The Big Interview: The Jewel in LACA’s Crown

The Big Interview: The Jewel in LACA’s Crown

Michael Hales will preside over a radical shakeup of LACA’s structure, leadership and possibly future direction, writes Jane Renton

I arrange to meet Michael Hales for lunch and then panic having reserved a table at the Anglo-Indian restaurant near Piccadilly, Gymkhana, without first checking to find out whether or not he likes Indian food. A few people do not, even though Gymkhana makes the finest Indian food known to man. Michael, fortunately, is not one of them. In fact it was an inspired choice. It turns out his father was an English tea planter, who spent much of his career working in India for Brooke Bond. Though Michael was born in Surrey, rather than in India as were his elder siblings, his family were there in the early aftermath of the British Raj. Gymkhana certainly channels that vibe in spades with its Anglo-Indian sports club décor, its masculine dark-wood booths, ceiling fans and nostalgic sepia prints of an India that has largely disappeared. It is all very Jewel in the Crown, staying on, but in the case of Michael’s family not staying on, a decision that was reluctantly taken, driven by the ill-health of his sister. As we sip our aperitif to cool off from the intense Indian summer heat outside, all that is missing is the noise of crickets on the veranda.

Michael may be charmed by the nostalgic venue, but has his focus, however, firmly on the present and future as the organisation he presides over as its new chair, prepares to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary of existence. He has wasted little time in shaking up the organisation that he now represents at its most senior level. Was it symbolic that his great chain of office broke at the handover ceremony at the LACA main event in July? One could almost imagine a warning crack of thunder foreshadowing that the approachable former public school boy might prove to be surprisingly radical in his year-long post as head of the Lead Association for Catering in Education.

LACA’s avowed intention is to be the representative body of the ‘boots on the ground’ school food workforce, a pledge that Michael seems determined to fulfil. He has after all worked for close on 30 years in the school food industry and has an intimate knowledge of the daily challenges faced by the industry’s sometimes under-appreciated front-line. He instigated his return to the shop, or rather kitchen, floor as head of contract services at Tower Hamlets and is expected to do so again this autumn in his present role as managing director of Juniper Ventures, Newham’s recently commercialised catering and cleaning services.

He will also work with existing LACA main board members to look at composition of its leadership team to ensure that it reflects fully the interests of the wider membership.

LACA of course has long ceased to be solely about local authority caterers, or exist purely as the Local Authority Caterers Association as it used to be known. Those members have been augmented by contract caterers, single site operators of schools, as well as suppliers.

“We need to make sure we are ready for the next 30 years, which is why we are carrying out a review to ensure we have the right skills in place to meet the needs of members and potential members.”

That is likely to result in board members being assigned a specific area of responsibility that reflects the wider membership.

“In a very nice way they will be held accountable. We will divvy the work up in a way that reflects individual board member skills and strengths. Each will be held responsible for a specific group of interests and be expected to report on it. It is what the membership wants.”

There is also the thorny issue of declining membership and LACA membership fees. Affordability remains an issue, especially for local authorities under ever-increasing budgetary pressure. It is something that Michael is acutely conscious of.

“The big question is whether we offer real value for money. Can local authorities afford to pay membership fees for three, four or five members? It is an issue and we must offer value.”

Better value for money could come through the development of a LACA kitemark, though Michael stresses “nothing has yet been decided”.

But training and development accreditation that builds on LACA’s existing professional standards appears to make a lot of sense.

Those professional standards are being widely trialled by ISS in many of its school sites, with he says, “considerable success”.

The standards will increasingly involve environmental and sustainability guidelines, especially around measures to reduce the use of plastics in food preparation and delivery.

“We don’t necessarily want to reinvent the wheel. What we develop is likely to be built around existing accreditation. It will also need to meet the high standards of commercial businesses whether large like ISS or smaller, individual school units.”

This inward looking focus on membership needs coincides with continuing vigilance over external threats. UIFSM (Universal Infant Free School Meals) may have been reprieved but only for the lifetime of the current and increasingly unstable Conservative Government. Undeterred, Michael now wants to press on with its extension to all primary school pupils. Panic over recent UK childhood obesity levels suggests there is still a great deal more work to be done in this area.

“We very much want to be involved in all of this,” he says, adding that he very keen to see something done about the proliferation of fast food outlets near schools

National School Meals Week in November will be part of this and involve an event in the House of Commons, hopefully underscoring the importance and value of a freshly-prepared hot nutritious school meal at lunchtimes. So too will a joint survey conducted by LACA and Apse on school meal benefits.

A perk to the LACA chairmanship is choosing the charity the industry will support at its events over the coming year. Michael has chosen Stroke Association and the Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group.

Michael’s current job as head of service at Newham, or rather Juniper Ventures, seems to have been a good training ground for his present role, dealing with and influencing politicians. Newham’s catering and cleaning services was recently commercialised as part of a new arms-length structure. It is still owned by the borough council but is free to act in a more commercial manner to generate better profits for the council and to reward staff and allow them a greater degree of autonomy to run things. The council, however, lost its key architect of that particular policy earlier in the year, a month after the new changeover in legal status was completed. Sir Robin Wales, who addressed LACA’s main event in 2017 was deselected by his local Labour Party and replaced by Rokhsana Fiaz with the support of the hard-left Momentum group.

While some might speculate that this places an element of uncertainty over the future of the new venture, it is most definitely business as normal as far as Michael is concerned. He is determined to support his council by generating more money for its services, while underpinning the council’s food and social inclusion objectives.

The catering service, which produces some 30,000 meals a day with 1,050 staff has also established an event hospitality business which he says is “blossoming”. It also provides valued added services to schools such as chef trainers who come into individual schools to cook with children.

Training encompassing LACA’s professional standards is a big part of Michael’s day job. When he arrived in Newham two years ago, the training budget was only £1,500 a year.

“Now it is sixty times that,” he says. ”We train our staff in everything.”

That emphasis on training also involves proper career planning for every staff member and the ability, if required, for kitchen assistants to progress up to the ladder to area managers and beyond. It will also involve taking on new apprentices to work in kitchens or in administration.

“We pay £55,000 in apprenticeship levy to the government and I am especially keen to make some of this money back,” he says.

“A lot of people are coming up to retirement and I am keen to make sure we have the right people in situ to replace them.”

Michael’s involvement in schools began in 1989 when he joined Tower Hamlets, during the last turbulent year of the ILEA (Inner London Education Authority, believing the move would look good on his c.v. He quickly discovered, however, a greater sense of vocation than just career advancement.

“I have always regarded my role in school catering as incredibly important work, especially since becoming a father myself,” he says.

The experience, however, was something of a culture shock. Having been used to working 90-hour weeks for event caterers such as Letheby & Christopher, initially he found the hours distinctly more relaxing.

“On my first day in Tower Hamlets, I was astonished when everyone stood up at 3.30pm to go home. A thirty-five hour week was then the norm in local authorities.”

It is, like India under the Raj, a world we have lost. Michael has a year of heavy challenges ahead of him. But first he is heading home to the Surrey Hills to the same village where he grew up and has now returned to live with his wife, whom he married five years ago. They knew each other as teenagers when they went roller-skating together. But first a holiday in Spain with family and friends. Then it’s back to the fray and LACA.

“It is an incredible honour to represent the industry in which I have been involved for thirty years,” he says.