Mark Timmerman

Mark Timmerman, managing director at Mellors Catering Services

Catering for the masses

Mark Timmerman, managing director at Mellors Catering Services, tells Maria McGeoghan how he took his father’s cake shop chain and turned it into a business with more than 1,100 staff and sales in excess of £20m.

It all began with a splash. When Mark Timmerman’s father, Tim, was just a little boy, he fell into the canal behind his family’s home in the Netherlands. He was pulled out to safety by a neighbour and, when he went to thank him later in the day, his life changed for ever.

“The man who pulled him out of the canal was a baker and when my Dad got to the bakery it was warm and smelled nice – so he decided to be a baker,” explains Timmerman. “In those days, you had to decide early if you were going down an academic or vocational route.”

It was the start of a catering dynasty that now employs around 1,170 people, has net sales of £23m and feeds 80,000 people a day across 209 sites, 85% of which are schools and colleges. The boy who fell in the canal came over to Southport on an apprentice placement at Mellors cake shop, and then headed back to the Netherlands to do his national service.

“He returned to Southport, swept my Mum off her feet and, when the cake shop came up for sale, bought it and turned it into a chain of 12 shops,” says Timmerman who set up the contract catering arm of the business in 1995. Timmerman now jointly owns the firm with his father, who is chairman of the company, which has its head office in the smart Lancashire Manor Hotel between Skelmersdale and Wigan where we meet. So, how did they move from cake shops to contract catering?

“I was living the dream in London and working at Sodexho while my Dad bought a couple of hotels, the Royal Clifton in Southport and Lancashire Manor,” explains Timmerman. “I was working for London Underground in muck and bullets in a highly-unionised environment running 24 different canteens.

“Then in 1995, when I was 27, my Dad suggested setting up a contract catering business.”

It was a new direction for the company, which has more than paid dividends, but the beginnings were humble. “I remember there were green marble steps at his bakery and they set up a tin box on the landing as an office,” Timmerman recalls. “It had windows – it was posh. I had a computer – with floppy disks – and I had to go and get stuff printed in other parts of the building.

“I set up all the systems and the procedures and then I realised that I needed a sales person. It was really hard at the start. We went to sites and offered our catering better and cheaper. It was mainly sole traders. After 18 months, we broke even.”

His very first contract was in Skelmersdale at a factory that sewed on buttons for Marks & Spencer suits and the first service sounds like a challenge straight out of television’s Masterchef finals.

“All 130 of the staff would come for breakfast at the same time and they only had 15 minutes,” Timmerman says. “That was a lot of bacon and sausage sandwiches. A really busy service – but we made it.

“We made £183 profit from that first job and we were off. Then I started to take on staff. I remember going to Southport market to buy uniforms and the ladies didn’t like them.”

More smaller sites followed and the company soon had seven garden centres on its books and started looking for bigger businesses and industrial sites. “I had to do a lot of pitching in,” remembers Timmerman. “I’d be in a big meeting and I’d get a call saying that someone hadn’t turned up to a site, so I’d say ‘I’ve got to go’. I buttered a lot of barm cakes in those first few years, but it was exciting as well.

Mellors“When you start a business you soon get to know what you don’t know. I took on Tony Efstathiou to look after sales and Steve Davies who looked after operations. They were my right-hand men and the bedrock of the business. We needed to think bigger and they helped me do exactly that.”

Mellors has grown by 10% year-on-year for 22 years, aiming to add 10-15 sites a year and then moving up to targeting 25 sites a year – with many of them schools. “It’s expensive to feed children in school so it’s a good idea to do it with good, fresh ingredients and then they take that in to adulthood,” says Timmerman.

So, how did Mellors fare during the Jamie Oliver healthy school meals debate, which started in 2005 and went all the way to Downing Street? “We were well ahead of the turkey twizzlers debate – we are a fresh food company,” Timmerman explains. “Our chicken nuggets are always freshly prepared on site – not pre-formed nuggets.

“It was a good idea but it soon got completely over managed, with long check lists of nutritional contents. It didn’t take in seasonality of produce. If one of our suppliers had a good deal on broccoli we’d buy it and make something out of broccoli.

“Thankfully the over management has been dropped. There are still guidelines but there is a good middle ground now.”

Now 85% of its contracts are in schools, with 15% in staff restaurants and a 93% retention rate, which is a lot better than the industrial average. Over the years, Timmerman has seen a change in our eating habits with fewer and fewer people having their main meal at work and opting to “graze” on smaller meals instead.

And the awards have come thick and fast, scooping the contract caterer of the year title at the Cost Sector Catering Awards in London and getting to the finals of both the British Sandwich Designer of the Year competition and Red Rose Business Awards – and that’s just this year.

An impressive 57% of its food is bought locally and 76% is prepared from scratch in the kitchen. And, to encourage feedback from customers, Timmerman’s mobile number is on all packaging and marketing.

Mellors is still aiming high and is in its second year of a five-year plan to double in size, with an annual growth rate of 15%.

The profit target on its £23m sales is 4.5%, just under £1m. Plans include expanding its mobile offering for construction sites – “It’s a good business and not many people want the hassle” – and to carry on landing more sites.

With a new baby daughter, Timmerman’s week is divided between visiting sites, working from the office and sometimes a day working from home.

So, what is the secret to catering success? “We’re still all caterers at heart,” says Timmerman. “We should all have the ability to roll up our sleeves and do a service. I still pick up the rubbish in the car park on my way into the office. Profit is not our only driving force. We do a lot of back-to-the-floor stuff and we always ask: ‘Does it move the dial?’

“It’s hard to establish a unique selling point in this sector, but I suppose we aim to be a good fit culturally, and we’re geographically centred. We want our customers to feel that they can do business with us. We want them to feel that they are loved.

Mellors“Having fun is important too. Our new biomass boiler is called Bertie Bog.

“I like challenging the norm and looking at things from different angles. I like challenging Groundhog Day.

“When I was a University of Surrey hotel and catering graduate, its executive training programme chose one person to represent each country and I represented the UK.

“You had to do a presentation that had something to do with the hotel and catering industry and I did mine on HIV and AIDS in hospitality. I suppose it made me stand out. I like to challenge.”

And how does someone who makes a living out of food cope with eating out? “It’s hard to be a customer when you work in catering so I always sit with my back to the kitchen,” he says. “I never ever send food back because I know how hard it is to work in a busy kitchen.

“Our favourite restaurant is Il Mulino in Hebden Bridge. It’s a family-run Italian restaurant and they always seem to be celebrating someone’s birthday. Our baby daughter loves to see all the candles on the cakes as they go by.”