Andrew Wilson started Leicestershire-based contract catering company Wilson Vale with his wife Carolyne Vale in 2002 when Nelson Hind, the company they’d worked at for more than nine years, was sold to Avenance (later to Elior). Wilson Vale now holds 95 catering contracts at businesses and schools across the UK, employs 750 people and is expecting to turnover £29m this year. Andrew talks to Hospitality & Catering News about the importance of ‘sticking to your knitting’, why we should ignore doom-mongering in the press and what he predicts to be big in contract catering in 2018.
What led you to set up Wilson Vale 15 years ago?
Like most people who take the plunge and start their own company, fundamentally you do it because you enjoy it and you think you can make a mark in a particular niche.
We worked for some fabulous guys – Chris Hind and Andrew Nelson – for 25 years, firstly in a large organisation which is now Compass Group and then Nelson Hind from 1991 when they started it up.
Carolyne and I enjoyed working there for nine and a half years, but then Chris and Andrew decided to sell the business.
At that point we were in our early 40s with an 11-year-old daughter and ‘thought what do we do?’ We both had senior positions, so thought ‘do we take the easy, comfortable option and stay working with somebody and enjoy what we do but not love it, or do we take the wacky decision to start up on our own?’ in five seconds we decided we were going to do that. It was wanting to create a company that had our vision and values attached to it and one we could enjoy – that was the fundamental reason we did it.
What are Wilson Value’s vision and values?
I always say ‘stick to your knitting’. We are seriously consistent to the point some might say is boring, but one of the hallmarks of Wilson Vale is that we don’t deviate, don’t change and we stick to the original recipe. We started the company with a particular vision – to be food and ingredients focused, using local suppliers where possible and giving our managers a level of freedom – and that’s not changed.
We have no centralised control, other than have standards delivery for our teams. We’ve got 275 suppliers, 65% of them of which are family-owned. We employ people for their food skills and always ensure they get the product right. We also decided we were only going to grow at a certain rate, because you can’t keep things consistent if you grow too quickly.
In 15 years the growth plan hasn’t changed, the culture and philosophies haven’t changed, they’ve just been slightly honed and adapted as we’ve gone through to meet different needs. We have the same aspirational thoughts we had when we sat around our kitchen table 16 years ago.
How do you grow a business slowly, but still make it successful?
We are an operationally-driven business. We have 17 people in our operations team at area management level and up while we’ve got just one person in the sales team, so it’s heavily biased to make sure we deliver on our promises to our existing clients. If we have a call between going to see some new business, or an existing client wants to see us, we always go to the existing client and I think that’s quite unusual, but it works for us.
Wilson Vale has been listed in the top 20 of the Foodservice Growth Report for the last five years, what have you done to remain so high on that list?
I think it’s down to selecting the right clients, who have similar ethos and values, to work for, because if you have a long-term relationship and everybody’s on the same page you’re most of the way there. We work well for companies who care about their employees because that’s what we feel. Picking the right client is important, because if you do that you’re not wasting time and you’re also having long relationships with people, which is beneficial to both. We sold five contracts in our first year and we’re still working with three of them. The other two closed sites completely, so there wasn’t anything I could do about that. Last year and this year every piece of business has been through an existing client. People don’t choose us because of price, it’s because of value I think.
There has been a lot of focus by the government on improving nutrition for children. As a company supplying catering within the educational sector, how do you manage that attention and pressure?
We’ve done what we’ve done since 2002. We use fresh ingredients, source locally and cook everything fresh, we always have done. We don’t treat our educational business any different from our B&I business. We’re quoting for a school at the moment and I took the team there to a corporate headquarters for lunch because they are exactly the same. All you do is tweak the menu slightly – for example, not as much chilli and no nuts. When the horsemeat scandal kicked off a few years ago we didn’t have to worry about anything, because we don’t buy burgers in, we make them ourselves.
You run the business with your wife Carolyne, how do you manage to separate your professional and private partnerships to ensure success in both areas?
We’ve always worked together and because we do different things – Carolyne looks after the operations teams and existing clients and I support sales on new business and new relationships – we are working in different spheres. We have complimentary skills in that regard, so it works very well. I think the challenge when we started was it was completely overriding. We lived and breathed work. We were putting in 90 hour weeks for a long time and didn’t have a holiday for eight years.
We have a pretty harmonious relationship. We nip and snap at each other about little things, like most couples do, but generally we are on the same page. We have introduced a simple rule now which is not to talk work after 8pm. I remember when our daughter Becky was 12 and we were sitting around the table for supper saying ‘can we talk about something other than work’? and that was a bit of a defining moment, but now, because she works in the business as well, I find myself having the same conversations with her and her mother.
Who, or what inspires you?
I think people that are passionate and work hard and with great integrity whatever they’re doing, so that could be people working with the disadvantaged, or entrepreneurs. I know some really impressive craftsmen in wood and they make beautiful things as they have a real dedication and passion. I find them inspiring doing the best in whatever they are doing. I’m also impressed by how large organisations make it work, because I know how hard we have to work to get standards right in our company and we’re quite small. When you scale it up that’s a real talent. If you go into M&S and pick up a seasonal dish on promotion, the work to get that there on the right shelf at the right time and at right price is incredible. I don’t know how they do it actually.
What is the biggest issue the industry is facing and how do you think we can solve it?
The industry is linked to the wider economy and I think the issue is one of confidence. The press are determined to drive us into recession and only focus on bad news. But at the moment I think we’re in a strong place. If you didn’t listen to the news and drove around the country and saw the amount of traffic on the roads and city centre restaurants rammed with people eating out you’d wonder what they were talking about. The biggest issue specifically for us as an industry is skills. Having access to labour that really wants to do a great job in hospitality is a challenge. That’s why we invest in training and nurturing our staff to promote from within. We’ve got at least four chef managers here who have started as general assistants and have been promoted.
We’re approaching the end of the year and looking towards 2018. What trends do you predict to be big in contract catering next year?
Vegan and vegetarianism is a growing trend and an area we’re looking at because people seem to be eating less meat. We always offer vegetarian, but we’re finding that more meat eaters will eat vegetarian and vegan food now. I’d say its about 30-35% of people now eat more flexibly. It’s exceptionally tasty and healthier as well, so I think that’s something that will certainly take off a bit more in the next year.
What does the future hold for you and Wilson Vale?
Hopefully we’ll continue as we have done in last 15 years. We are investing a lot of money in the brand new office over our car park, which will give us a home for at least the next five years. We’re not going anywhere and will continue because we fundamentally love what we do. Genuinely money does not motivate us, it’s the team success and seeing people grow. That sustains most financial success that’s for sure.
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor