An appetite for success

Features Posted 02/09/22
Zoë Fryday chats to BaxterStorey CEO Ronan Harte about his journey into food and hospitality

When Ronan Harte left school at 16, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. Now he is the chief executive of the UK’s biggest independent hospitality service provider, BaxterStorey.

Part of WSH, BaxterStorey operates in 625 locations across the UK, Ireland and Europe, working with clients across a broad range of sectors, including retail, banking, education, financial services and manufacturing. The offer is simple – fresh locally sourced good food made by well-trained teams.

So, where did it all begin for Ronan? Well, his first foray into food was a Christmas job. “A friend then pointed me towards a local family-run restaurant,” says Ronan. “A year there working as a commis chef was enough to make me realise that I wanted to be involved with food and hospitality.”

Ronan applied to college in Dublin and worked in various restaurants before a two-year stint at Dublin’s top Michelin star restaurant Les Fréres Jaques as a pastry chef before taking on the sous chef role. Then at 21, he joined the QE2 as chef de partie. “It was a step back, but my career progressed quickly and after a few years, I was head chef of the ship’s first-class restaurant,” Ronan explains. “Stepping in as interim exec chef was the turning point in my career, where I moved from being a chef to a manager. This led to me joining P&O Carnival Cruise Lines to manage the design and plans for the food and beverage offer on new cruise ships.”

Eventually, Ronan joined the contract catering sector, where he spent 10 years with Holroyd Howe, an award-winning catering company that works exclusively with independent schools. This led him to where he is today – heading up BaxterStorey.

I ask Ronan about his strengths as a leader. He explains: “I believe that to be a strong leader, a deep understanding of the business and all its operational areas is essential. Having started my career as a chef, I have a profound appreciation and understanding of the fast-paced and often challenging environment of working in a kitchen. Going from the ground up has given me the knowledge and ability to understand all levels of hospitality operations.”

Ronan trusts that this experience makes him very people-focused and invested in understanding the needs of team members in the business. He adopts a one-team approach, which he explains is crucial when you have many sites nationwide with a multitude of moving parts. “For me, being open to change and adapting to the current climate is also vital,” he adds. “There is nothing more detrimental to business than a boss who is too rigid in their leadership style. To keep achieving business growth, you need to be able to flex, move with the trends and be open to opportunities and new ways of working.”

When it comes to managing the BaxterStorey team, Ronan’s style is focused on inclusivity and empowerment. “I make sure to be visible within the business by actively getting out around the company, talking to our chefs and our baristas about their work, asking what’s on their menus this week and encouraging the leadership team to do the same. Facilitating an inclusive workplace is only possible by ensuring it is a non-threatening environment where people can feel empowered to be creative and valued to want to share their ideas. I tend to adopt a ‘hands-off’ management approach to facilitate independent and creative thought within teams. This is essential to remaining agile as a business with a strong and collaborative working culture.”

Over the past year, Ronan and the team at BaxterStorey have experienced a shift in workplace culture with the rise in hybrid-working and companies adopting more flexible working hours. Within this shift, they are seeing attitudes around the experience and theatre of food playing a significant role in enticing people back to the office.

During lockdown, the firm launched ‘BaxterStorey At Home’, providing meal kits and gift hampers as an additional revenue stream whilst its locations were shut. It was marketed for clients to use as a way of reaching employees working from home with gifts and virtual experiences from the likes of Pizza Pilgrims, La Tua Pasta and Social Supermarket. “No one anticipated how successful this activity would become over such a short period of time,” says Ronan. “Following the staggering demand from our customers, we rebranded ‘BaxterStorey At Home’ as ‘FUEL experiences’ and created a new platform that features everything we have to offer.”

Another key project for BaxterStorey has been supporting its chefs in reigniting the passion for food innovation after a tough couple of years and ensuring they have the tools and protected time they need to get their hands in the flour. Ronan explains: “We’re working with some incredibly successful chef partners, including Richard Corrigan and Kirk Haworth from Great British Menu, who offer their time in the form of masterclasses and mentoring through our Chef Academy training programme.”

In his role as CEO, Ronan is constantly striving for positive change and innovation at BaxterStorey. He explains that there are several strategic areas that the company is developing in order to ensure it reaches its operational goals. A key example is the full restructuring of the leadership team to drive food and beverage development and advancements into AI technology. “This strategic decision comes as we concentrate on forward-thinking operations and focus on staying ahead of the curve across all operational areas,” says Ronan. “Another area we have been developing is centred around growth through building on our European business with a view to expand into new markets over the next five years.”

Alongside this, there is a clear focus on nurturing the BaxterStorey workforce. The company is continually investing in learning and development opportunities for the team and engaging with more school leavers and university students to champion hospitality careers. “We are also developing our diversity and inclusion strategy to create more equality across the workplace, for example, through trialling four-day working weeks and committing to increasing the representation of women in leadership roles to 40%,” says Ronan. “To put these words into action, we have recruited our first head of equality, diversity & inclusion.”

On a final note, I ask Ronan what his main piece of advice to entrepreneurs and business leaders would be. “It would centre around flexibility and agility,” he says. “The last two years have been the perfect example as to why it is so important to be ready to adapt to the evolving world around you. Listen to the customer, listen to your teams, and remember that even when you’re the boss, it’s not all about you. You may have a brilliant idea, but you need to trust in your teams to develop this idea, which may end up going in a completely different direction to what you had initially envisioned. It’s all about being prepared for change and learning to adapt with your customers and the everchanging evolution of the market around you.”

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