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THE BIG INTERVIEW: WhitCo’s Vita Whitaker reveals wider remit for distributor

The coronavirus pandemic has created the biggest challenge for the hospitality industry and its associated supply chain in its existence. But for Thrapston-based dealer WhitCo, this has also prompted a complete change in focus and a refreshed determination to diversify.

CEO and commercial director Vita Whitaker detailed: “The last year has been characterised by fast change. Over this period, we have used the time to review the way we run the business, to change the way that we work, the way that we deal with customers and to look at the way we apply our skills and experience. We’ve taken what could have been a disaster and used the time to refine our processes, invest in infrastructure, improve efficiency and leverage our key skills across new markets. In many ways, it has been a positive although admittedly challenging experience.”

She revealed that as the team’s skillset crosses various vertical markets, not just those of hospitality and food, this has allowed the firm to further expand into garden spaces, other areas of academia, and food production, adding to its strong public sector experience in higher education and the prison service. “We’ve gone where the business has taken us – we’ve changed very rapidly with demand,” she explained. “A lot of that has been around the area of food production, while supermarkets, greengrocers, bakeries and even high street newsagents have all added food offerings. We have worked with customers who have created central production kitchens for the dine at home boom – we’ve helped clients through all of that.”

WhitCo further branched out into creating a biomedical laboratory in a university last year. Whitaker summed up: “It’s a question of recognising your skills and experience, and understanding where they are transferable. The world has changed, and as a business, you either anticipate change in a proactive way or you perish.”

Vita Whitaker and her team ensured that they invested in PPE.

This business review took place in the months of the first Covid lockdown, from March 2020, then from June the company reopened its Northamptonshire offices in a Covid-safe way. In fact, the pandemic emphasised the distributor’s expertise in risk assessment, as Whitaker observed: “We dealt with Covid RAMS (Risk Assessment Method Statements) and ensured our staff were safe on-site. It was important that our customers felt secure by our attendance and our use of the right PPE. Our team members were going out covered in PPE, looking like frogmen, and we were horrified that our clients didn’t have anything. So, all that’s been a learning curve.”

As the big hospitality reopening approaches, she feels that many of the company’s clients have taken on board advice given last year regarding opening kitchens. “We’ve developed a lot more outside eating spaces for them. We’ve looked at environmentally friendly disposables, and the movement of food from kitchen to outside. It’s more than just delivering the food a bit further away. An awful lot of things can happen between a meal leaving the kitchen and going across a path to where everybody is sitting. Part of our role has been to help them think through the process, such as what foods travel well.”

The distributor is also advising operators on delivery services. “It’s not a case of takeaway being the way forward,” said Whitaker. “It also has its drawbacks because once a meal is taken away, you’ve got to make sure it’s maintained at a reasonable temperature and it’s not going to kill somebody when it gets to their home.

“So, there’s certainly more people ringing up for advice and we have been able to segregate advice as a service as well, not as a given. We’ve helped organisations through that consultancy area.”

The evolution of the business inspired a rebranding, from WhitCo Catering and Bakery Equipment to just WhitCo. Whitaker explained: “Customers who have used us for other things, not just catering equipment, have said the name was a bit limited, it actually didn’t show our wide skillset. For instance, we recently outfitted a whole gym. As the company evolves I think we will have more facets as we grow our supply chain. We will have the ability to move into different areas.”

The distributor recently knocked out the entire interior of a building and made it into a two-level restaurant within 8 weeks.

Another consequence of the pandemic was that operators were putting off ordering decisions until the last minute and then when contracts were placed, WhitCo had to mobilise quickly. Whitaker cited supplier assistance as key to fulfilling customer expectations: “We have continued to work with suppliers who have worked hand-in-hand with us and never let us down over the last 25 years. In the last 12 months, in particular, they have been really supportive.

“I always thought we had good supplier relationships and the last 12 months have been testimony to that. Once the trust is there, diversification becomes a simpler process to negotiate.”

So, what does she look for in the company’s partner suppliers? “Reliability and quality. Everybody that’s on our ledger at the moment has got those credentials. We’ve always maintained that we never cry wolf: when we need help, we need it. We are very black and white, and our supply chain trusts us for that.”

The distributor is also now acting as principal designer in more capacities than previously, especially within the realm of air handling. Whitaker underlined: “We can now look at air, not only in a kitchen facility but within a restaurant, a reception, a factory, or any area that requires air. Bringing those services in-house has allowed us to be in control of our projects and we’ve also been able to add innovation as we learn things.

“One of the things that I’m now really keen to work on is air purification. We are looking at how we can actually share products, services and expertise with a multitude of customers, from a global or blue-chip concern to anybody that wants to have a point of difference in their business.”

WhitCo converted former training kitchen spaces it had previously supplied and maintained into two new areas for teaching and research into biomedical science.

Currently, WhitCo has a team of 18 long-serving staff, but in the near future it will be going on a recruitment drive for roles such as a creative designer, a preventative maintenance technician and a senior account manager. “We are currently looking at gaps, who is doing what and what could be done by a new person, so they learn the ropes or they can fit straight into a job which doesn’t need to have history or experience of the company,” said Whitaker. “Our biggest challenge now is to find some more like-minded people.”

