There is never a good time to lose 85% of your business. When it happens to you just a week after taking over that business, it’s safe to say the timing could hardly be worse.
This was precisely the “catastrophic” scenario in which David Bobbett found himself in 2002. Just days before, the Dubliner had completed a management buyout of Canadian kitchen supplier H&K International when the firm’s biggest client, McDonald’s, announced that they were not opening any new restaurants.
In a stroke, the company lost 85% of its business. H&K shut down its Irish manufacturing plant and teetered on the edge for a year, before changing its business model and – with Bobbett at the helm – bouncing back. Little wonder the Trinity graduate says that “resilience” is his greatest strength.
“That was a big shock to the system alright,” he says of the McDonald’s crisis. “Closing the plant was a difficult and painful decision to make but we had no choice, it was survival mode. That crisis really forced us to think differently about what we were doing, so in some ways it laid the foundations for where we are today.”
Such drama was all in the distant future when David Bobbett joined H&K as a junior accountant in 1985, via Newbridge College, Trinity and KPMG. He had failed his accountancy exams – “more than once” he says with a laugh – and was just pleased to get some paid work under his belt.
“1985 was a tough time to be starting out in business so I was just happy to be getting paid at the end of the week,” he says. “I had no expectations of the job and I saw the company as a stepping stone really, no more than that. It certainly didn’t feel like a big career break or opportunity.”
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On this occasion, however, the timing was perfect. H&K had been set up in Dublin purely to satisfy its United States (US) customers, McDonald’s amongst them, and the company was rife with problems. “There was virtually no focus on the commercial side of the business and I spent all my time fighting fires – I’ve always been a problem solver so that skill was very useful.
“Things changed when Brian Ranalow was appointed CEO. He immediately put a much stronger emphasis on the Irish business,” he says. “Brian and I worked closely together and in time I got the opportunity to run the European business. I had a good team around me and in fact the guys who were with me back then are still with me today.”
In 2002, H&K’s Canadian owners decided to exit the business. The Irish management team led the buyout and Bobbett became the CEO. One week later, McDonald’s dropped their bombshell.
“As difficult a crisis as it was, it forced us to become much more business-focussed, much quicker to market,” he goes on. “We began to focus on providing total solutions, whereas before we had been more of an engineering supplier. We concentrated on our existing customer base, slowly got back into growth and we’ve been moving forward ever since.”
That the company survived – and then some – is surely a testament to the leadership skills of its Irish boss, but Bobbett has a more modest take.
“I wouldn’t describe myself as a natural leader,” he says. “I was never the guy shouting orders on the football pitch or anything like that. But I always had a clear style and that was to focus on what the customer wants, then figure out how to deliver it quickly and efficiently. No bull. No ego. No politics. I’ve stuck to that philosophy and it’s served both myself and the company well.”
Today, H&K is one of the world’s foremost suppliers of kitchen equipment to the restaurant and retail industry. The company has 13 operations around the world and employs 1,700 people, plus a further 300 sub-contractors, selling kitchenware into more than 20,000 restaurants worldwide (including McDonald’s, still a client). It’s estimated that kitchens built by H&K serve around 10 billion people every year.
Moving into the supply of complete kitchen packages was the game changer. When a restaurant, or chain of restaurants, needs a new kitchen, today H&K can design, build and fit the equipment itself. The company is also renowned for the speed at which it can have a kitchen up and running – usually within weeks, rather than months.
“Things are good. We’re in growth mode, and very confident about the future,” says Bobbett. “Our main customer in the US (McDonald’s) announced earlier this year that it is going to start making burgers from fresh rather than frozen beef, so that’s a very exciting challenge and we’re working closely with them on that."
“Also this year we purchased LAUK Lighting, a UK-based lighting specialist, which is part of a greater focus on the customer dining experience,” he says. “Restaurants around the world are looking at different ways of ordering and serving food, new approaches to décor and lighting, as part of a trend towards providing people with the ‘experience of the future’. It’s a great time to be in this business.”
So much so that the subject of retirement gets short shrift. “No, no, absolutely no thoughts of retiring,” he says. “I’m very lucky where I am in life and in business. I have a job that I love and I’m fortunate to be able to work the time that I need to work. That makes it easier to balance out the rest of my life and to pursue other interests. So retirement is not part of my thinking at all.”
Those interests include horse racing, while Bobbett is also a passionate ambassador for heart disease research and awareness. In 2012, a routine health check uncovered a genetic build-up of calcified plaque in his heart which would likely have proven fatal if not treated.
Having made the necessary medical and lifestyle adjustments, Bobbett is healthy and feels “stronger than ever”. He now hopes that his experience will prompt others to seek out and take the simple calcification test – a non-invasive CT scan that costs less than €200 and takes about 10 minutes.
“Heart disease is the ultimate silent killer,” he says. “Thousands of people in Ireland are perfectly healthy and not overweight, but have a progressive heart condition they know nothing about until it kills them.” To help spread the word, H&K part-financed the acclaimed 2015 documentary ‘The Widowmaker’ which examines heart disease treatment and technology; he also founded the Irish Heart Disease Awareness charity.
Healthy and happy, then, Bobbett can reflect on a career that has seen him guide a little-known Irish company back from the brink and onto the world stage. Like many of the best leaders, he is quick to share the credit.
“I would say resilience is my main strength,” he says. “I’m able to get the best out of people. I’m a leader but not a visionary as such – for me it’s more about common sense and logic. I rely on the team, I listen to what other people say and I invest in their ideas. I’m very proud of the team we have at H&K, it’s a fantastic group.”
And if he could go back in time and give some business advice to his 20-year old self? “I’d say work with people you like working with. Enjoy your job, make the most out of every day. Play to your strengths and don’t try and be something you are not. Keep learning, keep developing, use everything to improve yourself as a business person.”
From a man who knows a thing or two about kitchens, it’s a solid recipe for success.