Ambience Catering is building a strong reputation for its bespoke service and quality. Founder, Gary Williams believes that one of the keys to the company’s success was investing in proper business coaching. Ian Trevett found out more by meeting up with Gary and Alan Wingrove from Blue Lion Coaching.
“I was never expecting to be where I am today,” says Gary. He clearly doesn’t mean the coffee house in Eastbourne marina where we are sipping cappuccinos and lattes. “I thought I’d still be driving around delivering sandwiches, doing small buffets and a couple of dinner parties. Now I’m sitting here with a growing full time team and it has just gone crazy.”
“Last week we were in London delivering a three-course dinner for an awards ceremony for a London client hosting 330 people and we recently did a canapé event for 800 people. We are finding that we are winning bigger events as our reputation grows.”
The reason for Gary’s growth is down to the quality of his food and the service levels that Ambience prides itself on. Gary had previously worked in a Michelin starred restaurant, working for a celebrity chef. But Gary would be the first to say that his growth was accelerated after chatting to a business coach at a networking event.
Alan Wingrove recalls that meeting: “I was having a conversation with Gary and the immediate impression I had was that he had a really good product with loads of potential, but he was scatter-gunning everywhere. When I started asking questions like, “What is your niche market?” and “Where do you want to be in two years’ time?”, he would reply, “Well, we’ll see what happens.”
Alan is in his eleventh year as a business and executive leadership coach, working with either senior leaders of companies or medium-size business owners.
“Gary is probably one of my ideal clients,” says Alan. “I love people who’ve got potential. I have a theory that you start a business because you’re good at what you do and people buy it. But there’s an assumption that you will know how to run a business and that you can do the HR, budgeting, the marketing, and actually you can’t. I started to work with Gary asking: “What do you want to do? How are we going to make this work and what is the infrastructure that you need behind you that will make you successful?”
“Everything I do is strength based. So many people spend time doing painful bits of their business that they hate and actually they’re not very good at. Why do you do that? It’s not what you started the business for. And I always think there’s a danger that you can end up hating your own business. I do know people who have fallen out of love with it. So I will say, “Come on then, let’s gets you back in love with your business. What bits can we give to other people to do that they would love doing?”
“Gary was working seven days and when I used to see him he looked looking absolutely worn out. It became a conversation not about the business but about him as the owner – how sustainable was this, and if something’s got to give, what is that going to be?
Gary agrees: “It is a balancing act and I was getting it wrong. I needed staff to help me but it never seemed to be the right time, I was always thinking I couldn’t really afford them. Whenever I said to Alan that I needed to employ somebody, he asked me the same questions: “Can you AFFORD to do it? Can you afford NOT to do it?” And nine times out of ten, it came down to: “Can you afford NOT to do it?” And my answer is “No, I need to.” It’s quite good to have that support network where you can say: “Help!”
“Before I was busy, busy, busy and now I actually take time out. If I know I’m busy but I’m not being constructive, then I’ll walk away and go and have a coffee, just to go and clear my head and say, “Gary, sort yourself out.” And then I’ll come back half an hour later, and its very effective.”
The relationship between the two raises the question of whether Alan’s role is purely coaching or if he is also a mentor. It is one of the most debated questions in the coaching industry - is it coaching and when does it become mentoring? It is a question that Alan is passionate about, to the level that he wants to embark on a PhD on the thorny subject. The key is that Gary learns and makes his own decisions.
“Alan helps me enormously but we both ensure that I make my own decisions. Over the last couple of years we have had a full-time catering contract at Eastbourne Borough Football Club. It was a brilliant move for us at the time.
“I decided to move on from there and it was a decision that was supported by coaching. I knew I was pushing too hard in too many different directions, so we had a discussion and looked at the pros and cons of each of the opportunities. We looked at the financial structure and it was decided then that it was a case of “Let’s lift off and let’s focus solely on the event catering”.
“The coaching element has taught me how to run a successful company; I’ve learnt how to train my staff; I’ve learnt how to manage my staff; I’ve learnt how to look at the other sides of the business.”
And what about the food? Where does Gary’s food passion lie?
“Personally, I love great British food. I love sausages and mash, pie and mash and a roast dinner. But when it comes down to what we do, my style has more finesse, and we are known in Eastbourne for our canapés. But we’ve got a good mix because it’s not just about me, it’s about the team. So in the kitchen we have got Brian who’s a great British chef. Then I’ve got Ash who’s more restaurant-refined and he’s very well trained in seafood, so he concentrates on the finesse area, which allows us to reach the higher end side of things.
“With weddings, it’s not just about the food. We get involved in all the different elements, so we do the mobile bar as well and we can do as much as you want or as little as you want. If you want us to turn up and just do a small buffet or a BBQ, we can do that; if you want us to come in and assist with the planning of the event, then we can organise marquees, venue planning and all the details.
“We are diversifying into event management and we work closely with entertainment companies, so we can do gala dinners through to murder/mystery evenings..”
So the plan is to create a huge events company and high-end mobile catering? As requested by Alan, Gary is very happy to elaborate on his dream:
“The reason I started in the kitchen in the first place was because I wanted to be a pilot, and chefing allowed me to save up and pay for my lessons. What I am really after is a helicopter!”