SerTech Exchange founder and former President of Aramark U.K., Andrew Main explains what he sees as the biggest challenges facing the services sector today, and how new communication technology can change the way the industry works.
Andrew Main began his career at the age of eight when he worked small jobs at his grandfather’s saddlery business in a rural town in Scotland. From age 11 through to college, he was tasked with serving customers at the front-shop. Come his late 20s, he was heading an offshore catering company, and by his early 40s, he was leading Aramark’s U.S. Business Dining operations, a billion dollar annual revenue business.
In this interview, we chat with Andrew on his journey, an incident that changed his outlook on life, the biggest challenge he believes the services industry faces, and why staff engagement should be at the centre of any high-performing business strategy.
ON HIS JOURNEY FROM INTERN TO PRESIDENT…
Eko: Could you tell us about your background?
Andrew Main: I grew up in an entrepreneurial environment, serving customers and picking up on their behaviours, quickly learning that there was no food on the table without great service. I was fascinated by hospitality, and by high school, I had decided that I’d build a career in this sector.
My interest carried me through my internships. The first one being at a 5-star hotel where I learnt how demanding the service industry is. I remember working four split shifts a day, often for 12 days on the trot, with one to two hours of break between each shift. The second summer I spent in a food services company, where, thankfully, I was off on the weekends.
The office catering job spurred my passion for the business side of the industry, and I was fortunate enough to work with Compass Group after my graduation. After picking up on the ins and outs of the sector, I joined a brewery company, securing the role as their Head of Food, catering to an excess of 100 restaurants and hotels around Scotland, learning more about the public-facing aspects of the business.
A couple of years later, I was headhunted and was offered the role of Managing Director at an offshore catering company. This is where I was fortunate enough to meet my mentor Mike Collins, the Offshore Managing Director of a rival company, Aramark — whom I later succeeded.
At the time, Aramark had the third highest market share because of the solid reputation Mike had built, but the challenge in front of me was to get the company to the top.
The reputation Mike built was second to none, but I had an opportunity to scale the business as we were only third when it came to market share.
Within four years, we got to the top — securing virtually all of new offshore installations as a result of our innovative “one team” strategy. Simultaneously we started to grow internationally with help from BP. Our rapid expansion also helped us introduce many more services beyond catering and housekeeping, propelling us into the former Soviet Union, West Africa (in partnership with ExxonMobil), and the Gulf of Mexico. We eventually became a total facilities management service provider, handling everything from HVAC to lifeboat maintenance.
Within four years, we got to the top — securing virtually all of new offshore installations as a result of our innovative “one team” strategy.
I later joined Aramark’s U.S. business, serving multi-billion dollar companies in the finance, entertainment, automotive, and technology sectors. I returned to the U.K. three years later to become the President and CEO of Aramark’s U.K. and to also head up their global oil and gas business. I continued in that role for eleven years, finally leaving Aramark in 2016, concluding a long and most enjoyable chapter of my business career.
Founding SerTech Exchange marks the start of the next chapter of my career, focussing on uncovering and introducing digital and technology-enabled firms from around the world with the potential to positively transform aspects of the Hospitality and Business Services industries, to the c-suite decision makers of firms operating in these markets.
Eko: We noticed how grateful you are about what you’ve achieved, and even accredit some of your success to luck, has your mindset always been this way? Or did a particular incident force you to think differently?
AM: Coming from my simple Scottish family business background I’ve always been immensely appreciative of the incredible opportunities I’ve been fortunate enough to have been given.
However, an incident which really reinforced this was when I was being asked to return from the U.S. to head up the U.K. business. My family and I were all loving our life in the U.S. and frankly, a return to the U.K. wasn’t something any of us were particularly eager for. It soon became apparent though that this was going to be the outcome of the discussions and so we had to embrace the move.
This episode taught me that in business you are frequently dealt a different/new hand of cards and once you’ve got that hand, it’s a new game and you need to play your new cards to the best of your ability – not wasting time, energy and emotion on lamenting the previous hand you had.
Live in the moment and play the hand you have to the very best of your ability!
ON THE CURRENT AND FUTURE CHALLENGES FACING THE SERVICES INDUSTRY…
Eko: You have 35+ years of experience, you’ve seen it all, what do you think the future of services industry looks like? Any trends you’re spotting that could change how we interact with these industries?
