Catering contractor Edwards & Blake aims to double in size under new ownership

Caroline Blake, left, and Shirley Edwards remain at the helm of their company. Picture: Adrian Frank

Caroline Blake, left, and Shirley Edwards remain at the helm of their company. Picture: Adrian Franklin. - Credit: Adrian Franklin

A contract catering company has declared its appetite for growth after seeing the strongest start to a year in its 20-year history.

Vince Pearson, chairman of Edwards & Blake. Picture: Adrian Franklin.

Vince Pearson, chairman of Edwards & Blake. Picture: Adrian Franklin. - Credit:

Edwards & Blake was taken over by the UK arm of food-service giant Elior in April, and has now set itself the target of doubling in size by 2021.

The Swaffham-based education catering specialist has seen 40 new contracts awarded across more than 60 sites in East Anglia in the first half of the year, including 30 new deals set to begin when pupils return to school this week.

The £20m-turnover company, which still has founders Shirley Edwards and Caroline Blake at the helm, believes there is the potential to continue that growth as schools look to outsource their catering services.

'In our whole history we've never opened 30 contracts in a 12-month period, as we have now done in six months,' said Ms Edwards.

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The company is receiving investment from Elior in its back-office and accounting systems, and is also expecting to benefit from greater buying power as part of a larger group as it continues its hunt for new contracts.

'We like to buy fresh produce and we want to retain that local presence, but on some products – for example, Coca-Cola – we can clearly get a keener price,' said Ms Edwards.

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She said the two founders had accepted Elior's approach – after rebuffing others in recent years – because of its track record with its other acquisitions, which suggested it would 'continue the quality' that Edwards & Blake had built over 20 years.

'We have very distinctive characteristics in how we've run the business, and we wanted a company that would keep those intact,' said Ms Edwards.

The move gives Elior a foothold both in the education sector and in East Anglia, and new chairman Vince Pearson said the company wanted to build upon it.

'We have set an ambitious goal of doubling the business by 2021, and we see the primary growth being in education,' he said.

'We have seen business and industry outsourcing levels at high-50s [as a percentage] for 15 years, but there remains continued growth opportunities in education.

'Our growth for the past two years has been circa 20%, but with concentrated focus we think doubling in size is certainly achievable.'

Meeting schools' changing needs

Changes in education have meant Edwards & Blake - which does 85% of its business in schools and higher education institutions - has also had to adapt.

Funding cuts to schools have prompted a search for savings, making contract caterers – with economies of scale – more appealing.

'We are finding it's a very challenging financial environment. Schools have had their budgets cut across the board and it's up to us as their chosen partner to come up with ideas for them,' said Ms Edwards, adding that margins had been squeezed.

'Partnership is an important word,' she said.

The growth of academy trusts has also been a positive for caterers, allowing them to reach deals across multiple sites. Among the new contracts beginning this week is a seven-site deal with the Transforming Education in Norfolk group, which includes City College Norwich, Fakenham High and Wayland High.

Company's new chairman

The acquisition of Edwards & Blake offered a return to business in Norfolk for new chairman Vince Pearson.

Having been in contract catering for more than 30 years, he was a board director at food services company Sodexo before setting up his own company, Waterfall, in 2007 with private-equity backing. That grew to a turnover of around £80m, making several acquisitions, before being acquired itself by Elior Group in July 2016.

By that point Mr Pearson had already identified Edwards & Blake as 'a good fit' with his own company.

'I moved to Norwich in 2007, but have spent 10 years travelling away, he said.

'This was a great opportunity.

'Edwards & Blake had a similar focus on people, the region as well as quality and fresh food.

'We are trying to keep the flexibility and focus of a regional brand and provide the strength in depth of a large company in terms of systems and processes.'

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