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INTERVIEW: Stephanie Hamilton, MD at ISS Food & Hospitality

Author : David Strydom

06 October 2015

Stephanie Hamilton, MD at ISS Food & Hospitality, goes the extra mile for clients. Just ask the Prince of Wales…

Stephanie Hamilton may only be in her early 40s, but she’s already amassed some delightful and illuminating anecdotes during her more than 15 years working in the contract catering industry. Take the day – as an employee of Wedgewood and Waterford – she was required to ensure Prince Charles’s palate was given the royal treatment.

You’d think caviar and salmon would have done the trick but, alas, HRH was after something slightly less regal – a humble egg mayonnaise sandwich. “I had every item of food you can imagine,” Hamilton says, clearly revelling in the story, “but not what the prince wanted.”

She wasn’t about to be thwarted, however. “We had quail eggs but they're tiny and it takes about 25 to make an egg mayonnaise sandwich. Nonetheless, we got there – Prince Charles had what he wanted in the end.”

Award five stars for keeping cool under fire. But instead of ending up in the royal entourage as the Prince of Wales’s personal chef, as she rightly deserved to be, Stephanie is MD at ISS Food & Hospitality, her desired sector.

Hamilton was appointed as Director of Operations for the ISS UK Food & Hospitality business unit in January 2012, and assumed responsibility for the delivery of its operations across the UK. In September 2014, she won Mentor of the Year Award at the Women 1st Shine Awards in London – fitting considering she once took under her wing a Peruvian kitchen porter, enrolled him in English classes and helped him create a professional development plan.

Furthermore she currently has five mentees who she meets on a monthly basis. She sees mentoring as an opportunity for two people to learn from one another and invites her mentees to attend workshops, conferences and other events with her to build their network and knowledge. 
PFM recently spoke to Hamilton at the ISS offices in South Quay in London to discuss everything from careers in FM and catering, to mentoring and her other passions. Excerpts:

What brought you to ISS?

I really wanted to break in to a TFM provider and I considered ISS the best. I contacted an agency which said it can be difficult to get a job with a TFM but that they'd keep me posted. I got my first interview and initially, they thought I live too far away – Stafford. But I persevered and had an interview with the previous MD of Hospitality, Andrew Chappell, and he said: “I’m not sure. I think you live in the wrong place.” I said: “I’ll move, just let me come here.” I eventually wore them down, they took me on-board and I haven't moved apart from my promotion. I love working at ISS, and I tell that story to my team because what's important is that if you really feel you belong somewhere you shouldn’t give up.

How do you know what your clients want from ISS?
We’re very proactive - putting the customer first means we’re able to take their objective for their whole business and focus that down to their ‘purpose’. We work together to ensure we’re delivering the customer's purpose. If their purpose is canning baked beans, for instance, we need to ensure that we’re serving lunch in such a way that there's no queue, all other services are provided and that they get back to their work-point straightaway.

How do you measure the value of what you’re doing for your clients?
We have a client Net Promoter Score which is a survey we conduct where clients comment and score us on how we’re doing . . We measure through service and have a proactive approach once we fully understand the client and help then to achieve their objective. What we don’t say is: “We’ve served 150 lunches today” because if their main aim is getting beans in tins , what we need to say is: “We give zero maintenance issues; everyone can eat well and quickly, get back to work on time, find a car parking space, be able to use the toilets, get through security OK, and you canned all the beans you needed.”  There's an important difference there: focusing on the client, not on ourselves. I don’t think everybody else does it the way we do. This is part of a greater drive toward a more integrated approach in FM. (Last year, during an interview with a hospitality magazine, Hamilton said she believed there’s been a shift in perception regarding IFM companies and single-service catering companies. “Clients are more interested in combining services to take a more joined-up approach to their requirements and this is driving a perception change in the market place, through the demonstration of service excellence. “In addition, the idea that single service excellence can be achieved in an IFM company is a reality for me and my customers and so from my point of view, yes, integration and single service excellence can be done!”)

Is there a lack of skills coming into the FM sector?
It depends on the part of the [FM] sector and country you’re looking at. At the Leeds Academy of Excellence, we sponsor catering students in the Leeds area. When we started, more than 300 people applied and we had space for only 16 to join that course. It was over-subscribed, which tells me there’s no shortage of people coming in to the sector. What happens thereafter is determined by various factors.

Is this industry more difficult for women to progress in?
I don’t personally find it difficult because the catering environment I grew up in has always been male-dominated, so for me it’s been quite normal to work mostly with men. I mentor people and they’re concerned sometimes with “What does it feel like to work in a senior position and have mainly men around you?” I reply: “What are you worried about?” When people boil that down, there isn't the fear of anything really, just: “Is it different?” People are really professional, they act with integrity and passion so I don’t feel it’s a problem for me. And the people I talk to who think our department is a mysterious club – I tell them, there's definitely no arm wrestling, and as I’m from the North I’d win anyway! Nobody’s trying to drink a pint of lager the quickest. We’re certainly not walking round with golf-bags strapped to our backs. We’re doing business and when we’re not doing business we’re working together. And we have something in common – our customer.

