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Celebrity-toppling Alastair Storey sees catering trade as table laden with opportunity

Alastair Storey, chief executive of WSH group. Picture: TSPL

Alastair Storey, chief executive of WSH group. Picture: TSPL

HAVING recently knocked celebrity chef Jamie Oliver from his perch as the “most-influential man in the UK hospitality industry”, Alastair Storey believes the time has come to put paid to the perception of contract catering as a Cinderella sector, writes Kristy Dorsey.

Storey flatly denies suggestions that his WSH group – whose operating companies serve up food at schools, universities and corporate canteens throughout the UK – is catering to captive audiences. There isn’t a whiff of industrial aura as he describes a vibrant and varied operation of cafes, bars, restaurants and similarly trendy venues.

“We are really competing against the high street for lunchtime and normal spends,” says the Scots-born executive.

“Most of our customers are anything but a captive audience. We operate out of a lot of city-centre locations, and people can choose to walk out of that building and go somewhere else to eat, just as they can pick up their coffee or their porridge or whatever on their way into work in the morning.”

WSH employs 12,500 people across five operating businesses, the largest and best-known of which is BaxterStorey, which provides catering for business, industry and universities.

Other WSH companies include Caterlink and Holroyd Howe – providing food to the state and private education sectors respectively – guest services specialist Portico and Benugo, the deli retailer that operates concessions in public venues such as Westminster Abbey, the British Museum and the National Museums of Scotland. Altogether, WSH generated sales of £406 million last year, with Storey predicting a further double-digit rise in turnover in 2012.

Part of that organic growth will be generated by BaxterStorey, which pulled off a significant coup in June when it took over the contract to provide catering for 50,000 employees at more than 40 Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) sites across the UK.

The RBS deal is worth £100m over five years and was secured after Restaurant Associates, a subsidiary of international giant Compass Group, lost the business. It is said to be one of the most-prestigious contracts of its kind yet awarded to a privately-owned operator such as WSH, which now ranks as the third-largest catering and hospitality contractor in the UK.

The second landmark achievement of 2012 came earlier this month, when Storey was ranked at the top of the Caterer and Hotelkeeper 100 list of most-influential people in the UK hospitality industry. It marked the first time in the five-year history of the rankings that the top slot was awarded to someone from the contract catering sector, with Storey putting an end to Jamie Oliver’s two-year reign.

“I think that is great for our sector, because it will encourage people to think about it when they are considering a career,” Storey says.

“We need more recognition, and we need more people. There are more than one million young people in this country out of work, and we are an industry that can offer great opportunities.”

He strongly advocates the benefits of training and is also committed to sustainable practices such as sourcing fresh local produce. It’s not just a matter of style, Storey insists – it all adds up to good business sense.

“There is a bit of a story there that interests customers and resonates with the times,” he says.

“We are not just choosing to invest in fresh local produce because we are food luvvies. We do love food – I prefer fresh produce, and I prefer to eat from local sources – but most people want that as well, and we have got to provide what our customers want.”

It’s a philosophy to which Storey has adhered since setting up what is now WSH 12 years ago in Berkshire. He co-founded the business with Keith Wilson, a former finance director at Granada subsidiary Sutcliffe Catering, where Storey worked for 25 years before striking out on his own.

Born in the Aberdeenshire village of Fyvie, Storey attended Robert Gordon’s College and was considering going to art school before a summer job as a waiter at a hotel in Fife opened his eyes to the possibilities in the hospitality sector.

“I really enjoyed it,” he recalls. “I realised that I might have a better talent for hospitality than for art, and there were probably better job prospects as well.”

He went on to study hospitality and catering management at Strathclyde University, which led in turn to a graduate trainee place with Sutcliffe, then owned by P&O. He rose through the ranks to become managing director of Sutcliffe Catering South East and, following the acquisition of Sutcliffe and Forte by Granada in the mid-1990s, he became managing director of the newly-formed Granada Food Services division.

He became “a very late-blooming entrepreneur” after realising that he would have to set up on his own if he wanted to be in control of corporate strategy. Although the early years of WSH featured a number of keyacquisitions, the emphasis now is upon measured organic growth alongside a healthy serving of common sense.

Given the company’s continuing growth through the economic downturn, his strategy is clearly a recipefor success.

“Instead of cutting back on training during the recession, we have continued to invest in training,” Storey said. “Because we are in control, we can continue to focus on sourcing fresh food locally.

“You retain and gain business through looking after the customers that you have, and you look after them by investing in great ingredients and great employees.”

60-SECOND CV

Born: 1953.

Education: Robert Gordon’s College, Strathclyde University.

First job: Waiter at a hotel in Fife.

Ambition while at school: I wanted to go to art school.

Car: Range Rover.

Kindle or book? I am a little bit traditional. I love a book – I love the feeling of a book.

Can’t live without: My wife. She makes me very happy.

Favourite place: Edinburgh is a beautiful city, and I like London as well.

What makes you angry: In working life I try very hard never to be angry, because I don’t think that is a very productive emotion.

Best thing about your job: It is a really sociable job, and you meet so many interesting people.

 

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