The business chief whose firm has survived the Troubles and the recession to take a bite out of the catering market
Margaret Canning talks to Trevor Annon, chairman of Mount Charles Group, about how his company is still growing and going strong – despite the efforts of his competitors over the past 27 years
Mount Charles Group started out in the cut-throat market of catering and now feeds around 50,000 hungry mouths a day. And it’s also diversified into catering and security services as companies increasingly close their canteens to save on overheads.
Founder Trevor Annon had been a manager for Compass Catering when he took the brave step of setting up on his own in 1988.
“Back then the market was dominated by Compass and Gardner Merchant, which became Sodexo. When I started out, they did everything to starve me of business but now Mount Charles is bigger than Compass and Sodexo in Northern Ireland.”
Mount Charles, based in Belfast, now has a total of 1,800 employees and pre-tax profits of £1.3m on a turnover of £25m in its latest results.
It also has four Fed & Watered cafes — a business which arose after Mount Charles was asked to take over the failed Paul Rankin cafe at Belfast Interantional — as well as restaurant St George’s of the Market, above St George’s Market in the city centre.
And as a service business, it’s been buffeted around by economic trends.
But coping with the fall-out of the recession and companies cutting back on catering was nothing to coping with having an embryonic business in the Troubles, Mr Annon reveals.
“One of my first big deals was to do catering for the RUC, but we had to set up another company as the security risks were so high. Because of the security implications contractors were regarded as legitimate targets, so we operated under a different company name. We had to create a whole new distribution network.”
Fears were so high that even a ubiquitous brand like Coca-Cola couldn’t be seen venturing into an RUC station, so anonymous vans were used.
The RUC contract was Trevor’s first big win after establishing Mount Charles. “Until 1988 I was the regional director of one of the big multi-national contract catering companies Compass Group. I decided there was an opportunity to create a locally-owned company with the capabilities to compete with the big boys.
“We had no money, no name, no office or any business — a fairly basic way of starting a business.”
He shrewdly embarked on a mission to obtain a Government contract to give Mount Charles a calling card in the public sector department. “We were lucky enough to get a couple of contracts in the early months including the social security office across from our office at Shaftesbury Square. We wanted Government business because that gave us a platform to quote for Government business.”
From then on, the business developed quite rapidly. “I could move on from being a one-man band to a Jack of all trades and bringing people on to assist the business.”
He has been determined to fight hard against the multi-nationals and feels the Mount Charles’ presence is stronger for his focus. “Even today we have more management on the ground than our competitors put together.”
The 1990s and early 2000s were “a fairly good market, with a lot of Government business and some new inward investment, so there was plenty of work to go for”.
Clients came to Mount Charles initially interested in a catering quote but then contracted for cleaning services. Around 95% of its workforce is now in Northern Ireland though the firm has some business in the Republic, and some at its Fed & Watered cafe at Exeter Airport, in England.
Growth in catering has been organic, though it has acquired cleaning businesses, including Clifden Catering in September 2012.
Mount Charles is also starting a vending machine division and a retail division — for providing services to public-facing businesses, such as the Belfast International Airport. It recently won a three year contract worth £500,000 for cleaning at the airport.
The company has a master plan on improving the image of cleaning at the airport, and has spent around £700,000 on new equipment and vehicles for bringing staff around the large site.
“In the last four years we have been quite fortunate with large cleaning contracts.
“As we speak we have cleaning contracts with Government departments and with Northern Ireland Water. We clean about 54 civil service buildings throughout greater Belfast.”
He says the market is tight. “We have had a recession and there’s a lack of inward investment.
“There are a lot more competitors coming in. In 1988, there was just Gardner & Merchant and Compass.
“Now there are around nine players and they are in the UK national market and fighting for the same business.
“The catering side will continue to grow at a slower pace but we would see the cleaning division taking off in the next three to four years.
“The average office may not have a catering contract but they will have a cleaning division for every office or public place.”
Mount Charles also has the cleaning contract for Titanic Belfast — and in October won the Public Service Buildings Award at the 2015 Kimberley-Clark Professional Golden Service Cleaning Awards for its work there. It also has the building’s security contract.
Bundled services contracts are key to the future, Mr Annon said. “We always used to contract security from a third party, so now we will be in direct control.
“We’ll be in charge of our own destiny now that we have our own security division.”
Dublin is a market which will feel a greater focus and Mount Charles has now installed a business development manager there for both catering and cleaning.
“It’s a market we really should have been in, five, six or seven years ago but something else always came in which took greater priority.”
Its Fed & Watered business came about after it was asked to take on the failed Paul Rankin cafe at Belfast International Airport in 2008. Mount Charles ended up staying in charge: “And it didn’t take long to come up with a name which captured two colloquialisms around eating and drinking”. Now there are four, at Belfast International, City of Derry, Obel and Exeter Airport.
But it’s a tough environment.
“There have been some back office facilities like the Obel’s Allen & Overy (an office established for support by the international law firm at Belfast’s tallest building) and we provide all their support services to them like cleaning, facilities, reception and the postroom.
“That has been very good for us but in general terms the amount of inward investment has decreased significantly
“Up until a few years ago every single Government building would have had catering provision but that has decreased and there’s maybe about a dozen places with restaurants now. From 100 to about a dozen. The market has decreased by around 90%. That is a significant extraction from the marketplace. Whenever government offices withdrew their catering, they still had to be cleaned so there was still an opportunity there.”
After 37 years in business, he’s not keen on revealing his age.
“I’ve reached too many birthdays syndrome. I’m keeping that to myself.”
He’s determined to keep going. “My colleagues and friends know I live for what I do and really love it. I cannot go on forever but there’s a very clear passion in the Annon family and we want to keep it in the family. Cathal Geoghegan joined 14 years ago as financial manager and about three years ago, to create a sound succession plan and take it through to the next level, he was appointed MD and I am now chairman.”
His two sons, Chris and Gavin, also work in the company. However, daughter Louise has taken an altogether different path as an air stewardess.
“When I started Mount Charles, my two main competitors started a strategy to wipe me out as quickly as possible.
“But I’m heartened that now, in 2015, Mount Charles is bigger in Northern Ireland than Sodexo and Compass put together.”