’s interior designer and building contractor. Unum was so impressed with this, it asked WilcoxBurchmore to quote for its Basingstoke branch refurbishment this year – on the interior design. This would essentially be a turnkey project comprising everything from installing an ‘atrophied moss’ wall in the reception to the utilities in the dining room.

While the distributor has hired external interior designers prior to now, Wilcox in particular is keen to add this skill to her own arsenal, having had an extensive background in light equipment – therefore almost coming full-circle in the sector. “I was known as the light equipment queen of the industry, everybody used to come to me,” she recalled. Major clients during her spell in the light equipment arena included Credit Suisse, British Airways and Computer Associates.

WilcoxBurchmore’s niche has tended to be business and industry and school projects, with contracts often won due to word of mouth, though it does engage a marketing agency to bang the media and social media drum. According to Burchmore: “One of our company values is that you are only as good as your last job.”

WilcoxBurchmore’s oufit at Central Hall, Westminster, showcased its front of house abilities.

Wilcox further explained: “It’s all about people. We always send a congratulations card to our industry friends when they start a new role. If you do a good job for them, you will pick up more projects from them when they move.”

With an average slate of 12-14 simultaneous projects, the distributor’s small team have to keep many plates spinning, using spreadsheets and colour coding to keep track of progress. “We are organised to the point of pedantry onsite,” commented Wilcox. “We can add value by doing flooring and interiors in addition to kitchens because we will control it all.”

And to keep the workload mix interesting, WilcoxBurchmore also takes on a couple of consultancies a year, though this is not the firm’s main focus.

Its core business is still kitchens, and to ensure its clients are satisfied, the company has a ‘triple care’ mantra: care before, care in preparation and care afterwards. Wilcox explained: “This means listening to what the client wants, making sure our designs are good and our quotes are accurate, and the installation is carried out correctly according to legislation.

“Care afterwards is really important, and when we have our internal catch-ups a few times a week we always start with service calls, because if a piece of kit isn’t working, it’s just a piece of broken furniture in the kitchen.”

The distributor’s project designer, Emma Thomas, manages all warranty service calls, with Wilcox reporting: “Emma always keeps in touch with our customers. She lets them know when the engineer is coming out and always phones afterwards to make sure everything is ok. There’s always somebody keeping the customer abreast of what’s happening.

“And I truly believe that’s why 91% of our custom is repeat business. Somebody said to me, ‘you’re not the cheapest, but you’re the best’ and I like that. We always keep our promises.”

The team begins each project by asking the end user what food they will be serving, how it is prepared, what utilities are available and lastly what the budget is. “It has to start with the menu though, because until we know that, we can’t design a kitchen,” said Wilcox. “Our job is to make sure that we give the best advice.” While Burchmore added: “And if there’s a problem we can sort it out straightaway.”

Both express their admiration for each other, agreeing they make great business partners. Wilcox revealed: “We are very good at working together, we’ve definitely got the same core beliefs.” And Burchmore emphasised: “It works because she’s extroverted and I’m introverted.”

Subsequently, Wilcox asserted: “Michael is the most innovative designer I’ve ever worked with,” adding that on occasion they both create a design for a prospective project and ask the client to choose between them, though Burchmore responded: “Most of the time we actually merge the designs together and it comes out really well.”

The distributor’s proposed design for Unum’s Basingstoke branch.

In terms of working with the rest of the supply chain, the company liaises with manufacturers themselves for appliance installations, as well as relying on a network of trusted local installers. The distributor also balances working with proven equipment suppliers and bringing in novel innovations. To that end, the team ensures it visits relevant trade shows to to see the latest technology – in particular singling the Catertherm Hot and Cold Display Plate for praise. Wilcox noted: “If a new company comes along we always make time to see the salespeople. We will give people a chance, but they only get one chance.”

And the business endeavours to treat suppliers the way it would want to be treated, with Wilcox explaining: “We always pay on time. Michael and I have both worked for companies where it’s like trying to get blood out of a stone and we said we were never going to do that.”

Plus Wilcox in particular focuses on mingling with other industry luminaries. “I’ve been on networking courses and I go to a lot of networking events,” she reported. “I genuinely enjoy them and I think that does come across.”

These skills come in useful for the roles she holds for both CEDA, as southern regional vice chair, and as a council member at the Association of Catering Excellence. Both she and Burchmore lauded CEDA for helping to professionalise the UK catering equipment industry.

Looking ahead at WilcoxBurchmore’s own future, Wilcox predicted: “We will continue to adapt to market trends, and I think being a small company means we are able to do so.

“We will increase the team of expert associates we work with, rather than our headcount. One of our biggest selling points is that I’m the person our clients see on the first day of planning a project and the one that gives them the sheet to sign off the completed job.”

From founding to now

Cathy Wilcox and Michael Burchmore started WilcoxBurchmore in 2011 following the pair being made redundant from McFT when it phased out its project department.

Working from an office building in the back garden of Wilcox’s house ensures that the business is efficient. According to Wilcox: “I’ve seen with other start-up companies it’s very easy to saddle yourself with overheads. So it works really well in our offices. There’s a separate entrance; I can close the door at end of the day – it doesn’t encroach on my home life at all. But it means that we can keep our overheads low.”

When they were setting the firm up, suppliers were understandably wary and many refused them credit. “I will never forget who granted us credit at the start – Storer Refrigeration and Gram,” recalled Wilcox. “There were people who really believed in us and today Storer’s is still one of our biggest spends, we’ve got such a good relationship with them.”

As to the business performance in the time since, Wilcox assessed: “We had a couple of difficult years to be honest, when we stepped out of our usual market. But because we’ve been quite cautious with money, we’ve been able to weather that. So now we’re embracing change and diversification.”

The company’s headcount has been maintained throughout at around four or five people, with Burchmore commenting: “We are a small, niche company, we are not trying to be a big corporate, system-based outfit. If we need more resources we can outsource them – there are so many freelancers out there, you just need to search for them.”

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Clare Nicholls

The author Clare Nicholls

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