“At Aramark, our people are the greatest asset we have” – CEO Q&A with Frank Gleeson, Aramark Northern Europe

CEO Q&A, Interviews | Wed 14 Apr | Author – Business & Finance
Pictured: Frank Gleeson, CEO, Aramark Northern Europe

Frank Gleeson is CEO of Aramark Northern Europe, part of the global company Aramark, headquartered in Philadelphia USA and operating in 22 countries around the world.


What are your main priorities and goals in your role?

As the leader of a diverse client solutions provider, with a workforce of more than 16,000 employees across Northern Europe, my main priority is to guide and support our people to the best of my abilities, so they can serve customers and clients to the best of theirs. At Aramark, our people are the greatest asset we have – and this understanding at leadership level sets the precedent for the experience-focused, customer-centric service that we deliver across the wider hospitality and client services spectrum.

At the simplest level, I have the privilege of helping the Aramark Northern Europe team to do what they do best every day. In the current climate, that can mean everything from overseeing investment and corporate backing for critically important Safety, Sustainability, and Innovation programmes, all the way to making myself visible and accessible so that our people always know what is happening in our business.

For clients and customers then, I try to uphold the spirit of partnership that we instil in each of our relationships. Rooted in my life-long involvement in both sports and business, creating a strong culture of collaboration and teamwork are most often the difference between success and failure in the business world.

 What are your biggest challenges as CEO?

This pandemic has presented a unique and far-reaching challenge for every CEO, myself included. I’ve been around a long time, but it’s rare to go through something with profound consequences for people’s health and livelihoods on such an enormous scale — even encompassing the future of companies and industries, particularly in the SME sector. The Covid-19 pandemic has presented us with the greatest challenge of our time, and it’s my job to ensure that we weather and navigate the difficulties, while equally staying focused on the opportunities ahead.

Thankfully, I’m supported by the resilience, adaptability, and resourcefulness of my colleagues in Aramark, and my peers around the region. The depth of experience, along with the support of wider networks such as Ibec, enabled our teams to hit the ground running during the crisis, providing a variety of services, including cleaning, sanitation, and safe delivery of emergency food and provisional resources for healthcare and other essential workers.

How do you keep your team/ staff motivated?

Listening can be one of the most overlooked elements of motivation. Surveys have shown that in the current pandemic, people have lost trust in institutions such as governments and media and placed increased trust in their employers for information. This is something that we take great pride in our responsibility for. I believe we have a duty of care to ensure our staff are informed on public health guidance, how to protect themselves and their loved ones during the pandemic.

From a business viewpoint, with employees being dispersed and working remotely, communication matters more than ever now and we have made it a priority to keep our employees informed on business performance and our strategy to navigate the pandemic successfully. We have stayed in constant contact with our teams with regular business updates; while our Health and Wellness team have developed tools to help support both health and mental wellbeing of our employees during this anxious time. Our digital wellbeing guides provide details on mental and physical wellbeing strategies and supports for those working on the frontline or from home.

From a regional point of view, with an incredibly diverse business and workforce, our supports and guides are also localised to ensure the information is applicable to our employees in Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and across the UK.

Always treat your team and colleagues with respect and gratitude, they are the ones that look after our customers and if you look after them well, they will inevitably look after our customers in the same fashion, this is especially important at the front line

What are the challenges facing the industry going forward?

The effect on our industry to date has been profound – businesses in the hospitality, retail and catering sectors were among the first to close as the initial lockdowns took hold, and while some have been able to adapt their offering, it has not been at a scale equivalent to their previous operations. But it is an interesting, and even exciting prospect, to think about what’s ahead.

Looking forward, the pandemic has fundamentally challenged the way people live, work, and engage with others. Having gone both ways as the pandemic progressed, most research is now aligned in tracking eagerness to return to a place of work (offices etc.) around 47-49%. This may have an impact on our solutions and our clients’ view of ‘what is a workplace’ and presents an interesting challenge for our industry as we work in partnership to create the spaces and experiences for the needs of the ‘future worker’.

As lockdown restrictions begin to safely unwind in the coming weeks and months, many businesses in hospitality and catering will still be wondering when and how they will be able to get back to business as usual in a way that is safe for customers and staff.

For all businesses, re-establishing and safeguarding safe working environments will be the biggest challenge that everyone faces – particularly with highly-transmissible infections a relatively new reality in our lives. For Aramark, our initial focus is to create a safe working environment, alleviate any potential customer concerns and restore customer confidence.

It is a challenging time for the food industry, but it is vital to ensure everything is done safely for staff, clients, and consumers.

What new trends are emerging in your industry?

It sounds cliché – but with the all the challenges that the pandemic has brought, it has also significantly disrupted the way we think about our offer. We have been able to adapt rapidly to a new and unusual set of circumstances and I’ve been really pleased with how we have leveraged global insights and resourced to quickly bring these solutions to our clients.

