Arena Face2Face Interview

with Matthew Brabin, CEO, ISS UK & Ireland

In August 2016, Matthew Brabin took on the role of CEO of ISS UK & Ireland, with a focus on driving the business forward and developing contract growth with major organisations. In an in-depth interview with ITN's Alastair Stewart, he discussed the achievements and challenges of his first year at the helm and the strategies in place to ensure continued growth and competitive advantage. He also got to grips with the critical issues impacting the foodservice and hospitality industry, including rising food inflation, labour costs, the recruitment crisis and Brexit.

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Attendee List


Take a look at the attendee list for this event.

Event Review

The beautifully refurbished ballroom at The Berkeley Hotel, London, provided a stunning new venue for Arena and its Face2Face Interview & Lunch.

Prior to the main event – the CEO of ISS UK & Ireland, Matthew Brabin’s exchange with the interview master, Alastair Stewart OBE – attendees networked during the lively drinks reception, whilst sampling the event sponsors’ produce, including Bottega courtesy of Matthew Clark, coffee by Costa and soft drinks from Britvic.

Before the lunch, where everyone enjoyed a delicious three-course meal with wine and the superb hospitality of the team at The Berkeley, the hotly-anticipated live Face2Face Interview took place.

Question Time

“One of the biggest companies in the world that most people outside of the foodservice and hospitality or facilities sector haven’t heard of.”

This is how Alastair Stewart OBE described ISS as he opened his 15th Arena Face2Face interview. Over the 30 minutes that followed, he delved into the culture and structure of ISS UK & Ireland’s catering business and the opinions, learnings and ambitions of its leader, Matthew Brabin.

A qualified and successful accountant, Matthew, who by his own admission can’t boil an egg, fell in love with the food and hospitality business as he got to know it, stating: “The catering service line has the best service attitude, which other lines can learn from.”

Taking Matthew back to 2011, to the doomed £5billion bid by G4S to buy the ISS Group, Alastair asked what the key management learnings of this period were. The response was very simple. They discovered that they were far prouder to be ISS than they realised and they set about changing its brand recognition. ISS’ brand journey took the business away from historical acquisitions and to a position where the whole company was known as ISS, with ISS sub-brands.

It was also clear that the business was not very structured in terms of its succession planning, which was mainly based, at that time, on who you know. Working on the rule of thumb that good leadership and depth of leadership is better for business than having just one star surrounded by an average team, a shift was made to develop the leadership team and business by attracting great people and identifying the future leaders. The result? A leadership team that is stronger than ever and fit for the future.

The Brexit effect

In the current climate, it’s impossible to conduct a business interview without bringing up the B word. When asked how big a deal he thinks Brexit is, Matthew’s honest response was, we don’t know and it’s the uncertainty that’s the key problem.

He confirmed that, like many, the immediate impact of Brexit was tangible for the catering business. As the pound weakened, the cost of raw produce rose 10-15%. ISS imports a lot from Europe but buying British was not such an easy option as with a weaker pound, UK producers are better off exporting!

When it came to labour, Matthew divided opinion. Following the Prime Minister’s Florence speech that clarified the position of the current workforce, he expressed the view that negotiators will do whatever is necessary to ensure a supply of labour to the UK. He also believes that the Irish part of the business will benefit as Ireland will be a popular destination in Brexit-driven movement.

With a diverse workforce, ISS’ policy is that the best person for the role will get the job, regardless of nationality. Matthew also stated that, in his experience, British workers are not more expensive than those from overseas, with ISS paying the market rate for all based on experience and skills.

ISS was an early advocate of the Living Wage, a concept which Matthew believes is an important policy as it attracts skilled people who do not need to take on second jobs, so are ultimately happier, resulting in better performance, lower staff turnover and happier customers.

Supply and demand

In front of an audience made up of a large number of suppliers, Alastair Stewart switched Matthew’s attention to the supply chain and food inflation. Admitting that food inflation is a challenge for all, he confirmed that ISS procurement and operational teams work hard to get the best products and re-engineer menus to maximise products and get the best possible outcome for customers.

However, he also said that there is an expectation on suppliers to do their best to be competitive and innovative, describing how many are doing great things with technology, sustainability and health and wellbeing.

On the subject of technology, in response to a thirst from customers for technological innovation across all service lines, ISS has invested in a partnership with IBM across the 50+ countries in which it operates to harness its expertise in this space bringing benefits to customers.

Challenges old and new

When pushed on the changing, more informed customer profile, namely the millennials, Matthew acknowledged that although the senior management team (who are all 40+) has lots of experience, they do need to capture the thought processes of the younger generation, who inevitably will be the next ISS leaders and customers.

The challenge from the High Street has always been there but its shape has changed. ISS did look at having a presence on the High Street but the focus remains making the on-site proposition so exciting that people won’t want to go elsewhere.

To finish, Alastair asked what qualities Matthew is looking for in either his employees or partners. The concise answer was: honesty; a desire to provide a great service; and hard-working.

Summing up, Matthew confirmed that he is confident in the healthy state of the ISS UK and Ireland food business, which is stronger, more professional and delivering the best proposition it has ever done.

ISS has a fantastic reputation for operational delivery and as a leader across the FM space. Others may be slicker in their marketing but we do what we say we’ll do, as well as listen, react to our customers, and get great feedback.”

The Q&A session that followed covered Brexit and making the UK an attractive destination with regards to jobs and opportunities; the procurement process and supplier relationships; health and wellbeing; and changing ISS’ brand perception and positioning in the marketplace.