In his first in-depth interview since becoming MD of Q Catering, Steve Clarke talks to Cash & Carry Management’s managing editor Kirsti Sharratt about his plans for the business.
When competition for customers is intense, independent wholesalers can stand out by focusing on different aspects of their service, believes Steve Clarke (right), managing director of Sittingbourne-based Q Catering.
“The independent wholesaler is an integral part of the foodservice arena,” he maintains. “We tend to be a little bit more nimble than the larger corporate wholesalers in the products, service and deliveries that we can offer.
“I’ve seen both sides of the coin, being at KFF [Kent Frozen Foods] when it was an independent wholesaler and also when it was part of Brakes.”
Clarke spent more than 25 years at KFF before joining Q Catering, a Fairway Foodservice member, in October last year. His career in wholesaling started after he had spent three years with Ratners jewellers (“I was bored”) and had completed an HND in business & finance. His first job with the wholesaler was to set up a marketing department. He subsequently became involved with procurement too and was later promoted to procurement & marketing director.
After more than two decades, why did he leave? “Well it was sort of already on the books,” he explains. “When Sysco [Brakes’ parent company] bought KFF, the directors were all tied in for two years, and then the two years came to an end. It just happened to be in the Covid era unfortunately.”
He continues: “KFF had been a huge part of my life for 25 years, and it’s quite difficult when that routine stops, but I had thought about taking some time to think about what I wanted to do next, so I did have a kind of sabbatical period.”
His sabbatical didn’t last long: after six months he joined Church & Dwight, a manufacturer of products like Batiste and Femfresh, as global manufacturing services procurement manager.
“I hadn’t been in manufacturing before so I was out of my comfort zone, but I had a lot of skills in the management of people, and I think that was what they were looking for. It was a very steep learning curve to understand that market, but I enjoyed my time at Church & Dwight immensely,” he recalls.
Meanwhile, in the background, Clarke was talking with Q Catering’s owner Roger Snelling about acquiring a stake in the wholesale business, which offers next-day delivery on a 2,000-strong range of ambient, chilled and frozen lines to caterers in London and the South East.
“It was fortuitous that Roger was looking to retire. By making an approach I gave him visibility of how he could exit the business,” says Clarke.
“I knew a couple of people that worked at Q, so I knew what it was all about, and that kind of set the seed. And it had weathered the Covid storm very well for a business of its size, so that was a positive to start a conversation.”
It took 12 months for the pair to come to an agreement about Clarke not only joining as MD, but also taking a stake in the £8 million turnover company.
“At the moment I have a 40% shareholding,” Clarke reveals, “and I will be looking at some stage to take a controlling interest.”
Snelling is still working three or four days a week. “He’s very much involved in the finance and HR side but we are exploring the possibility of employing a finance director, which would allow him to fully exit the business,” Clarke explains.
A new finance director is just one of several appointments that Clarke is hoping to make in the coming months. “I want to recruit people in key areas. We don’t have anyone in marketing, so I’m planning to take on a marketing assistant, and I’m working with an agency to put together a PR and social media strategy.”
Introducing online ordering through the website is another priority for the business in the next year. A total of 15% of orders are currently placed on the app, which has only been available for a year. “I’m not convinced that we’re as user friendly as we should be,” he says. “Our online function – whether app or website – is going to drive quite a bit of business as we move forward.”
Clarke has already recruited someone specifically to deal with quality control and customer complaints, a task that was previously handled by members of the procurement team. He is also bolstering the sales team, adding another telesales executive and a fifth territory manager.
The sales team have a crucial role to play in the success of Q Catering, particularly during these times of perpetual price increases. “My sales team have the autonomy to manage profit margin. They’re set a target, and as long as they achieve that and a sales target, they earn a bonus,” Clarke explains. “I allow them to manage each account individually.
“Profitability has to be a priority for us with the amount of money that we’re investing,” he adds.
Clarke’s experience is proving to be invaluable in moving Q Catering towards its ambitious target of £20 million turnover and relocation to purpose-built premises by 2030 when the leases run out on its existing warehouse units. “The journey that we’re on here I’ve been on before at KFF, with the growing pains and the understanding of what it takes to grow a business. There’s déjà vu every day and I’m able to make decisions based on facts and knowledge rather than risk,” he notes.
Clarke is reviewing every aspect of the business to see if it can be improved. “I’ve basically gone right back to the beginning,” he says, “and I’m trying to instil a sense of procedure to everything we do.”
For example, with goods in, he has made sure that the wholesaler is not accepting any damaged or short-dated products, and at goods out, he is checking that the lorries are being loaded properly.
