Overall ranking: 56
Contract catererers ranking: 10
Robyn Jones is the co-founder and chief executive of Charlton House Catering Services, a Reading-based contract caterer that specialises in staff restaurants. The group claims to be the UK’s largest independent operator to have grown through organic growth, not acquisitions, and holds 1% of the £4b UK market.
It has 1,200 staff, a £44m annual turnover and 124 contracts that include the American Embassy, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Sony, BUPA, and Network Rail.
Jones, who was born in 1961, started as a graduate trainee for GrandMet Catering (now Compass) in 1981, rising to chef/manager of a private school in Suffolk until 1983. She then spent two years with Gardner Merchant as catering manager for two big London clients before serving as catering advisory officer for the Potato Marketing Board from 1985 to 1987.
She spent the next year as operations manager for 12 directors’ dining room contracts at High Table (now Avenance). From 1988 to 1990, Jones worked for Compass, as operations manager, then senior operations manger.
Jones then took the role of business development manager at Gazeway Catering, a subsidiary of construction company Higgs & Hill. After being made redundant, she set up Charlton House Catering Services in July 1991.
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Jones set up Charlton House during the recession in a back room of her home with the help of her £2,500 redundancy package, a £50-a-week Government Enterprise Allowance and her husband, financial director Tim, who came on board fully in 1998.
She won her first contract after six months with Guide Dogs for the Blind and ended her first financial year (to September 1992) with three contracts, 16 staff and a £340,000 turnover. The big break came in 1994 when Charlton House won a contract with Sony’s UK head office.
Charlton House has boosted turnover by an average 40% each year since, with 30% arising from contract extensions. It was ranked the UK’s 67th fastest-growing business in the 2004 Deloitte Indy 100, up from 72 the year before. Jones (and the company) have won numerous business and entrepreneurial awards.
Charlton House is big on training – it trains around 20% of staff in-house each month – and in 2003 its chef team won the European Catering Assocation’s Ready, Steady Cook challenge for the second year running.
Unusually, it has hired a high-profile chef as a full-time member of staff rather than a consultant. David Cavalier (who won Michelin stars for both Cavaliers and High Holborn in London before working in Conrad Gallagher’s Michelin-star Peacock Alley restaurant in Dublin) came on board as food innovations director in January 2002. His name has helped win new contracts and retain old ones.
In 2003, Charlton House moved into restaurant management for third parties when it took on the Michelin Bib Gourmand-rated Leaping Hare near Bury St Edmonds, Suffolk. It also bought an 80% stake in the 12-bedroom White Hart pub-restaurant in Nettlebed, Oxfordshire, which chef-patron Chris Barber opened in early 2002.
This February, Charlton House announced a new five-year plan to boost annual turnover from £44m to £80m by 2010, an expansion that will see staff numbers more than double to 2,600. The group claims to hold 1% of the £4b UK market at present.