Cooking on gas

Cooking on gas

What happens when you mix a Young Business Person of the Year, an award-winning master baker and a former member of the Royal Household? Brian Nicholls find out.

There’s new heat in North East bakery circles. It’s fuelled by the synergy of an award-winning young businessman, a similarly award-winning master baker and a newcomer to this growing venture, whose experience ranges from service with the Royal Family to turning round a once-faltering motorway catering chain.

Much has been recorded about Greg Phillips, the 29-year-old graduate of Newcastle University, since he was recently named North East Young Business Person of the Year; about his fellow director Andrew Cotterell too, whose patisserie talents, and whose connections, knowledge and experience make him (in the words of the bakery website) “the cornerstone of the business.” But the third member of the trading triumvirate, the one raising temperatures from steady to full, is a dynamic individual whose peripatetic career has kept him largely out of North East headlines though his home has been in Whitburn, near Sunderland, for 25 years.

Stephen Silvester became the Queen’s footman through studying hotel management at Thanet College in Kent.

He explains: “The Royal Household often uses temporary staff to cover major occasions, partly through hotel management and catering colleges.” He was among final year students at Thanet who assisted on such occasions before he was summoned by the Master of the Royal Household.

“I thought it akin to being sent to the headmaster’s study and I was bloody terrified,” he admits, chuckling.

He was told, however, he had been observed to do very well, and would he like to work for the Royal Household permanently? “There’s only one answer to that and it’s not No,” he says, and for two years he served and lived with the monarchy.

It doesn’t breach his signing of the Official Secrets Act to say he was involved in all state occasions and major events during that time, including the wedding of the Princess Royal and the late Queen Mother’s 85th birthday celebrations.

“You lived and worked with the royal family seven days a week,” he says.

He worked and stayed in all the royal residences, travelled the country on the royal train and sailed on the royal yacht Britannia.

“I learned attention to detail, quality standards and life experience. It was fantastic,” he says.

But having learned all he could about the highest quality food and service, he wanted to develop in management.

He went to John Lewis’s flagship Oxford Street store as restaurant manager and rapid promotions led to his inclusion in a team sent to Nottingham to launch a new 250,000sq ft store.

Within a year he was food service controller.

In 1982 he joined Grand Metropolitan and was invited, from GM’s then cast of 100,000, to become operations manager for the North East, based in Darlington.

This, and a subsequent spell in sales, broadened his management experience at a time when the management, led by Gerry Robinson, bought out the business in what was then the UK’s largest MBO ever.

The newly named Compass Group grew sales from £165m to £12bn over a decade and Stephen became sales director for Eurest, a division serving business and industry.

Two years later, he was promoted to director of corporate development for Compass Group and in 1993, he was made MD of Compass’s Government Services business.

“With more than 500 fixed-price operations and 2,500 unionised staff, this was a challenging time for private contractors and their MDs,” he admits.

Three years on, he was appointed MD of ESS, Compass Group’s facilities management company, in support of the British armed forces.

He was responsible for operations in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Germany, Cyprus, the Ascension Islands and the Falklands.

“I travelled the world learning what managing from arms’ length meant,” he laughs.

In 1999 Stephen, who hails from Surrey, decided it was time to spend more time at home in the North East with his wife Karen, daughter Hannah and son Alex, now 17 and 14.

For 18 months he provided management consultancy in developing two food brands, and became a director of a food service design firm.

Then, in 2001, he took up a Japanese venture capitalist’s proposal to re-establish the UK’s failing Roadchef Motorways - 31 locations, 2,500 staff, 65m customers a year, and sales topping £300m.

He recalls: “I quickly realised that everything I feared was true - very expensive prices for very poor products and services, delivered largely by a poorly managed workforce.” Stephen changed the management at almost every location and replaced 150 staff who lacked commitment.

Roadchef, he knew, needed a point of difference and market research told him a decent cup of coffee on a motorway was as elusive as an English rose in the Sahara.

