Going without food and drink while setting up her company, doing paperwork in hospital when she gave birth to her daughter, working holidays with her family – Robyn Jones OBE, co-founder and chief executive of independent catering group CH&Co, loves a challenge. As the company celebrates its 20th anniversary, Eleanor Harris visited CH&Co’s headquarters in Reading to find out if Robyn Jones ever takes time out, how she felt about being awarded an OBE and why she’ll never let her children get involved in the business
Robyn Jones OBE is co-founder and chief executive of CH&Co, which she founded with her husband Tim Jones in 1991. Today the company has an annual turnover of approximately £75 million, employs almost 2,000 people nationwide and is one of the most respected companies within the food service sector. In May 2010 the company re-branded and it now has six specialist brands: Charlton House, Lusso, Chester Boyd, It’s the Agency, Ampersand and Via 360. Clients include Gatwick Airport, the Law Society and Sony, and the company manages The Garden Café at Buckingham Palace. Last year it won a contract with Historic Royal Palaces to provide catering at The Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace. In January 2011, Robyn Jones was awarded an OBE for services to the hospitality industry. She is a trustee of The PM Trust, a patron of the Association of Catering Excellence and a guardian member of the charity Hospitality in Action. She won the Booker Prize for Excellence in Catering in 1993 and was named the Credit Suisse Most Outstanding Woman in Business in 2006.
Why and how did you set up your own company?
It all started after I was made redundant in 1991. It was horrible, my confidence went to the floor. My husband said “if you’re ever going to do it on your own, now’s the best time” so I sat myself up and said “come on, you can do it”. The good news was my husband was a chartered accountant, I’m a caterer, and together it just works. He had a full-time income coming in to support us and I started cold calling from the back bedroom to try and get clients. It was a long, hard struggle, ‘91 wasn’t a good year with the recession. But I don’t like things easy, I like to do it the hard way. I’m a very target-driven person, I thought “you can’t have a drink until you’ve got an appointment, you can’t have lunch until you’ve got to the next stage” but finally I managed to close a deal. I got a Thames Valley Young Enterprise Allowance, but I did all sorts: I was area manager, health and safety, payroll, sales ledger, everything. The first year we got £350,000 turnover and then we managed to get our contract at Sony – we’ve held it for 18 years now – and from there it took off. I’d always said three contracts and that’s it, but I got bored after getting three and kept it growing and growing and growing.
Looking at your business success so far, what would you consider your greatest achievement?
I couldn’t believe I got the OBE last year, I never thought for a moment that would be in my portfolio. To meet the Queen – I’m not bragging but with the hospitality industry I had met her before – it was just delightful, and my family could come as well. That’s pretty tremendous, but if you had asked me before last year, I’d have said some of the contract gains and other ones that have been very meaningful to me.
What would you put your success down to?
We are able to deliver promises to the clients. I have a conscience in business – every customer has my personal email address so if they do perhaps not have a meal that they would like or they want it slightly different, they can email me and we’ll sort it out. That conscience goes right through to all our staff here as well – I personally want to make sure that all staff have a good life/work balance. I do get very worried and upset if I see a dad still working here late and I know he’s got three kids at home and he’s working too hard.
Yet you have said before that when you were setting up the company you “lived the business 24/7” and you didn’t allow yourself tea and coffee breaks. Is it a different set of rules for you?
No, I know where to draw the line now, life changes when you have children. And my role now is more to be a thinker. Last summer we were in Italy and that was a “woliday” as we call it, a working holiday, that’s what we like to do. We’ve got a house out in Italy, so we can work. In fact, I took an interview when I was down by the pool. And work becomes friends and friends become work, there’s no line between them anymore. But we have the weekends as our own time, because that’s important for the children, so they don’t see us working all the time, but then the kids are actually very proud of us, they like us working. I do like working. Recently I found a “Keep mum sane” folder that Tim brought into hospital when I gave birth to Tabitha, our eldest – I had paperwork coming in to the hospital because I like to keep my brain going, I don’t like to do nothing, it’s just the way I’ve always been.
Would you consider yourself an entrepreneur?
I get embarrassed when people call me that but I suppose I am by establishing a business. I don’t think I’m a serial entrepreneur because that could be exciting as well, but I think doing it once is probably enough for me. But with the re-branding and everything else, no day is the same.
Have you ever wondered what else you might have done in business – is there an unfulfilled ambition?
I wouldn’t say unfulfilled ambition, my other interest is design and if I can bring that in with the business, that dovetails very nicely. We have restaurant refurbishments and I love thinking of what else you can do with something and build something out of nothing, and I like weighing up the balance of the food with the design and aesthetics. But catering is something I’ve always had an interest in, I’d always been in the kitchen – cooking with mum when I was 13 or 14 – and it developed from there. My kids really enjoy cooking so that’s really nice as well.
Do you have any plans for the children to get involved in the business?
No, they want to, but they’re not. I want them to have their own careers, whatever they want to flourish in, I want them to make their own decisions and do what they want.
What’s next for you personally? And for the company?
To continue with the strong growth. We have diversified into public restaurants which is very interesting and we’re looking at a few possible plans – challenges, acquisitions, there are lots of different things happening. What makes me get up in the morning is that next challenge, I love challenges. The wonderful thing is you don’t know what that is until the next morning.
Robyn Jones Details: www.chandco.net