Wendy Bartlett is executive chairman of catering company bartlett mitchell, which she founded with her business partner Ian Mitchell in 2000. The business currently employs more than 800 people across 90 sites in London and the South East and continues to grow while firmly retaining its independence. Wendy, who has worked in contract catering for 37 years, also sits on the board of the British Hospitality Association, is one of the Women 1st Top 100 Women in Hospitality and in 2015 received an MBE for services to the hospitality industry in the Queen’s New Years’ Honours List.
What first led you to work in contract catering?
It was down to my sister. She worked in some of the private members’ clubs and little restaurants in the West End of London and I’d tag along with her from about the age of 14. Then I secured a weekend job helping to look after a small boutique hotel owned by a wealthy lady and didn’t look back. I’m a natural organiser and people person with a passion for food and for things to be done right, so I think that’s how I knew I’d be a good fit.
I went to university in Ealing to study hospitality, then applied for a role as assistant manager at Sutcliffe Catering when I finished my course. I regarded contract catering as having better opportunities and a lifestyle for females and I think you’re also more in control. If you’re running a contract it’s not dissimilar to running a business of your own and I like being in control of my own destiny and being able to deliver. Hotels, for example, tend to departmental and you’ll only get to do a bit of something. I wanted to do more.
From there I worked on the British Airways contract for Sutcliffe. Much like bartlett mitchell, Sutcliffe was a very entrepreneurial business. It was about doing the right things at the right time in an entrepreneurial way rather than following form. In contract catering you need to treat every site as if it’s your own business and that makes the difference and that’s what we encourage our teams to do.
As one of the top 100 women in hospitality, what is your view on women working in hospitality, are there enough of them and is the industry welcoming enough for women?
The workforce at bartlett mitchell is 50/50 female-male and that goes from the bottom, which is the board level – we consider ourselves as support structure – to the top which is the front line, so we are a very balanced business. Mr Mitchell (business partner Ian Mitchell) has always had huge respect for women and an immense understanding of the value that they add, so that has had an impact on our culture here.
I think we are quite nurturing because of it and we are certainly more characterful, individual, open and honest because there are more females in our business. I’m not saying it’s because females are better than males, it’s just I think that females and males have different values, as do individuals and I think the culture of 50/50 female-male helps us be individual.
I do think it’s very difficult to make a business more welcoming to women when you have a board room full of men. It’s hard for them to understand and embrace women, compared to companies like us where the majority are women. It has to start at the top and that has to do with the attitudes of men who run the boards and the companies.
Your business has a diverse offering (from informal cafes to fine dining) how do you balance them all and how do you think that has that led to its success?
It’s easier for us because we only have contract catering and only focus on great food. ‘Fundamentally food’ is our tagline and we’ve stuck to that since day one. For other businesses it’s more difficult, because they might have concessions and retail high street going on too, but for us it doesn’t matter what the business is, as long as it’s about great food. We also are quite selective about what we choose to bid for and we will turn some down and give others up when they don’t fit us properly.
The most important thing to us is about having fantastic food and service, and if you do that then people will want to come and work with you because that’s their passion and interest and then they’ll provide a good service because they are happy to work for a company that’s got such fabulous fresh food, supplier freedom and innovation. We then win business based on that. It’s like a circle of attractants.
bartlett mitchell was named Sustainable Caterer of the Year by the Sustainable Restaurant Association for three years running. Why is sustainability so important to you and the business?
It’s actually not driven by us, it’s driven by the team, so all the decisions around sustainability have been driven by those at the front line and ideas that they have. For example, Perkee Coffee, which is our sustainable single source coffee from Nicaragua supports a community. We thought, when buying coffee, wouldn’t it be better if we could make an impact on a particular community’s life, rather than giving it to some big conglomerate? Sustainability comes from small things, like bartlett mitchell doesn’t use disposables and we have one member of our team who has been looking into palm oil, because she’s interested in that. I think the important thing about sustainability is you can’t pay lip service to it. I think we lead the way in CSR because we aren’t just paying lip service to it, we are making it part of the every day.
You have successfully run a business in partnership with another for 17 years, what’s the secret to the success of working together?
Ian is probably the loveliest man in the industry. He’s my best friend and I love him to bits and everyone at bartlett mitchell thinks he’s the best thing since sliced bread. You have to really love the person you work with to get over the bumps, but I think we’ve only had one crossed word in 17 years. It’s a very rare partnership, but ultimately we’ve got the same DNA and values. We are both foodies and passionate about people and that hasn’t changed. Being a female-male partnership also means there is no ego thing to struggle with. Ian jokes that there’s only one boss and lets me run it, but it doesn’t matter because we both agree on things and stand by each other.
Where or who do you get inspiration from?
From my team. I really do think we’ve got the nicest people working at bartlett mitchell and I’m amazed at how committed they are, how invested they are in the business and its success and how they love to share that knowledge. If you’d asked me this 17 years ago, I would have looked outside and noted some great leaders as inspiration, but the more I work with those at bartlett mitchell – from our baristas to our executive team and our chef director, I realise it’s them who inspire me. We have some great characters working here and that’s what makes them inspirational.
Who do you admire most in the industry?
I really admire Ufi Ibrahim (chief executive of the British Hospitality Association) and what she has achieved there as well as her management style. She’s been very focused and worked hard to get the industry the recognition it deserves. Hospitality is the fourth largest employer in the UK and the service industry has delivered the biggest growth, yet we’re still not recognised and are treated as a low-skilled industry not to be dealt with.
What are your future plans for the business?
We are going to stay doing what we enjoy. We are always open to opportunities, but I think you need to stick at what you’re good at. We are not a business, we are a food company and aren’t led by money. We’re definitely not going to sell. As soon as you start thinking about investors and letting accounts run it, you change the basis of the company. Ian and I set this up because we wanted to have fun. We still enjoy winning contracts and we aren’t going to stop doing that. There are no plans other than to continue to grow the business and share that success with our team. Besides, what would I do if I gave up work? I have a fantastic life and I don’t want to change it.