Why aren’t there more women in senior positions then? After all, women are well represented in many outsourcers’ middle management structure?
It’s generational. If I look at the ‘baby boomers’ - my mum’s generation – they're at senior management level now and they’ve bred people like me. The ‘boomers’ are going into retirement and the way they were brought up was that the wife always had dinner on the table by the time her husband returned from work. Very stereotypical, but in my experience that’s the truth of it.

People like me, coming through the ranks now, don’t want to live like that – it seems alien. I have a daughter and she’s used to an environment where whoever gets home first cooks dinner, so it wouldn’t be a case of me thinking I have to go home and cook. It’s a generational thing. And when my daughter is in work I think it will be totally different again. I see more males than females in senior executive roles as a reflection of the people who are applying. There is a shortage of females in those senior positions but in general, I don’t feel there's a lack of skills. I think people see it [hospitality and catering]as a career whereas when I was starting, career advisers would say: “Go get a real job. You can always do catering, it’s always in demand, you can come back to it.” But I think it’s different now.

Generational differences are constantly being emphasised. How do you foresee management structures when the ‘millennials’ are in charge?
Each generation sets what senior management looks like. We already see the millennials not wanting to know what time they start or finish work. Going forward, senior management among the millennials is going to consist of the type of people who come in and leave according to when the work’s done. While they're in work they’ll be very impactful. They’ll be doing things on Skype, iPhone etc. and face-to-face stuff will be reduced, with gender becoming irrelevant. It will become about how you connect to your workforce. Each generation has brought its own complexion to the senior management level.

What do you make of the ‘race to the bottom’ approach favoured by some service providers?
Personally, I think it ruins the industry. Because what happens is that service providers offering their service for next-to-nothing have got right down to basics and taken the price out. When that contract goes out to tender again, the client will look for further savings and you just end up in a situation where things get missed or dropped. It’s not a good place to be. ISS tries not to join that ‘race’.

Can you elaborate on ISS’s approach – how it avoids the ‘race to the bottom’?
ISS has brought regulation, professionalism and standards up because as the market becomes more competitive, the point of difference can’t be just price. It’s got to be about adding value to the client’s business. So when you look for genuine innovation, your clients benefit. I think at ISS, we’ve been genuine innovators and creators of value. I think we’ve done amazing things for outsourcing whether it’s sustainability or environmental. That resource wouldn’t necessarily have been spent if everything had stayed in-house. I think our clients have benefited.

Describe a typical day in your week?
Take this week, for instance. I try to wake early – between 4.30-5.30am. I have to tame my hair because it’s a bit wild. It takes me an hour to look like I’ve taken only two minutes to get ready. I see my daughter - she likes plaited hair like the princesses from Frozen and my husband isn't good at plaits! So I plait her hair, then we chat and I leave. I’m usually on the 6.30am or 7.05am train, and if I’m coming to London from Stafford, it’s only an hour and 20 minutes, so I pop into the office and start my day. When I’m driving to a client, I use the M1, the M6, Birmingham or Manchester Airports or the station, depending on where I need to be. In the evening, again, it depends. Because it’s ‘whoever is in first cooks dinner’, I sometimes wait round the corner until my husband comes in, but don’t tell him that! I’m in at 7pm and we usually eat together if I’m in around that time, then bath my little girl, and finally do a few e-mails before I finish for the day.

What is the importance of your role?
I talk about legacy a lot, it’s important to me. There are senior management people I’ve looked up to all my life. I’ve had people throughout my career I’ve looked up to, and sometimes I thought “I don’t want to be like that” and other times I’ve thought “I want to be like that.” I’m aware of every footprint I leave behind in my role as MD. I’m aware I leave a legacy, which is why we have a commitment in food and hospitality that we’re going to mentor 150 young people this year.

How would you describe your management style?
I hope my team would say I’m approachable and fair. I’d call myself a leader rather than a manager. I probably over-manage the things that are really important to me: people engagement, client engagement; I don’t micro-manage, I over-manage, so people know they're very important. I over-manage innovation because I want us to be genuinely different. I spend as much time as I can at our client sites, which of course involves a lot of travelling. Like anyone, and particularly working mums, I have amazing weeks where I go home and punch the air and say: “Do you know what, I’m doing it all this week – I’m a great wife, mother and leader!” And other weeks, I’m better in some areas than I am in others! But I regard myself as a work-in-progress so I don’t beat myself up about it. I use a rule-of-thumb to say and do the right thing, and if you can go to bed saying “I did the right thing”, then it’s OK.

Who would you regard as your mentors in ISS?
Laughs. If I tell you the two people I look up to you can’t tell anyone! First is my line manager, Gary Kidd, who comes from a technical background, he’s our COO and looks after catering and is a pescatarian/vegetarian. When he told me this, there was laughter when I said: “I’m not normally friendly with vegetarians but I’ll get over it because you’re my boss.”  Seriously, together, we’ve both uncovered new things; he’s discovered things about food he didn’t know and I’ve learned things about the technical aspects of the business, governance, asset management – things we do in catering but not to the same degree as when you're managing large pieces of kit on the other side. I’ve really enjoyed the board meetings I’ve attended because he’s very inclusive. The second person is Richard Sykes, our CEO: we joined ISS on the same day, by pure coincidence. I consider myself really lucky to have those two people who are a massive influence and who are able to bring diversity into teams, and spend time on helping people. We all however have the same purpose which is to go the extra mile to make the difference for our people and our clients.

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