The life of Sir Garry Hawkes CBE- Are there lessons to be learnt from stories of the past?

Sir Garry Hawkes CBE has been one of the most influential figures in hospitality over the last forty year, playing a crucial role in the building of the very successful business – Gardner Merchant. In the next month, EP are proud to be publishing Sir Garry Hawkes’s memoir. We believe it holds real importance for existing leadership teams, business schools and hotel schools as there are so many lessons from the past, that are relevant today. One of our main aims with the book is to engage emerging leaders and business schools of the value of Sir Garry’s story. His memoir includes commentary from Sir Rocco Forte, Bob Cotton OBE (former government advisor and CEO of BHA), Bill Toner chief executive of CH & Co Group amongst others.

Being born in 1939, his early life was in a post-war Yorkshire. He was not a great lover of school but a lover of experiencing the great outdoors – building dens and playing games. Sir Garry spent a few years in the RAF, before he took his first step toward his long-standing catering career, and it was around this time he met Peggy, who would become his wife of fifty-six years. Being from a working-class background, Sir Garry approached life and business as a humble individual, never forgetting his roots and upholding strong moral values. Although the world has evolved and changed since the 70s and 80s, the need to put people at the heart of the business has remained the same.

During his early career he learnt about efficiency and bureaucracy, and the invaluable asset the individuals are to a successful business. Sir Garry recognised that the growth and development of Gardner Merchant would come from demanding sales success, improving operational efficiency by developing competent managers in a secure working environment. The acquisition of Kenley House as a HQ was a huge success. It bonded the company together but was also imperative in the success of obtaining new contracts as well as maintaining and nurturing old relations. Investing in Kenley House became highly symbolic and a catalyst in growing confidence and belief in Gardner Merchant, allowing for the success that followed. This begs the question as to why other companies in recent years, have not replicated the idea of acquiring Kenley House? Sir Garry had the perfect balance between a business mind-set and nurturing for its people. Over twenty years of Gardner Merchant, there was steady growth, a positive cash flow, no debts, and affordable acquisitions. The 70s and 80s were a very different socio-political landscape to what we see today, but nonetheless Sir Garry lead Gardner Merchant with a progressive approach, treating people equally irrelevant of gender or skin colour.

Under Sir Garry’s leadership, Gardner Merchant operated successfully in over 30 territories, branching into the European and American markets. Demonstrating a strong business model, values and putting people at the heart of the business. Sir Garry’s book demonstrates that by allowing a safe working environment where employees feel secure in their job, it breeds confidence for people to push the bounds and be unafraid of failure.

Sir Garry encapsulates throughout his book the highs and lows of business that naturally come with going after a career. From a booming Gardner Merchant business in the 80s to the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988, Sir Garry had gone from being in the peak of his life with a growing successful business to being in the middle of one of the costliest man-made catastrophes ever.

Four years later in 1992, Gardner Merchant went through a management buyout from Forte where the business was valued at £380m, but this was when everything changed, including Sir Garry’s job. The business began to incur massive debts with high interest rates, something that it never experienced under Sir Garry’s leadership. Ultimately, the approach to Gardner Merchant had shifted from a steady growth, long-term view to staying afloat and paying off debts becoming the predominant focus. The investment in people and development were over, with the steady growth in profitability vanishing fast. By 1995, Gardner Merchant, the market leading catering company exited to Sodexo, for £760m. Sir Garry concluded after 38 years, and the decision for Gardner Merchant’s name to change to Sodexo, it was time to stand down.

Sir Garry’s next chapter involved transforming vocational education and fighting for BTEC qualifications. Arguably, the story of Sir Garry and Gardner Merchant is more known than the work he did within education, despite the latter being just as admirable as he endeavoured to allow those from modest beginnings to have opportunities. Sir Garry was awarded a CBE in 1998 to commend him for his work in the catering industry, presented by the Queen herself and later commended again for work in education and the creation of the Edge Foundation.

Each chapter in his life saw new frustrations, whether it was broaching into foreign markets with Gardner Merchant or the complexities of structure and politics in the educational system. However, one constant throughout each chapter of his life was the fact Sir Garry as a leader never lost the desire to learn.

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