Saturday 25 January 2020

Food service chief's recipe for success

Aramark is a global giant but Frank Gleeson still loves the High Street food retailers he grew up with

Aramark's Frank Gleeson. Photo: David Conachy
Aramark's Frank Gleeson. Photo: David Conachy

Fearghal O'Connor

After a long week running the Northern European operation of US giant Aramark, Frank Gleeson could be forgiven for putting his feet up at the weekend.

He is president of the food services, facilities and property management company's Northern European division. The largely UK and Ireland-focused division employs over 16,000 people - 6,500 of them in Ireland - and serves over one million meals a day. His clients include many Fortune 500 firms, North Sea oil rigs, massive manufacturing plants and military bases and major sporting and visitor attractions such as Croke Park and the Guinness Storehouse.

In Ireland Aramark also owns the popular Avoca brand after snapping it up for about €60m in 2015. And this month Gleeson announced a brand new 10-year partnership with British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

But, despite his busy and varied working week, when Gleeson's wife Marian says on a Saturday morning "Let's go somewhere Frank" he invariably responds "Let's go to Dundrum".

"I spend many Saturday afternoon's in Dundrum Town Centre," says Gleeson. "Marian will want to do some shopping. But really what I want is to go look at the food court and compare it to the competition."

Aramark runs the 20,000 sq ft food court at Dundrum for mall owner Hammerson. It follows a typical Aramark template with six different food offerings - two international brands, two Irish brands and two new brands the company has developed specially for the south Dublin location. Gleeson enjoys nothing more than to quietly check out how it is all working out. "I often work seven days a week. I love work. What makes me really happy is when I look at a table with six people in Dundrum and they are eating six different things. People want different things and that is the type of customisable solution we can offer."

Aramark, he says, prides itself on running franchise models the way they are supposed to be run.

"We are probably the best franchise operator around because we follow the book. If somebody gives my people a manual on how to operate a Chopped, a Starbucks, or whatever else, they will do it exactly that way," he says.

"We concentrate on what we are really good at. And what we are really good at is supply chain operations, food safety, training, operational standards. So when I go to a client who wants a cafe I can give them any of the branded concepts - Starbucks, Costa, Nero or concepts we have already developed internally or that we can develop just for them. There are very few companies that can bring such flexibility."

Gleeson may work for a giant multinational but he strongly believes that there is still room for the smaller, startup style businesses in the food services industry. Aramark's strength, he says, is its ability to work well with all sorts of companies and collaborators, from Starbucks to Chapter One's Michelin star-winning head chef Ross Lewis.

He recalls the first time he met another pair of stars of the Irish food business, the co-founders of the Chopped franchise, Brian Lee and Andy Chen. They had just three stores at the time.

"We drove down and met the guys for lunch. I was sitting there having my Chopped salad thinking 'This is a really good' and when I looked around the store I was thinking 'This is really busy'. I decided to do a deal with them and worked with them on supply chain and development," he says.

Chopped now has almost 50 stores, mainly, says Gleeson, because the pair are fantastic entrepreneurs who came up with a very simple concept and made it convenient. "Our expertise is the execution of an idea. We put Chopped into Dundrum at the time and it has been very, very successful for both them and us. Working with a company the scale and size of Aramark helped them."

Not everything works, of course. If you are not making a couple of mistakes you are not trying hard enough, he says.

"We have put concepts in that haven't resonated with the customer and we've had to take them out 12 months later. There's learning in that. In this business sometimes things just don't work in a particular location so I am never surprised to see 10pc or 20pc of stores close. That's just retail."

Retail is in Gleeson's blood. His parents owned a traditional drapers on Shop Street in Galway before moving to Dublin, after his father died when he was a child. His older brother started a coffee shop and restaurant business that he began working in after school. At 21 he left to join then booming Xtra-vision: "I had seven glorious years with Xtra-vision. It was an amazing place to work."

He then moved to Nordic newcomer Statoil and was at the front line of what he describes as Ireland's "forecourt revolution". He helped Statoil put the first American-style convenience store into Ireland at its Bray forecourt.

"The big change was going from the traditional 'Cokes and smokes' to food and coffee to go."

His part in the transformation did not go unnoticed. O'Briens off licence came knocking.

"The 12 O'Briens stores were quite traditional, but the owners had ambition," he says. "They wanted to be number one. Everything on their to-do list were the things I was good at: computerisation, branding, training, category management. We had a terrific four years there."