Technology and innovation are what have helped transform how we operate to not just survive but thrive. From online ordering, self-checkouts, and touchless payments to delivery and pick-up, we believe that the reduction of ‘touch points’ will be a critical aspect of the future of food services. It will then be our job to find the balance between the efficiencies of digitisation, and the unmatched importance of a friendly face from our frontline service delivery teams.

You will only deliver on client’s expectations with the right people

Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector? 

Aramark has put a lot of emphasis on sustainability and good environmental practices and it is interesting that Covid-19 is now accelerating the debate around sustainability and the adoption of these practices within our industry.

As a sector we need to demonstrate to our clients the leading role we are playing in helping them achieve their sustainable goals, as well as the work we are doing in our own right in how we manage our operations sustainably. It strikes at the core of our own governance, and role as a good corporate citizen, but also our ability to provide end to end capabilities for our clients.

As an employer are you finding any skill gaps in the market?

Across all our businesses the range of skills we employ are probably amongst the most diverse you will find in any company. From cleaners and electricians, chefs and waiters, retail assistants and managers, property professionals and accountants, HR, and finance teams, learning and developments professionals, safety specialists and oil rig workers – the list goes on and on! We are constantly hiring staff and we place a lot of emphasis on training people and personal development.

For just one example – we have IT and Learning & Development Directors who began their Aramark careers in food services management, and this sets the tone for the way we try and support the ambition and skills development of our people.

You will only deliver on client’s expectations with the right people so we would typically hire for attitude and then provide the training and development supports to help our employees to develop their careers within Aramark. I am always keen to tell people that most of the senior team in this business started at the front line and ended up in management after a lot of hard work and development. That’s a key message – the opportunities are here, and we promote from within wherever possible.

How will Brexit affect you, or have you started to feel the effects already?

We have been largely unaffected by Brexit as we source locally as much as possible. Here in Ireland, we source more than €60 million in local goods and services annually. One example is that we serve 100% fresh Irish beef and lamb in Ireland.

We established a Brexit Steering Committee two years ago to undertake a detailed analysis of the likely impact of Brexit on the various aspects of our operations across Ireland and the United Kingdom and planned exhaustively in a truly cross-departmental effort.

Our strategy evolved as the various Brexit scenarios unfolded so that meant that we were fully prepared for every eventuality – and we made sure to communicate with suppliers, partners, clients, customers, and employers as a key pillar of that mitigation plan. This Steering Committee continues to meet once a month and will follow the same schedule for the foreseeable future as policy detail is decided by government.

How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?

Success is making a difference to people while doing what you love. For me, this has always been in the retail and hospitality environment and it’s that client and customer focus that I try and bring to work every day.

In delivering this success, it absolutely revolves around working with great co-workers and customers while creating new and exciting business opportunities. As I’ve mentioned, the only success worth celebrating is achieved together and shared by all.

 What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business?

“Always treat your team and colleagues with respect and gratitude, they are the ones that look after our customers and if you look after them well, they will inevitably look after our customers in the same fashion, this is especially important at the front line”.

What have been your highlights in business over the past year?

I am extremely proud of the strength and resilience of our people over this past year. Everyone continues to give their all in often tough circumstances, particularly those working in healthcare and other pandemic-response services. Thousands of our people continue to support crisis response services and critical government infrastructure; and their commitment to these services exemplifies the Aramark company promise of enriching the lives of those we work with. Our support departments are no different, and our ‘one business’ approach to solving problems big and small has been particularly evident this last year.

Our employees at many of our facilities have also been working with their local communities to support local charities and frontline workers – donating food to frontline workers and those in need, as just two examples. We are also very proud of our involvement with the Good Grub initiative which provides nutritious fruit and vegetable parcels to the families of disadvantaged schoolchildren who have been missing out on in-school meals since Covid-19 restrictions came into force.

What’s next for your company?

We are a forward-looking business, and it is in our nature to think about what the customer will want before they have thought of it themselves.

Aramark will be at the fore of the re-opening of the workplace, of sports and entertainment facilities, and of many other sectors that have not served customers in over a year now. Consumer assurance will be a hugely important part of our collective efforts, and we have a renewed focus on developing innovative solutions to meet expected changes in consumer demand.

Aside from this, we want to build and innovate within our healthcare portfolio and have some very exciting digital offers to come.

Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year?

I am very positive about the future and our growth trajectory.

When I look at all the macro factors, they are all pointing in the right direction for a strong second half to this calendar year – and the vaccination rollout programme will certainly provide a much-needed boost. The Irish government has done a good job of putting us in a position to trade our way out of the Covid-19 pandemic and I would be very optimistic that this time next year society will have reopened and we will all have adapted to living with Covid in our ‘new’ normal.

We are primed and ready to grow with our clients to support the changing needs of them and their consumers – the best for Aramark in Northern Europe is certainly yet to come.