My Week: Robert Terry of Nationwide Ventilation

The king of commercial kitchen ventilation (quite the tongue-twister, that), Robert Terry, on snagging new business on Twitter and doing deals with Tesco.

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Picture your cooker indoors. See that little extractor unit that takes away the smells? We make a bespoke version for commercial kitchens. It’s not as dry as it sounds: we just built one for Heston Blumenthal’s pub in Bray, The Hind’s Head.

Until now, all our systems were unique: every place had a different cooker, the ceiling was a different height, the wall a different thickness. But we've just signed a deal with Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s to supply their rotisserie counters. Each store is built the same, so we’re getting a regular production line going to fill the order. It’s a really exciting time: if all goes well, turnover this year will double to £4m.

Before Tesco came along, most of our revenue came from the pub trade. If you read the papers, it’s an industry in decline but what they don’t say is that it’s only really ‘wet’ pubs - where people go just to drink  - that are closing. Pubs that have invested heavily in food are doing much better. And as the chains move away from the ‘wet’ model and focus on food, it generates business for us:  we did 59 Mitchells and Butlers pubs in three months last year.

We install ventilation systems all over the UK so, as you can imagine, I’m on the road a lot. And pubs don’t want their kitchens out of action at lunch-time or in the evenings, so we do a lot of out-of-hours work. That means a lot of 6am starts. No lovely pub lunches either, unfortunately.

Can’t complain, though. We’ve been remarkable lucky in this niche: none of our customers have gone bust without paying us, and while there is a bit of competition – our biggest rival is only two miles up the road from us, funnily enough - they mostly specialise in different markets to us, like hospitals.

It’s also never been easier to track down and chat to new customers. I spend about four of five hours a week on Twitter, building relationships and finding new clients. I never try and sell anything with my tweets, but getting to know people means that when you email them and say, ‘I’ve got a deal for you’, they know who you are and will give you the time of day. I’ve gained a fair few customers that way.

Other than that, I’m a budding photographer and I have a young family, so I spend most of my spare time with them. I used to be in a band but I have no time for it now, sadly. We only played covers – a bit of light rock, Paul Weller, but 300 people came to our last gig. I was the guitarist - I can’t sing at all.

I'm also getting into mentoring. You're looking at the new mentor on the Young Entrepreneur Society books. It's something I'm really passionate about. I never had anyone to turn to when I was starting out - I had nothing but strife when I tried to ask people how things should be done. People just clam up. They think, 'Why should I tell you'. And it's even harder when you're young. I was sneered at when I was 30 years old, can't imagine what a nightmare it is for 18-year-olds. 

I wonder what would have happened if I'd given up and hadn't become an entrepreneur? Guess I'd have become a rockstar instead...

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