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An open conversation with Merrill King - Navigating New Frontiers

You were appointed CEO on 1 March 2020. What resonates most in your first 90 days?
The euphoria, scenario mapping and approval of annual budgets with projections for a successful year ahead were short lived. The announcement of a rigid Covid-19 Level 5 lockdown commencing 27 March 2020 was a stark reality that business challenges lay ahead for the foreseeable future.
Leading a team of over 1400 staff members and charting the best way forward was foremost on my mind. Adrenalin, discipline and knowing the generous and hard-working mind set of the Capitol team, kept me focussed and undeterred as to our strategic direction.

The education sector, of which Capitol Caterers has a large client base, closed prior to Level 5 lockdown. What was the immediate impact on business?
With no end date legislated, stock had to be re-located, premises sanitised and staff deployed where we could.
Schools, without pupils are exceedingly quiet, the silence of empty hallways and dining rooms are a stark reminder of our purpose – catering. Producing meals is our income base and without doing so, the financial implications daunting for any organisation.

What were your foremost thoughts in navigating this new normal under lockdown?
As an essential service provider, it was important that we maintained a high level of service delivery to our clients particularly in the retirement and healthcare sectors and assure them that it was ‘business as usual’. This we did.
We were conscious daily to protect the employment of our staff and their well-being, both physically and emotionally. Stringent health and safety protocols have always been practised in our operations together with the supply of PPEs, so applying the required regulations was not new to us. We conducted extensive Covid-19 educational training programmes with all our staff and continue to ensure that policies and procedures are strictly enforced.

Has Capitol Caterers considered adapting their business model as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic?
Our staff have held some thought-provoking strategic workshops to analyse the implications Covid-19 could have on our business.
Interestingly, the outcomes tabled have been nothing but positive. With a sense of ownership and optimism emanating from the Capitol team, I am confident that having had time to reflect and re-visit the fundamentals of our business model, these proposals will contribute significantly in developing a competitive advantage going forward.
It has been refreshing to go back to basics and ask, ‘Why are we in this business, what have we have done well and what can we do better?
Our social media campaigns have been extremely successful during this period which have not only raised our business profile, but also reached a good sector of future prospects. This we intend to build on.

What of the financial impact on business operations as a result of Covid-19?
This question probably keeps 100% of business leaders awake each night as they contemplate solutions to keep their business afloat and the livelihood of their staff intact.
We have always had a transparent relationship with our staff and so sharing our financial concerns was not as daunting as one would think. Significant for me personally was the humanity displayed by our head office staff who willingly accepted a salary sacrifice commencing May. This financial buffer allowed us to protect the employment of staff based at catering units that were no longer operating under lockdown.
We also accessed the TERS benefit as a short-term life line, juggling its initial administrative challenges whilst constantly measuring the pulse of our cash flow. Good governance and cost containment initiatives will contribute significantly to us weathering this storm.
We are mindful too of the financial pressures our clients are experiencing, and we travel this road together with sensitivity and empathy. How you treat a client in a time of crisis is how they will remember you in a re-negotiation!
What does the future hold for Capitol Caterers, post Covid-19?
If there is one thing we can learn from this all, it is that your sustainability depends on the degree of your client support and flexibility.
As we await the phasing out of each lockdown level, we need to exercise patience for the return of industry’s level of confidence and a revival of the economy. With requests for new business proposals from industrial catering service providers disappearing overnight, market share retention is critical.
Our focus is to nurture the relationships we have with our clients, to continue having those meaningful conversations and to add value in all that we do. Our clients are the reason why we are in business and customer care is part of our DNA.
As Thomas Monson said, “We can't direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails”. We choose to be positive going forward.

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