It's not big, but it's pretty clever. Catering Academy is in double-digit growth despite the recessio, thanks to its flexible and "personally tailored" approach. Nick Hughes reports

The foodservice sector faced its fair share of challenges in 2009 as both operators and their suppliers felt the burn from stay-at-home consumers. Given the testing environment, Catering Academy's appearance in the top 10 of The Sunday Times' Fast Track 100 table of Britain's fastest-growing companies is an even greater achievement.

Just five years after the business was established by three industry veterans Louise Wymer (pictured), Kevin Cannon and Stacey Rose it is set to top £20m in turnover this year, up from £14.3m in 2008/09. Catering Academy has escaped the pinch felt by the pub and restaurant trade by focusing on servicing the business and education sectors and delivering what director Wymer describes as "a personally tailored catering service" to clients including Bolton University, the Health Protection Agency and Procter & Gamble.

"We didn't want to come at it from the angle that this is our brand, this is the product we sell, and this is what we're going to sell to everybody. It was a case of let's look at every individual client, analyse what the issues are and work out a solution."

Operating from four sites in Warrington, Hamilton, Tamworth and Oxford, Catering Academy provides local services to its customers, backed up by a national support base. "We have a national infrastructure for everyday products such as Coca-Cola, then every contract has regional suppliers from whom we can buy fresh fruit and meat."

It's this flexibility that allows the business to offer the 'you want it, we serve it' approach that Wymer says sets it apart from its larger competitors. "We may supply a rotary club, one of whose members owns a local butcher. I will offer them the option of buying meat from that butcher because it's part of the personal service."

Service is at the heart of the Catering Academy's ethos. Each area manager looks after an average of 6.7 contracts, compared with upwards of 10 at multinational companies. And while Wymer concedes that Catering Academy can't always compete on price, she believes her business offers a credible alternative to a Compass or 3663. "Where I have an advantage is how I structure my supply chain. By not taking layers and layers of discount, I can make sure I'm giving great value. We don't make as much profit as a multinational, but then I don't have shareholders to answer to."

At least not yet. Catering Academy is currently owned by its directors, but Wymer concedes that such stellar growth is bound to attract interest. "It's a sector where the big players have historically looked at the small independents for acquisitions. But we've planted the foundations and it would seem a shame to put in all that hard work just to be swallowed."

For now, a sixth consecutive year of growth is Wymer's main concern. The company plans to establish an umbrella brand this year for its primary and secondary school clients, which aims to educate children about nutrition and healthy eating. With Wymer predicting double-digit growth in 2010, Catering Academy's place at the top table seems assured.