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It’s all about the service, Sodexo boss says

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Aberdeen business chief Ian Russell has learned how to be a stickler for standards. He told Keith Findlay about his career switch from hotels to offshore catering

Whatever the price of a barrel of crude in worrying times for the UK oil and gas industry just now, there is still a big offshore workforce which needs looking after.

One of the giants in the business of keeping it well-fed and serviced is Sodexo, whose head of UK remote-site operations, Ian Russell, is using knowledge learned in the hotel trade to keep another kind of customer happy.

Mr Russell, 54, seemed destined for a career in the hospitality industry from the start, thanks to his upbringing in a family of enthusiastic cooks.

Though born in Dublin, most of his childhood was spent in County Galway on Ireland’s west coast.

He readily admits he was “not the cleverest” pupil at school but his passion for cooking took him to college and then to Scotland, where he not only embarked on his first hotel work on this side of the Irish Sea but within a day also met his future wife, Geraldine.

She was a waitress at the Peebles Hydro when Mr Russell arrived there on his college placement.

He returned to Scotland after the end of his studies, spending the next 10 years in a variety of hotel jobs – leading up to an assistant manager’s post – which taught him the importance of customer service.

This part of his career saw him working in Peebles, Edinburgh, Fife and Aviemore, and brought him into contact with a hotel manager – a Dutchman – who was a “stickler for standards”.

“That is where my grounding and training in the industry came into being,” Mr Russell said, adding: “I had some very good coaching.

“Service delivery to the customer is what drives me. That is what I focus a lot of my energies on.”

His move from keeping hotel guests happy to making sure offshore workers were well looked after came with a new job in the north-east.

He said: “I landed on my feet in Aberdeen working for an offshore catering company, CCG, as an operations manager. They were looking for people with hotel experience.”

Staying in the offshore service industry, he later joined an independent oil and gas catering specialist, Kelvin Catering, focused on the North Sea.

Kelvin was the Paisley-based contract catering arm of support services giant Gardner Merchant, which was bought by Paris-based catering and facilities-management firm Sodexho – now just Sodexo after the “h” got ditched – for about £400million.

Mr Russell ended up as a general manager and then business sales and marketing manager for the new parent, but in 2006 went to work for rival catering giant Compass Group, where he was operational performance leader in its Aberdeen-based ESS division.

He returned to Sodexo in 2009, firstly as operations director, then UK divisional director and next, from July 2013, UK managing director.

Sodexo, founded in 1966, describes itself as the world leader in services that improve quality of life.

It is one of the world’s biggest employers, with nearly 428,000 people in 80 countries, and annual turnover of more than £14.4billion.

The group has been delivering onsite services to oil and gas clients in the North Sea for more than 40 years, and globally to thousands of men and women on offshore installations from the UK to the Falkland Islands and Singapore to the Gulf of Mexico.

In the UK and Ireland, the company boasts of 35,000 people “striving to improve the quality of daily life” at more than 2,000 locations across all market sectors.

Mr Russell is responsible for operations employing about 1,800 of these workers, located onshore and offshore, including about 65 in the company’s offices in Market Street, Aberdeen.

His mission to “improve the quality of life of the people we serve” does not just involve giving them decent food to eat.

It covers a range of other services, including housekeeping, laundering, administration, security and maintenance, aimed at making sure a spell in the North Sea is as trouble-free and comfortable as possible.

Low oil prices – the lowest in more than five years – are causing uncertainty in the industry just now and Mr Russell said it was inevitable that Sodexo’s oil and customers would be looking to cut costs wherever possible.

This could lead to Sodexo itself having to eventually cut costs but the group is currently focused on consolidation after a spell of “phenomenal” growth, he added.

He said: “We have been speaking to every one of our customers to see what we can do to help them during this tough period. Everybody is asking for ways to cut their costs, so we are going to have to become more efficient and somehow provide the same service for less.”

Mr Russell and his Ayrshire-born wife have two children; 27-year-old Niall is a process safety engineer working for engineering and project management firm Amec in London and Laura, 25, is a pharmacy manager in Aberdeen.

The family home is in Danestone, Aberdeen, and while running Sodexo’s offshore business takes up a lot of his time, Mr Russell still tries to fit in a round of golf whenever he can.

He admitted his golfing skills were not the best – “I love the golf course but, unfortunately, it doesn’t love me” – but one of the sport’s greatest attractions was its ability to provide some respite from the pressures of work, he said, adding: “You can shut everything out as soon as you hit the first tee.”

Back at the office, Sodexo’s Aberdeen-based operation boasts a growing collection of awards which Mr Russell said helped to raise the company’s profile and underlined what the business is doing right.

The firm recently achieved an Investors in People bronze accreditation for the Scottish energy division and its staff management, making it 13 years on the trot it has achieved the quality benchmark.

Other accolades last year included awards recognising the company’s strong track record on good safety practice, while the achievements of its chefs also attracted honours.

Frequent recognition over the years for Sodexo’s commitment to safety is a particular source of pride for Mr Russell, who is a member of the oil and gas industry Step Change in Safety leadership team.