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Alison Cooper - En Route International

We’ve all had a bad airplane meal – but food sector entrepreneur Alison Cooper is no ordinary unhappy customer. Her complaint to BA led to the creation of a multi-million turnover in-flight catering business, which she grew and sold to dnata, part of the Emirates Group. Here, she tells her story…

The early days

Alison Cooper studied hotel management and catering at university and spent a year of her course working for Holiday Inn in Germany, moving over there permanently after finishing her degree.

It wasn’t long before she spotted a gap in the market for good quality snacks and she began importing chilled sandwiches from the UK, using the same supplier as M&S, and selling them to companies such as German Rail and Lufthansa.

Steering the company through the difficult BSE scare of the 1990s gave her the experience and the knowledge that would stand her in such good stead for the future.

In 2001 Alison returned to the UK and it was on this flight home that she unknowingly took the first steps towards creating what is now a global brand.

“I was on a British Airways flight coming home to the UK and just thought ‘this is dreadful bread’,” she explains.

“I decided to call the airline when I got home and tell them. They invited me in to discuss it and told me they were closing their baking plant near Heathrow as it wasn’t performing and that they were going out to tender.”

Two weeks later, in September 2001, Alison started a limited company with her business partner, “We had just six weeks to mobilise, and that’s how En Route was born.” Four months later, En Route won a £1.5m tender with BA.

Deciding to sell

When she started En Route Alison says she always had planned to build it up and sell it within 10 years. It took nine and a half years.

“All along I had been very astute in the way I kept records and ran the business, knowing that I would want to sell it one day,” she explains.

“I think appointing BCMS was my lifesaver”

With En Route growing at a quicker rate than she could continue to finance herself, Alison got in touch with BCMS and began the process of finding a buyer who could help the company reach the potential it was becoming increasingly clear that it had.

“I think appointing BCMS was my lifesaver,” she says. “I could still run the business on a day to day basis. BCMS also gives you a deal leader, who does the negotiations for you, which takes the emotion out of it all. And that’s a really good thing.

“I did also employ somebody, who was an ex-financial director, just to communicate with BCMS and so he did a lot of the first contact work for us too.

“There were five shareholders in En Route and some of them felt they should have been more involved in the sale process even though they weren’t involved in the day to day business itself so that is certainly something other company owners should consider.”

The deal itself

At the time of the sale, Alison was a single mother and says she spent hours agonising over what was the best way forward for her family and their future security.

Eventually she happily sold En Route to its biggest customer – dnata, part of the Emirates Group – and agreed to stay on and continue to run the business.

“I didn’t have a problem selling and thinking that I would now be working for someone else,” she says. “Not owning the company certainly took the pressure off but because of the earn-out I negotiated I am working my socks off still.

“Looking back now I would have preferred to have more of the agreement fixed, because the way it is now I am always chasing the next deal.

“That’s maybe the only thing I would do differently.”

Alison kept the sale very secret from her employees, knowing that it could have had a negative impact on the company at the time, as well as on the morale of the staff.

“We had kept it so secret so the staff had no idea right up until the day we sold,” she explains. “That was a really good thing because the final signing of the sale was put off three times as His Highness in Dubai had to sign off on it and he didn’t show up the first few times.”

“I used to spend so much time trying to find banks that would lend us some money to fulfil the orders that were coming in but after the sale we haven’t had to worry about money at all.”

Life after sale

When Alison sold in 2012 the company had a turnover of £14m. This year it is expected to be just under £42m.

“Since the sale the growth has been phenomenal,” she adds. “I used to spend so much time trying to find banks that would lend us some money to fulfil the orders that were coming in but after the sale we haven’t had to worry about money at all.

“There are now offices in the UK, USA, Australia, Hong Kong and Dubai, with 82 staff worldwide.”

Apart from a weekend away to Majorca, nothing appeared to outwardly change when the business was sold and Alison arrived in work as usual the next day. She did, however, eventually buy herself a Porsche two years later as her treat.

“I had heard horror stories about selling your business and still running it, but as an investor Emirates are fantastic,” she says.

“As long as I keep making the money they don’t interfere at all. We have three board meetings a year and apart from that they leave us to make our own decisions.

“I still own 15.5% of the shares and they refer to me as their business partner, so I am incredibly lucky.”

Thinking of selling?

Alison says her main advice to anyone thinking of selling their business is not to be put off by the initial costs involved.

“Don’t look at the initial figure negatively, but look at what it will unlock for you,” she says. “I was able to continue to work in my business to pay that cheque while BCMS got on and did the sale work for me.

“I found the whole process quite painless, so thank you BCMS.”

 

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Company name
En Route International
Location
Windsor UK
Founded
2001
Business activity
Food service manufacturer
Annual sales
£14m (2012)
Reason for sale
Planned exit
Sold
2012
Acquirer
Emirates Group
En Route