Arena Face2Face Interview 2014

Alastair Stewart interviews Debbie White, CEO, Sodexo UK&Ireland

On Monday 22 September Sodexo UK & Ireland’s chief executive, Debbie White, made her Arena debut.  She also made Arena history as she became the very first female industry leader to take on the challenge of the renowned Face2Face Interview and the interviewing prowess of the celebrated Alastair Stewart OBE.

YouGov complemented the interview themes with an in-depth and beneficial look into the shape of the industry’s diverse foodservice cost sector.

Attendee List


Take a look at the attendee list for this event.

Event Review

The Arena Face2Face Interview & Lunch proved as popular as ever as 200 industry professionals gathered at The Dorchester, keen to hear what Sodexo UK & Ireland’s eloquent chief executive, Debbie White, would disclose to the master of interview Alastair Stewart OBE. They were most definitely in for a treat.  Arena’s Chair, Jan Matthews, praised the interview as ‘one of the best to date!’

YouGov opened the proceedings with an overview of the core findings from its series of foodservice reports. The audience was taken through comprehensive consumer opinion surrounding the quality and availability of food in care homes, hospitals, schools and academies, universities and prisons. The concluding message was that despite the differing demands of each sector, areas that caterers would do well to take notice of across the board include: availability, timing and flexibility of the offering; cooking and ingredients; perceptions of quality; breadth of choice; and the consumers’ willingness to pay for better quality.

The bustling drinks reception gave guests the ideal opportunity to discuss the outcomes of the YouGov presentation and to benefit from face-to-face interaction with colleagues old and new. 

Alastair Stewart meets Debbie White

Gathered once again in The Dorchester’s magnificent ballroom, guests eagerly awaited the main event. ITN’s anchor man and friend of Arena, Alastair Stewart, took to the stage to set the scene and introduce Debbie White.

It was clear from the outset that Debbie is an incredibly intelligent, vivacious, ambitious and principled individual.  From the small girl in Papua New Guinea dreaming of becoming the first UK female prime minister to the first generation university attendee studying economics at New Hall College Cambridge, this lady was always destined for excellence.

Driven by the restricted job market of recession in the early 1980s and the need to run a car, Debbie took an unwanted accountancy job with Arthur Anderson after graduating.  Uninspired, after just three months she resigned and moved to the tax department – a job that on paper seems dull but in reality enabled her to engage with people and thrive.

Finance may not have been Debbie’s career dream but it certainly gave her a good grounding that underpins her impressive career. After Arthur Anderson and three years with PWC, Debbie joined Sodexo UK & Ireland as finance director, which was followed by a European role and then finally a move state side in 2008 where she assumed the role of CFO in North America.

It was Sodexo’s values and team spirit that attracted her to the business and have kept her there, in particular the spirit of inclusion and innovation that enables her to bring her whole self to work.

The vision and values of the UK & Ireland business under Debbie’s leadership recognise and respect the fact that Sodexo can impact the quality of life of the people it is serving every day. As a business that touches people, Debbie wants it to also improve their lives – even something as simple as a smile can make a difference.

And it’s not just the people Sodexo serves that Debbie cares about. Its employees are also high in her consciousness.  She believes that people are a business’ greatest asset and as ambassadors for the brand they need to be engaged. “If only one in two is engaged, it’s not good enough!”

Focusing on her ambitions for Sodexo UK & Ireland, Debbie referred to her ‘hairy business development goal’. When she assumed the role of chief executive, Sodexo had been static at approximately £1bn for ten years. Debbie and her team are changing that with organic and new business growth now steady. Sodexo’s base business is expanding and the clients like what it is doing, as is evident in the 95% client retention rate it has enjoyed for three consecutive years.

Debbie was clear, however, that growth will not come at the cost of values.  Sodexo will turn down business that does not fit its values, such as one that is completely price driven, or does not fit with the business’ ethical stance.  Similarly, Sodexo also operates a detailed and strict supplier conduct code that all suppliers are expected to meet. Pressing its importance, she explained: “The lowest common denominator can lead to some very shocking things.”

With attention turning to diversity and inclusion and the opportunities for women within the foodservice industry, Debbie confirmed that the sector is better now than ten years ago because the role of women has changed.  She, indeed, has increased the number of women on her board. She is passionate about championing diversity and believes in the power of quotas to help drive change in recruitment, employment and development practices. “We need to challenge recruitment and promotional practices to include everyone… Until we get to a point where whoever is appointed isn’t questioned, we have a long way to go.”

When asked to what the future holds, Debbie is optimistic for both the sector and Sodexo. She believes that the UK will continue to prosper but urged the sector to be more innovative. 

On a personal level, she doesn’t have the same hairy, audacious goal for her own career that she has for Sodexo, but wherever it may take her she would very much like to make a difference and give something back.

Summing up his interviewee, Alastair Stewart astutely described Debbie White as, “a woman of values, a woman of drive, a woman of ambition, and a woman at the top.”