AM: The future depends on macro-level changes. We’re all so connected today, this gives us a chance to scale higher and navigate more complex waters than ever before. There are an incredible amount of multi-country opportunities, and an expectation to deliver. The biggest disrupter to the industries is the gig economy. Millennials view work differently, their motivations are different, and the gig worker typically looks for change, and to explore different passions rather than dedicating their life to one field of work. This means that there might be an issue with the availability of skilled staff, which might lead to large-scale changes to how the industries operate.
The biggest disrupter to the Hospitality and Business Services industries is the gig economy.
Eko: What do you think are the biggest services industry challenges of then compared to today?
AM: Today’s work environment is demanding, staff are expected to be more productive than before. From what I’ve seen, it’s because measurements and KPIs weren’t trackable then, whereas by contrast now, there are so many hard factors that measure team and business performance. The challenge then, is how do you keep costs tight, with your biggest cost being labour? And does staff engagement play a role in controlling costs? I believe we have the opportunity to explore, with our staff, how technology can enhance both their “at work” experience and also enhance productivity.
I believe we have the opportunity to explore, with our staff, how technology can enhance their “at work” experience and also enhance productivity.
Eko: So you think organisational culture has an impact on the services sector?
AM: Absolutely — yes! Just as an example, at Aramark we took staff engagement very seriously, one of our key metrics was if our staff had a best friend at work, or how they felt while working. I believe we need to double down on employee engagement — it has such a massive impact on so many hard and soft aspects of the operations — and through using technology, we’re already seeing gig workers exercising their choice of for whom and where they work.
Eko: Is how the services sector interacts with staff the only thing you’d change about the industry?
AM: I’d go with two aspects: engagement and mindset, for both go hand-in-hand. I’ve seen the industry evolve, and we’ve become so profit-focused that investment in training has fallen, it’s now all too frequently provided on a “need to do basis”. We’re equipping employees with minimal skills for their roles, as opposed to nurturing them, helping them grow. It’s a glaring issue, especially when the lack of training carries over to mid- and senior- management levels. We need more willingness to invest in talent, and I think digital technology can be the enabler that brings it all together — on a very cost-effective and employee focused basis.
We need more willingness to invest in talent, and I think technology can be the enabler that brings it all together.
ON THE POTENTIAL IMPACT AND TOTAL COST OF COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGY…
Eko: You mentioned how technology is ingrained into today’s workforce and can help with the evolution of the Hospitality and Business Services industries, do you think communication technology fits within that narrative?
AM: From experience, it’s incredibly rewarding to sit down and have a chat with a team and get their feedback. Communication technology can help you do so more efficiently while making room for two-way communication, creating an open-door policy in an industry where leaders are often seen as restricted figures, not to be disturbed.
Additionally, communication technology can also help leaders relay the mission and visions of the business, reinforce values, and explain how each employee can contribute to the objective in the long-run, further engaging staff and making them feel like family
Eko: Why do you think technology adoption has been slower in the Services sector as compared to other industries?
AM: I believe it’s because Services are still seen as a people-first industry, with the belief that “we don’t need technology for interpersonal engagement,” but as I previously said, technology has opened up avenues and opportunities that are yet to be explored and maximised.
Eko: To answer a more technical question, is IT optimisation a high-cost venture for the Services sector? And is TCO worth it in the long-run?
AM: I was having a meeting on this on Monday, talking with a service industry business owner on how staff turnover rates are over 100%, and how upping engagement can significantly reduce that rate.
The first thing he said to me was how costly it would be to invest more time in training his employees on new technology. I asked him in response, “how much cost do you think you’ll save by investing now, and reducing turnover rates by a mere 10%?” that’s the mindset change that needs to happen, we need to start looking at staff engagement as an investment that reaps long-term rewards, instead of an expense with no returns.
I believe communication technology should be at the centre of this mindset shift because it facilitates effective communication, improves interpersonal relationships within a company, and because of it, keeps your staff highly engaged — a necessary characteristic of any high-performing and competitive organisation.
We need to start looking at staff engagement and technology as an investment that reaps long-term rewards, instead of a high upfront cost with no returns.