Nick McDonald: Cooking up a storm

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When kitchen catering equipment company boss Nick McDonald became managing director of a Lincoln manufacturing business in 2014, he fulfilled a long-held ambition.

Promotion came nearly 20 years after he joined rapidly expanding Lincat Ltd, when long-serving MD Steve Mitchell retired.

Timing wise, moving into the hot seat was the logical next step for Nick, who had worked his way up from marketing and export manager to become a director in 2000, having promoted and sold the company’s range of products around the world.

He would have needed a crystal ball to have predicted that Lincat would become part of a $2 billion American multi-national by then.

However, the Middleby Corporation had made its move in 2011, clearly realising that the home-grown company on Whisby Road was too good to miss, especially when it perfectly complemented the American giant’s already substantial portfolio of more than 40 brands.

Nick – only the third managing director in Lincat’s 40-year history, after John Craddock then Steve Mitchell, is now forging ahead with opportunities offered by an overseas owner which has invested in the Lincoln operation and opened the door to wider markets.

Most of the former directors were somewhat older than Nick and three of them have taken retirement. This gave Nick the opportunity to pull together his own management team, including Finance Director Jonathan Dove (who succeeded Terry Storey), Sales Director Rob Gibson (an internal promotion) and, most recently, Jon White who succeeded Eric Wintersgill as Technical Director. Lincat’s experienced Production Director, Drew Elsigood, completes the board team.

Most importantly, he is delighted that Lincat remains a significant player within Lincoln’s manufacturing scene and one which supports a highly-prized local supply chain.

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Centre of excellence

“Middleby, which is based in Elgin, near Chicago, Illinois, is very acquisitive. It has three main divisions, one supplying commercial food service equipment, another serving the domestic market and a third involved in food processing equipment,” said Nick.

“It has brought several benefits to our company. For instance, we are now recognised as the Middleby manufacturing centre of excellence within Europe, thanks to our very well organised and efficient factory, which has resulted in the manufacturing of some product lines being transferred to us in Lincoln.

“Whilst any request for major capital investment needs to be justified, over the last two years Middleby has spent £1.5 million on equipping us with a new laser cutting machine and an additional robotic welder.”

When Nick became managing director, he was passionate about rising to the challenge of driving Lincat’s sales by grasping every opportunity to bring forward new products and promote them effectively.

“Up to that point, I had felt that we had been a little too inward-looking and production-oriented. I believed we needed to become more customer-focused and increasingly flexible in order to grasp new international opportunities, which is a strong area for Middleby,” said Nick.

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Recipe for success

Lincat’s efforts seem to be paying off. In the two years since Nick took the helm, Lincat has increased sales by 19% and profits by 31%. Other figures also reflect how far the manufacturer has come.

“When I joined the company in 1996, we had a turnover of £8.6 million and employed 96 people. Today our turnover stands at £36 million and we employ 235 people, including 135 on the factory floor,” said Nick.

Success is down to the company’s ever-evolving range, designed to suit the needs of catering businesses of all sizes, from the corner café through to national pub chains.

It’s a safe bet that anyone who has dined out will have tucked into a meal cooked using Lincat equipment. Last year the company manufactured and sold 60,000 items from its 650-strong range to customers in 60 different countries.

Simply think of any catering essential, from a table top fryer to combi steamers, chargrills, hot cupboards and water boilers, and you begin to get the picture.

“When Lincat started life, it concentrated on producing a range of small counter-top equipment for pubs, restaurants and cafés, which it still does today, but the company’s main thrust lies in growing its heavier range of equipment,” said Nick.

“Our Opus 700 range gave us the opportunity to attract orders from much larger businesses and where we previously sold items to independent operators through a network of UK and overseas dealers, we now hold contracts to supply major national accounts.”

Customers include big hospitality industry names, including Greene King, which recently took over the Spirit Group, J D Wetherspoon and Marston’s. Lincat’s equipment has also become a favourite with supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s, where it features in staff restaurants.

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Coals to Newcastle

One of Lincat’s rising success stories is the FriFri range of high-specification fryers and that has come about as a direct result of “the Middleby connection.”

“It’s quite an impressive story. This was originally a Swiss brand, bought by Middleby and transferred to one of its companies in Italy, which is the centre of the European foodservice equipment industry,” said Nick.

“But today, these fryers are made in Lincoln, and 95% of the range is sold outside the UK, mainly in European countries, including Italy. It’s like taking coal to Newcastle!”

Research and development remains a key part of Lincat’s work and Nick and his team are excited about the prospects for its new Opus 800 heavy range of equipment, which was previewed at Host Milan last year, and which will be launched later this year.

Lincat engineers have also worked on major projects such as the design of a high performance kitchen “pass”, the interface between restaurant kitchens and waiting staff – into which they have incorporated American food holding technology.

Lincat’s success with national accounts has required a change in its approach.

“We are not just selling equipment. We work in partnership with these accounts to deliver energy savings and improved food quality and consistency,” said Nick.

Lincat’s Development Chef Paul Hickman has a major role to play, assisting these large operators with menu development and training the staff in pubs and staff kitchens across the UK.

“One thing that is a real plus is that, even in times of recession people still want to eat out, although they may choose an alternative to their usual venue. At the same time, pubs and restaurants may look to trade down and switch to lighter equipment when times are tight. With such a broad range, we can still accommodate their needs.”

Whatever the situation, the company offers a comprehensive breakdown service, to deal with those inconvenient times when equipment decides to stop working.

With Lincat now selling 14% of its production into export markets and attracting more potential business worldwide, Nick is delighted that it’s possible to do it all from Lincoln.

“We are determined to keep the flag flying for Lincolnshire manufacturing. There are some great companies here and we often feel that people have the wrong impression about how much the area can offer,” said Nick.

“There are many competent businesses around and at least a dozen local firms are key to our supply chain. They include VxI Power, which provides printed circuit boards for our automatic water boilers. Strangely, they are based in Lincat’s original premises in Station Road in North Hykeham.”

Others include Pearson Hydraulics (hydraulic hoses), Danwood (office equipment), T R Weston (fabricated frames) and Precision Engineering Supply (machined components).

Away from the office, Nick – who hails from Dorset and who is married to Lynne – loves photography and enjoys reading and keeping-up with family news.

The couple’s son Richard (24) works for the Department of Work and Pensions in Lincoln. Daughter Rebecca (28) is a Research Fellow at Warwick University and Lauren (29) is a Chartered Accountant in London.

This feature interview was first published in issue 68 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.