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Soaring family business welcomes next generation

Grimsby-based Sylvester Keal has been shortlisted for a major industry award – Catering Insight Distributor of the Year –  as it enjoys a flying year with strong growth ambition. The recognition has earned it strong profile too, with the cover slot on the latest edition of the sponsoring industry magazine. Here we publish an abridged version of the in-depth feature. 

Soaring family business welcomes next generation

The “family” part of “family business” Sylvester Keal just got a little larger, as MD Martyn Keal and marketing director Irene Keal’s son Ben has joined as an electrical engineer.

This marks a third generation in the Grimsby-based distributor, founded by Martyn’s father Derek in 1987.

Originally a microwave repair company which he began following a spell in Kuwait as an electrical engineer, Martyn soon joined to sell ancillary catering equipment supplies, having had the entrepreneurial bug from his school days. Over the next five years he drove the widening of the range of equipment sold to add to the repair offering, and then took the next step into kitchen design and construction, as well as laundry equipment sales and servicing.
Martyn stepped up as MD when Derek retired five years ago.

Now is certainly a busy time to come onboard the Sylvester Keal business, as over the last few years the full project offering has stepped up a gear. “We are doing more larger project work now, including recently converting Bransby horse sanctuary in Lincoln and outfitting a new care home in Scarborough,” said Irene. “We still deal with smaller clients as well because we can be flexible and tailor everything to suit.”

Son Ben did not get a free pass to enter the family firm, as his parents wanted to ensure that he was there on merit.

“When he left school we said he needed to get out there and get a trade,” Irene recalled. “We told him if he wanted to come and work for us, he had to bring something to the table.”

He gained his electrical engineering qualifications while working at an electrical company for four years. But the lure of the family company was still there, so he “applied” again.

His parents still wanted to make sure he would be an asset, and asked service manager Ashley Grant to interview him.

He passed with flying colours and joined last month. “It’s exciting for us because it’s another set of skills in the company that we can offer to our customers,” Irene said.

The 28-strong staff help the firm to build a long working relationship with its customers, seeing the design and install as just the beginning of an alliance, with emphasis placed on service and investment in training at their fore. 

“We pride ourselves on understanding customers’ needs and giving them exactly what they want – we don’t upsell,” said Martyn. 

Sylvester Keal operates from a 10,000sq ft premises, and as well as taking on a new operations manager to ensure proceedings move smoothly, it is about to bring in a projects manager to help Martyn with the design and installation. He said: “Pulling all of the contractors together is one of our main project management challenges. As we are a specialist we have to send our own people to do the installation as well as the contractors, to make sure the quality control is in place.

But that can tie up resource from our everyday service work. The new project manager will help us in our transition period from doing smaller to larger projects.”

The firm’s income is now an even balance between service and projects and ancillary products supply, with the proportion of project work steadily increasing. Ancillary supplies has always performed well, being in the company’s DNA – so much so that it even has its own SK-brand.

Turnover overall has increased every year since the company’s inception, and this year the steady growth is once again in evidence with a 10 per cent year on year increase which looks to be taking this year’s total to £3 million.

According to Martyn: “My plan is to take it up to £5 million within the next couple of years and then to £10 million in five years, thanks to growth in project design and installation.”

Recent investments include in IT and software to help the distributor work smarter and more efficiently. “This year alone all the engineers’ worksheets have just gone electronic, as we put in a software package for service and repairs and projects, following one last year for sales and delivery,” said Irene.

Furthermore a fleet of at least eight new vans arrived this year too.

With a new website in the offing and a marketing agency helping to grow the business further, the pace of Sylvester Keal’s expansion shows no signs of stopping. Martyn predicted: “In the next few years we’ll have a bigger projects team in place.” While Irene revealed: “We’d like to set up another dealership down south too for project design and installation.”

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