“The customer should ultimately receive products in top condition. We are therefore re-evaluating and monitoring every element of what you could call KPIs of the business. I think it’s fair to say that no stone is being left unturned to see if there is a better way of doing things.
“This year was always going to be a transitional year,” he continues. “I joined in October, spent the first few months understanding the business fully, and now we are making changes, seeing what the impact is and then re-assessing the changes to make sure we’re doing things the right way.”
One change that was quickly implemented was switching to full cases for some products that were previously available as single units. Clarke felt that it was necessary because it could be difficult to find the products on the vehicles and they would often get damaged because they weren’t in an outer case.
Another change has been to the minimum order value. “When I came here in October, it was £50, but with the spiralling cost of diesel and utilities, we moved that up to £80,” he reports. “I still believe that it’s one of the lowest out there. We didn’t want to go too high that we put people off, but at the same time, we had to put it up just to make profit.”
On top of that, Q Catering has removed slow-selling products from its range and is introducing new ones, including a wider selection of plant-based and healthier eating lines to meet customer and consumer requirements. And as the wholesaler targets a wider range of foodservice operators, including restaurants and gastro pubs, it is introducing new ranges including Bridor French bakery products and Gelato Gold premium dairy ice cream.
Clarke, a board member of the trade organisation Produced in Kent, is also keen to introduce more locally-sourced products – something he feels can give an independent wholesaler like Q Catering a point of difference over its larger corporate competitors.
“As the right types of customer come on board, it will be easier to bring in locally-sourced ranges,” he says. “The focus of Q Catering historically has been schools and fast-food operators, and contracts currently account for around 25% of our sales. Now we’re starting to focus more on 12-months-of-the-year businesses to try to remove a bit of the seasonality that exists within our operation,” he says.
“I think innovation in its truest sense of the word is not what customers are looking for at the moment,” he adds. “What they’re looking for are solutions to the problems they have, such as satisfying their vegan customers.”
Q Catering uses Erudus for information on product allergens and specifications and it encourages its customers to do the same. Being able to assist customers to choose a suitable alternative to an out-of-stock product is especially helpful in these times of challenging product availability. “Our customers are more open to suggestions nowadays because the supply chain is so fragile,” Clarke points out.
“We’re doing more training with our customer-facing employees on product information,” he continues. “I want them to be more consultative in the way that they talk to the customers, helping them with menu suggestions while also building a picture of the types of products that are missing from our portfolio so that we can add them.”
Many of Q Catering’s 46 employees have been with the business for years, if not decades. “I would say we’re lucky that we seem to have a very, very stable workforce,” says Clarke.
“The customers love the same driver turning up week in, week out,” he adds. “Let’s face it, the driver sees the customer more often than anybody else within this business. So our drivers are important and keeping hold of them is important, particularly with the current driver shortages.”
A good working environment is necessary to encourage a high level of staff loyalty, he believes. “People don’t want to be a number on a wages spreadsheet; they want to have a voice and be listened to. And I think that as long as they understand and feel part of what we’re trying to do, it keeps them on board and they feel more settled.
“I went to great pains in the early days to explain to everyone what my vision was for the business. And because I know what can be achieved, I think that gives everyone around me a little bit of confidence and I guess it also contributes to people staying in their posts.”
As Clarke takes steps to advance the business, his eyes remain on the customer. “We’re asking ourselves what we can offer that the competition isn’t offering in order to build a package of USPs and reasons to deal with Q Catering. We have to be realistic that if we were to fight on price alone, then we probably wouldn’t be the winner. Customers are prepared to pay a little bit more if they get a little bit more.”
He concludes: “We know we’re not the finished article at the moment, but there is very much a willingness to do what we do better, and I love the challenge. Foodservice is in my blood.”
Not a single customer at the start!
Roger Snelling (right) founded Q Catering in 2003 at the Eurolink Industrial Estate in Sittingbourne, Kent, where the wholesaler is still based, albeit in bigger premises.
He rented a 5,000 sq ft unit and stocked it with ambient and non-food lines, but at the very start he had absolutely no customers. However, what he did have was experience of working in ship supplies at Cavendish Ships Stores. His confidence paid off – Q Catering now has a turnover of over £8 million and has just leased a third unit, taking its total warehousing space to more than 20,000 sq ft, capable of storing 520 pallets of frozen foods, 450 of ambient and 120 of chilled.
Q Catering in numbers
£8 million turnover (year to end March 2022)
£9.5 million turnover predicted for 2022 calendar year and £20 million targeted for 2030
20,000 sq ft of warehouse space
15 delivery vehicles
£80 minimum order value
15% of orders are placed on the appPublished Date: May 31, 2022