A natural love for the industry

EP looks back on the career of a true foodservice leader

During the 1980s and 90s – now known as the golden era of catering – Marc Verstringhe was an old-fashioned leader who embodied a set of values that made his business stand alone above all others

 

Marc founded and led one of the major foodservice catering forces of the period between 1975-2000 – Catering & Allied.

At its peak, the business made contract catering almost appear to be sexy, quite an achievement as, back in the 1980s, contract catering was seen to be the poor relationin the hospitality industry. It is due to the work of the sector’s leaders of his time that brought up the profile and reputation of the sector; so much so that the 1990s were a truly golden era that saw key characters such as Alastair Storey, Bill Toner, Tim West and William Baxter come to the fore.

Catering & Allied was a company built on a belief in empowering people to deliver great food and service. One of the highest compliments probably ever paid was when a fierce competitor once banned employees from ever mentioning their name.

For many of those employed by Catering & Allied, it has been hard to find a similar ethos or culture again and they will often be found still talking fondly about the governing philosophies that stood behind the company. There are others who will say that the world has changed and that the company was right for its time and could not operate in today’s market. This is simply not true. What made Catering & Allied different – whether for the good and the bad – was Marc. Marc was its soul and driver and without him, in truth, the company would not have been seen in the same light as it was. He embodied the high principles that the company stood for. It should also be noted that Marc would be the first to disagree with this comment as he would point to his colleagues.

It can be argued that the company’s culture became a weakness in time as when Marc took a step slightly away from the coal face, others tried to copy Marc’s approach without success – it was more than just a philosophy, it was a culture glued together by his spirit and generosity. This may sound overly complimentary towards the man, but the reality is that Marc’s strengths and weaknesses were the company’s strengths and weaknesses. Again Marc will argue that he had strong beliefs, principles and strategies that he brought to the company. This is absolutely correct but the question is whether the next layers down in the company drivers really understood Marc’s thinking. As will often happen, when Marc and his closest team took a step away, the culture becomes gradually compromised as the principles were subtly changed and altered. And as this happened the company became slightly less competitive. It is natural and a common problem for ‘generous’ and very supportive entrepreneurs. The culture comes to rely too much on the individual and their generosity, so that when it is no longer there, the founding principles start to be altered and decline sets in. But at its peak, Catering & Allied was a company that every competitor admired.

Marc believed that Directors should not build and work in ‘ivory towers’ but stay close to their clients and hence believed that, as the old saying goes, “small is beautiful”.

Marc and the co-founders believed that to retain the core values of the company, it was important that leadership teams were close geographically to its clients. This led and dictated the approach of the company to its growth in both London and Holland. Each founder had a clear remit and each was close to the coal face with no desire to leave it.

Catering & Allied was very commercially focussed and, in fact, outperformed many of the ‘reputedly’ more business-orientated concerns where it counted most. He will note that all the original investors had a return on their investment that was close to 1,600 fold. He will also point to a 1998 report that calculated productivity of employees versus turnover placed Catering & Allied ahead of all its major competitors with the average employee contributing £34,391 – their closest competitor was High Table with £32,391, with Compass lagging behind at £25,154. The company was the market leader in London, Holland and also had a shareholding in another market leader, Digby Trout. Chiltern was aborted as it is hard to translate the successful formula in London to outside.

Marc believes in freeing up the individual to perform in a position and not in manuals. He would describe the company’s approach as a ‘patron driven’ methodology whereby the manager on site was the ‘patron’ and could bring their own style/approach to the restaurant. This worked for a long period of time but arguably began to suffer as the market turned in the early 1990s and costs became tighter.

 

So what makes Marc different to others?

To answer this, one needs to understand Marc. Even today in retirement the man is passionate about the industry. He will still attend industry meetings and is still actively promoting the importance of strong links between education and industry. He speaks with an enthusiasm that makes it very easy to understand why Catering & Allied stood that one step apart from others.

For some, discussing friendship in business may sound almost ‘soft’ but to Marc it is fundamental – he would often have lunch with key competitors and happily swap information and war stories.

The son of a Belgian hotelier, Marc grew up in the seaside resort of Knokke-le-Zoute. He understood early the importance of client satisfaction and how it would impact on business. His father encouraged Marc to think broadly and to be ‘international’ in thought and deed. He ensured that the young Marc was multilingual – which although common today was unusual in the late 40s. These two points do go a long way to understanding Marc as he wanted his customers to be inspired. Marc was driven from day one of his business by the question, ‘Why should a client choose us?’ To Marc it was natural; to others it was radical.

The final point that can also be related to this period was Marc’s thirst for knowledge. He takes great enjoyment from learning from new cultures and environments and has a mind that wants to listen and learn.

In 1954, Marc was called up for Military Service with the Belgian Forces in Germany. He found this period useful as it helped him see life through different eyes and to plan and think strategically. After National Service in 1957, Marc moved to England and became Restaurant Manager at The Lygon Arms and his career in England started developing very quickly. By 1971, he became Managing Director of Sutcliffe Catering and in 1975 founded Catering & Allied with his colleagues Kit Cuthbert and Jan Hoops. He broke away from Sutcliffe because he felt that the company’s principles had changed and was losing his creativity and focus on clients. With this in mind, it would be inevitable that Marc would move on as he could not be dishonest to his beliefs.

It is too simplistic to argue that Marc inspired many because he had strong belief and conviction in the things that others were also inspired by. This is certainly true. In essence he created a structure that allowed good people to express themselves. He understood creative talents and always freed them up to be creative. He achieved this through a desire to exceed a client’s expectations and understood what this required but he also had empathy with the creative talent, which could be difficult. It was this empathy, and often generosity, that allowed his team to trust him and want to be successful for the man. But it was also inevitable that over time maintaining this would be hard as others would learn, catch up and bring new innovations through.