FORMULA 1 fan Alastair Storey's love of "intense competition" has helped fuel his company Westbury Street Holdings as it makes a success of sustainability.
London's British Museum is buzzing with visitors eager to see the new Pompeii exhibition. The Benugo restaurant where I meet Alastair Storey is no exception – it’s so busy, in fact, that the planned refurbishment won’t take place until autumn. The branded outlet has had a record year, increasing turnover by 35% and opening new branches at locations including Waterloo station, Covent Garden and Luton airport. But it is just part of the success story that is Westbury Street Holdings (WSH).
WSH recently announced impressive results for 2012 showing a £60m increase in annual turnover – more than 14% up on 2011. BaxterStorey, the UK’s largest independent business and industry caterer and WSH’s biggest company, posted similarly impressive results: turnover grew by 9% in England and Wales, 17% in Ireland and 29% in Scotland. Other WSH companies include Caterlink, catering for state education including day nurseries, primary, secondary and colleges; Holroyd Howe for independent schools and colleges; and Portico, a reception management and guest services outsourcing company.
As a private company, WSH doesn’t reveal profits. Storey, the company’s chairman and CEO, only offers the following: “We keep them at a sensible level. We’re not ambitious, as long as we have sufficient money to invest in training and development and some capital investment for growth.”
Not ambitious? This from someone who was recently voted the most powerful and influential man in UK hospitality. However, Storey says he has no plans to acquire anything at the moment. “But never say never,” he adds. “We’ve doubled in size since 2008 when the financial crisis hit.”
To what does he attribute this success during an economic downturn? “Each business focuses on different markets and looks at the real details of what will be successful. This is combined with enthusiasm and passion and that makes a big difference.”
As does a focus on sustainability. When he gave the Savoy lecture in March, he urged the industry to work together for a sustainable supply chain that commands a fair price for quality and traceability. Today, he slips easily into his green patter. “Our company’s whole ethos is about sustainability,” he says. “We believe we should buy as much produce locally in the UK as we can. We support artisans and encourage them to develop. We have a complicated [supply chain] in one sense as we have lots of suppliers, but the lines of communication are short.”
In Ireland, the company procures Irish produce, while in Scotland it’s Scottish and so on. “We are supportive of the local community,” he adds, but admits it is difficult to define what “local” is.
“If the site is in London, you try to get fruit and vegetables within 70 to 80 miles, but you [won’t] be able to get bananas. You have to import stuff such as coffee and tropical fruit, but the less you can use food miles, the better. All our fresh meat is British. In many sites we say where the produce comes from – that’s one of our big underlying principles.”
Serving locally sourced food is clearly important to Storey and as he explains, it’s not easy to do – it took 18 months for BaxterStorey to use only British bacon and a year to buy 100% Freedom Food eggs. “When we talk about sustainability, it’s how we do things – one step at a time, gradually. We’re constantly looking at how we can ratchet up another notch. We have goals and we want to improve all the time.”
Some environmental savings are out of his hands: 98% of catering equipment is provided by clients. If WSH purchased the equipment direct it would buy energy efficient equipment, he assures. “With a lot of clients, we work on energy reduction programmes. It’s not just about buying the equipment – you have to have effective training to make sure the equipment is only switched on when it needs to be. Our philosophy is trying to be conservative with what we use and not be excessive.”
As a Formula 1 fan, he likes to compare business with the motor racing track. “Formula 1 can be tedious to some people. I love the intense competition – the drivers win by a tiny fraction of a percentage – that’s a perfect competition.
“I’m not talking about other caterers that you compete with every few years. What we’re competing for is the £1 in the customer’s pocket – we see competition from everyone out there that provides food and drink. That helps with our competitive edge. We don’t have a captive audience. If we’re not as good as they are, we won’t succeed.”
For hospitality as a sector, success will require more support from government. Storey talks passionately about his belief that the government isn’t giving the foodservice industry the recognition it deserves. He says that while financial services are important to the economy, so are hospitality and tourism. “A strategic infrastructure needs to be put in place as there are so many things that influence the success of the industry – taxation, visas, easy access to the UK,” he says.
Storey was a speaker at last year’s British Hospitality Association (BHA) summit, which aimed to highlight the economic importance of the hospitality industry. He says the industry needs to get behind the BHA to have any chance of influencing government policies. Indeed, he remains dismayed by the 1m unemployed young people aged 16 to 24 in the UK.
“The hospitality industry is desperate for young people. Most people start out at entry level, myself included. It’s sad that not many young people see the hospitality industry as a natural place to work, so we need to be promoting how great it is.”
Storey planned a career in hotels but when, at 25, he met his wife, Liz, at hotel school he thought the industry wouldn’t be suitable for a young married couple so he joined Sutcliffe Catering. He spent 25 years there working up to his final role as group managing director before leaving in 2000 to start his own business with a colleague, Keith Wilson.
For Storey, 60, retirement isn’t on the agenda. His father, a chartered accountant, retired at 86. “As long as I’m healthy, why give up?” He certainly feels healthy. He took up skiing when he was 50 and is learning the guitar with his youngest daughter. He has five children and although his eldest, Helen, is his personal assistant, it’s too early to see whether the others will enter the industry. “But they all like food,” he says.