Hinting at a succession plan, she added: “For the people who are in the middle to higher level, we want them growing up the business. The business will continue well after the current senior management team, that’s my aim.”

With more remote meetings necessitated by social distancing, WhitCo made a decision last October to invest in IT infrastructure. Everyone in the business has remote access to systems, and can work either in the office or at home with designated laptops and headphones. Plus, the firm has now bought a new CMS software package to centrally link all business systems. This was implemented over the Christmas period.

According to Whitaker: “It joins all information up so we can see what we’ve done and what we’re doing for customers. We can share the information and report it to our customers. It’s impacted everything from concepts, quoting, supply and installation to aftercare service.”

WhitCo’s large offices ensure socially distanced internal celebrations, like the 40th birthday of CAD designer/estimator Afroditi Papagiorgiou, can take place.

All these changes came in a milestone year for the company, as it marked its 25th anniversary in 2020. The team did manage to have a socially distanced celebration in its spacious offices, which were remodelled to ensure safe, socially distanced working, and incorporating quirky touches like a ping pong table area. “Everybody that works here has said they are grateful the office has been open throughout the pandemic, because this is where they meet people,” commented Whitaker. “We created things like every 2 weeks I’ll buy everyone lunch and we’ll talk about anything else but work, because I was very conscious of the need to retain a balance.

“I think that’s really helped a lot with team spirit so I don’t want to change any of that. I don’t think we will ever get to a stage where everything will go back to how it was, because we enjoy the benefits of how efficient this has made us.”

So why does Whitaker think WhitCo has such longevity? “It’s our level of customer service that makes the difference. We all get our hands dirty – I go out on site, everybody does. The person that originally devises a solution sees it right through to the end and takes full responsibility. We give each other freedom to make a job brilliant. We will do all we can to deliver something; we will put all our effort into it, we live and breathe it.”

After Whitaker’s husband, and WhitCo founder, Jeff, tragically passed away in 2018, she conceded that the company was impacted. “We took a massive hit with our founder no longer with us, and it’s probably only the dramatic change of coronavirus that forced me and the senior management team to put our stamp on the business.”

Whitaker concluded: “Going forward, the ideal would be to continue steady growth, to remain profitable, and to look at different markets that are both sustainable and that we can work competitively in, without compromise.”

Happy Hospital

WhitCo’s latest project at St Mary’s Hospital was outfitting Café Vie.

One satisfied WhitCo customer is St Mary’s Hospital in Kettering, which the distributor has worked alongside since 2005 on a number of projects from upgrading kitchens to the largest refurbishment yet, outfitting the onsite staff and guest cafe, Café Vie.

WhitCo’s national accounts manager, Isabella Anello-Jewry, has managed the relationship over the years, and a St Mary’s spokesperson had glowing words to say about her and her team’s expertise: “Not only are Isabella and her team professional and a joy to work with, they have a unique ability to adapt and understand our vision and make it a reality.

“From initial concept to final delivery, the journey we have travelled with Isabella and her team has been fun and inspiring, even during the challenges of Covid-19.”

The spokesperson concluded: “Everyone loves the new Café Vie. WhitCo was able to take our vague ideas and adapt them into a realistic working plan. The design process went smoothly, with all ideas listened to and incorporated where possible to give us a fantastic new modern facility.

“The staff are bowled over by the transformation and are proud to be a part of it, we simply couldn’t have done it without WhitCo’s help. We would have no hesitation in recommending the firm to anyone and are happy to use them for similar projects in the future.”

Jeff’s Way forward

Vita Whitaker, WhitCo’s CEO and commercial director, created the Jeff’s Way foundation in 2018 following the tragic passing of her husband Jeff, WhitCo’s founder.

In the first year the foundation donated to Jeff’s preferred causes, the RNLI, Northampton College and the Peterborough Sea Cadets. Subsequently the organisation changed tack, registering as a Community Interest Company (CIC) at the end of 2019.

Whitaker explained: “We made a decision at the end of the first year to home in on two different areas. One is to support that young person leaving higher education into a work placement, and it doesn’t need to be directly involved with hospitality or catering. It can be something in an allied area, like design, marketing, sales or IT.

“We are looking to leverage our infrastructure of contacts to give that person a giant step into a network that would be otherwise closed to them. That may mean they get to their next position a bit sooner than if they’d have gone through lots of traditional sorts of jobs without a helping hand.”

Even though coronavirus has slowed the initiative, Whitaker is determined to continue on this path, revealing that the foundation has a financial surplus it can use to aid future candidates. One beneficiary already is chef Josie Milicevic, who launched her own business called Josie’s Cakes and has recently celebrated her first year of trading.

The other focus area for Jeff’s Way is the CIC aspect, which Whitaker explained: “We’re looking at offering small start-up businesses an incubator environment so that they don’t feel like that fledgling company that doesn’t know anybody. That had just begun when coronavirus struck. Numerous people coming into an office together doesn’t happen anymore, so we will look at how we manage that. The CIC is all about trying to give start-ups and young people a helping hand by bringing them into a bigger business community.”