Former employer Statoil took note and asked him back to run its network of by-then 50 Irish stores. When it was sold to corporate finance firm Ion Equity, Gleeson became retail director with responsibility for the entire network of Shell and Statoil stations that it had subsequently acquired.

"In 2008, the Topaz brand didn't exist and we worked with an American company to roll it out. I'll never forget it ... a €15m investment to do 300 sites, 300 trucks and 50 depots in a year."

Then in 2014 he was hired by Aramark to initially head up its Irish food business and subsequently to take over the role of president of its Northern Europe operation. He hasn't entirely left the forecourt behind. He is now working on a new project with Maxol on a number of greenfield sites where Aramark will develop and operate a food-service programme.

"Food, coffee and beverage programmes on forecourts are so sophisticated that a company as big as ours can now supply services into them. We have all the infrastructure to support that."

A similarly sophisticated approach - originally driven by big American tech firms like Google and Facebook - is also happening in many workplaces.

"As we move towards full employment the war for talent gets hotter. Your ability to retain and attract staff becomes really important. Salary is one element, but don't underestimate the importance of a good food and beverage programme to attract and retain good people. People have an emotional connection with food," he says.

The company also has the contract for Ireland's controversial direct provision centres and has been criticised for its association in the past. Gleeson says that Aramark's objective is to do "a really good job" and that it stays out of the political issue. The company, he says, has hired people from direct provision when they have received their status.

Gleeson regularly travels to other Aramark sites around the world, for example in Silicon Valley to see the latest developments in the sector.

"Self-checkout for food is an example. The technology takes photographs and knows exactly what the customer takes and charges them automatically. It's phenomenal. Our job is to bring that into the workplace or the retail space to take away the friction for the customer. It's all about making life easier for people and giving them time back."

Technology is bringing rapid change: from ordering and payment, to traceability and nutritional content, to communicating with customers via social media. "Look at Jamie Oliver. He uses social media very effectively to promote his recipes, his menus and his ideas around sugar, salt and health," he says.

Gleeson says the partnership is based on similar values around healthy food and on Aramark's ability to have access to many sectors and places where Oliver could not open restaurants. The tie-in, he says, will allow Aramark to offer its own clients everything from a Jamie Oliver recipe, to his pizza or deli concepts, to a full Jamie Oliver restaurant. There is, he says, potential for the Avoca brand to operate in a similar fashion. "Avoca is a terrific company with really great people involved. It won't necessarily be the case that we will use the Avoca product range in this way but we will use the Avoca thinking and expertise. A lot of our chefs in Aramark have gone out to Avoca to train so they are picking up those skills."

Avoca's retail business is, says Gleeson, growing "quite nicely". It opened its biggest store yet last year in Dunboyne, Co Meath and the company plans to soon announce details of a new Dublin city centre flagship store.

"That will be exciting. It will be high-profile and very much food-centric and in a location where there is huge demand for it."

Aramark has put a lot of thought into how it is going to grow Avoca, he says: "It has to be at the right speed and in the right places because we would not want to damage the brand. And if you visit the stores you can see that nothing has really changed in Avoca except for maybe a few innovations. We are learning from them and they are learning from us."

But expansion is very much on the agenda for the brand and Gleeson hopes to see it grow in Ireland and move into the UK.

"Ireland can take some more Avocas. There are none in Galway, Limerick or Cork at the moment. But we are not in a terrible hurry with it. It is a brand that has taken a long number of years to develop so we are not in a hurry to change anything."

It is a brand Gleeson obviously loves and he confesses that, as well as his weekend trips to Dundrum, he regularly drives out to Avoca in Malahide just to buy scones.

When Gleeson began talking to Jamie Oliver's organisation about a partnership 18 months ago, he was dealing with Wicklow native Tara O'Neill. She expressed an interest in coming home so he hired her to run Avoca.

"Who wouldn't want to run Avoca?" he says. "To be honest, if I wasn't doing the job I'm doing right now I would love to run Avoca."

Curriculum Vitae

Name: Frank Gleeson

Age: 51

Position: President of Aramark Northern Europe

Other roles: Board member of the National Transport Authority and a board member of Ibec. Former chairman of Retail Ireland.

Education: Chanel College, Diploma in Management in IMI, Leadership programme in Cornell University

Family: Married to Marian. Four children: Aoibhinn, 27; Michael 25; Jack, 23; and Ella, 12.

Pastimes: Gaelic-football mad - coaches his club Parnells and follows the Dublin team

Favourite movie: Gladiator, Dirty Dancing

Favourite reading: Current affairs on iPad

Favourite holiday: Orlando, Florida

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