So, he signed an exclusive deal to install Costa coffee at all the stops.

Within two years, coffee sales exceeded £20m a year.

“Over the next three years, every motorway operator tried to copy, but they didn’t have the leading brand,” he says.

Agreements were also reached to re-brand 15 hotels under the Premier Travel Inn name, and for fast food to be delivered through the Wimpey brand. A capital investment of £30m saw every location upgraded.

In 2004, Stephen designed, built and opened a motorway service area at Norton Caines on the M6 toll road, the UK’s first toll motorway. Its success beat forecasts. Soon after, as with venture capitalism often, the business was successfully sold.

Venture capitalism, he says, was valuable to his education.

“I learned a lot about the benefits of almost a forensic understanding of numbers.

It sounds a mouthful, but such people investigate numbers, and while that can often be challenging, it has a value.

They allowed us to run the business, so in that respect it worked well.” After another six months’ break at home in Whitburn, Stephen joined the Irish Agricultural Wholesale Society (IAWS), one of Ireland’s largest plcs, as UK MD leading five operations in bakery and food retail.

The largest was Delice de France. First day in was a challenge; the London head office and 250,000sq ft of warehousing and distribution centre burned down, with 7,500 wholesale customers expecting to be supplied daily.

His first task, then, was to chair a disaster recovery committee. Within a month, the business was stabilised, the previous customer service levels almost immediately exceeded.

A new facility was designed, built and commissioned. A brand review then saw Delice de France relaunched as the premium retail bakery brand in the UK.

The other operations were also reviewed: Cuisine de France, La Brea Bakery, Heistandand Gilsons.  All UK bakery manufacturing was restructured. Turnover and operating profit improved. Stephen became chief executive. In 2007, he was made a Fellow of The Institute of Hospitality for his contribution to the UK hospitality industry.

That year also, he again felt it was time to be back in the North East.

The family home had been there for 25 years, yet he had spent a lot of this time living and working away.

Was it time to develop a business of his own? After a chance meeting with an ex-colleague, he recently bought the decade-old P&A Catering in Darlington.

Seeing the need for a quality, cost-effective, contract catering company in the North East, he and Edward Naylor, as owners and co-directors, have established P&A Food Management Services to provide for blue-chip business and industry, in addition to colleges.

“The first year has been both successful and rewarding,” he reports.

“It is now positioned as market leader for quality and service.” He looks here to stay, given that he is playing league cricket for Houghton le Spring.

His entry to North East Bakery as chairman has come about through the Entrepreneurs’ Forum. The aforementioned Greg Phillip’s other distinction last year, besides the young business award, was to be named one of the region’s faces of entrepreneurship in a Forum event.

This entitled him to mentoring, and Stephen turned out to be the mentor. Greg says: “Steve came to the bakery and said, ‘come back to me with the sort of things you’d like to talk about and we’ll arrange to talk again’.

We did that. It became obvious to me he couldn’t have been a better mentor in knowledge and experience.

“Not only that, we clicked. I got a real buzz from things he said. If I could have chosen anyone to work with, it would have been Stephen. Steve said to me after the second or third time we met, ‘I’m lying awake at night thinking about North East Bakery’.

His passion for the business was shining through, and he helped me early on with a particular problem.

“I thought how great it would be if Steve could become more involved because he obviously saw potential in the business.” Six months after their first meeting, Stephen invested in the business to support its development and he has now taken up his executive role.

Stephen says: “I was amazed by the quality of the bakery’s products.  It was enlightening. I had seen quite a few bakeries of this type and what struck me here was the capability, the experience, the skill that existed.

“Greg and I, though we are from different generations, get on really well.  I enjoy his forthrightness, his enthusiasm, his intellect and his willingness to listen and take on board ideas and opportunities.

“My motivation in business is developing and helping people. I’ve built a career around that wherever I’ve been. That’s my buzz.

If I can help take this business onto another level, that’s the legacy that will give me greatest satisfaction of all.” The plans, it seems, are already cooking.