Monday Interview: Ben Crosby, director, catering equipment suppliers Crosbys

From golf course to warehouse, Ben Crosby takes us behind the curtain of a North East family business

Ben Crosby
Ben Crosby

Ben Crosby can’t visit a restaurant these days without analysing the quality of tableware. It may seem a rather odd habit for a well adjusted family man, but his livelihood depends on his intimate acquaintance with soup spoons and side plates.

As director of prominent catering equipment suppliers Crosbys, he has played a part in selling more than a million cups over the last 25 years, and turning £70,000 annual sales into £5m.

Ben left school at 15 and did a Youth Training Scheme (YTS) for a computer company in Gateshead, earning a pay packet of £28 a week.

“I’d played a lot of golf as a kid and managed to get pretty good at it. I had the chance to work in the pro shop at Ponteland golf course, which was even less money than the YTS, but at least I could enjoy it. I took the opportunity and turned professional when I was 18,” Ben explained, from the glass walled meeting room of Crosbys’ 3,000sq ft Byker showroom.

He reached a good standard, progressing through qualifying school and gaining his tour card. It led him to pick up a professional sponsor, which meant he could quit the shop work and concentrate on the golf.

“At 21, suddenly I could play golf full-time and improved my game. I got my Challenge Tour card towards the end of 1991, but just at that time my sponsor went bust. I had all these invites for the season afterwards and no means to pay for it. Golf’s an expensive game.”

About two months previously Ben’s father, Bob Crosby, had started his own business, Bob Crosby Agencies Ltd. Understandably cash was tight in the family, and there was no way to fund his son’s golf adventures.

“The business was dead simple. We drove a van to Stoke-on-Trent, filled it with crockery, came back to Newcastle and sold it. We did that, back and forward for some time.”

Bob’s business evolved out of his three china shops in Tynemouth, Whitley Bay and Whickham, which he was running when Ben and his brother Roger — also a now director at Crosby’s — were just starting school.

“It used to be quite a fun trip down to Stoke in the school holidays. You’d leave at three in the morning, get down there and have a mess about with everyone — maybe a bacon sandwich — and then you’d be back on the road. It was all good craic,” Ben said.

Bob’s shops suffered when the Metro was launched and shopping in Newcastle gathered pace. The shops were sold and a string of different jobs eventually led him to a crockery wholesalers on Team Valley where he built another customer base. Soon Bob was back in business for himself, and young Ben was recruited to drive the van.

Ben said: “It got to the stage where I had a load of invites to play golf but couldn’t afford it, so I thought, right, let’s do this. I drove the van to Stoke every week and my Dad bought himself a car to sell from. It was a great little partnership.”

The garage operation grew into a small unit on Kingston Park and Ben’s brother Roger made the brave decision to leave his job as the branch manager of Barclays on Newcastle’s Percy Street to join the business on a commission only basis. He’s now Crosbys’ finance director.

43 year-old Ben describes his Dad as a “classic” salesman. Now 75, he is retired and no longer a shareholder, but still enjoys coming into the firm’s new Byker premises to chew the fat with customers.

The family business model does have its drawbacks, as Ben explained: “Sometimes you want to have a relationship with your brother that’s like others, but we spend more time at work together, rather than as brothers, which isn’t ideal. I don’t know what it would be like to have a brother that I didn’t work with. For the first time in about 20 years we’re all going on holiday together — mum and dad, my brother and his family — which will be bizarre. We’ve never left the business before, but it’s in great hands with our team.”

The Crosbys’ set a healthy growth curve until recession in 2008 gave it a first taste of downsizing. Two staff went and others were put on three-day weeks. “It started flatlining and when that happens you’ve got to change and adapt, quickly. They weren’t easy times, but that’s what we had to face, and we did. We diversified our product range — which luckily brought about the change. It wasn’t just about tableware anymore, we got into disposables such as paper products and chemicals.”

They looked to the other places their customers were buying from, identified the products not in their own warehouse and tried to introduce them. Five years ago an invitation to join national buying group Caterbar gave the firm the break it needed.

“We saw what was available in the market and had tried to introduce items, but the truth was we weren’t anywhere near on price. Caterbar came along after another North East competitor was bought out by a multinational. The group is exclusively for independents, so they offered us the space. It gave us the right price and pitch to develop this new side of the business.”

Those less familiar with the catering equipment industry might be surprised to know the extent to which fashion and trends dictate its course. Ben explained: “We keep a keen eye on styles. In the ‘80s and ‘90s it was colour, and then nouvelle cuisine came along and demanded plain white. Street food is massive now and BBQ restaurants, particularly in Newcastle, want to serve their food on boards, bits of metal, in baskets and enamel — basically anything other than a standard plate. This is no disrespect to the North East, but, generally what is happening in London and around the world will take two years to make its way here. The boards and baskets are gone from the South East now.”

Beyond core front of house products, Ben and Roger expanded into other restaurant essentials. A strategic hire from food hygiene and chemicals experts Ecolab boosted Crosbys’ expertise in that field, and directly led to landing a “game changing” contract with Newcastle City Council to provide cleaning and janitorial products. Commercial kitchen design and installation would also become a fixture of the Crosbys offering.

The online world has also opened up Crosbys to new markets, far beyond its North East home and regional salesforce, and with that comes new competitors. 200 wooden presentation boards — the kind you’d get a steak on in a gastropub — recently went to Bratislava. Crosbys packets have even made it as far afield as the US, but the firm’s core business is on its doorstep.

In April Ben and his brother negotiated the buyout of Gateshead rivals John Dodds. Though they’re coy about the terms of the deal, the coming together of the two family firms has resulted in combined turnover of £8m.

Perhaps the most fortuitous decision in the Crosbys story was the purchase of an unattractive warehouse in Shieldfield. Ben and his father settled on the property, though it wasn’t their first choice. The firm is now looking forward to a significant cash windfall as the premises is sold off to become student accommodation.

Ben suggests the cash will be used for acquisitions, and there are a few players in the region the firm “has its eye on”. “Ideally we want to be £10m turnover company, and there’s a few companies in the region that would be a good fit for that purpose,” he said.

The plan is ambitious but grounded in realism. As a self confessed creative, you get the impression Ben’s business head has been nurtured and developed over Crosbys’ 25 years. He said: “A while ago we wanted to rule the world, and everyone goes down that route, but then you realise that’s not going to happen. We have a great customer base in the North East and the aim is to provide a broader range of products to them.

“The only problem is growth means me and Roger aren’t in front of customers anymore, and we don’t want to take our eye off the ball. It’s tricky because that’s where we started and some days when it’s not going so well, I just wish we were back in the van. Now we’ve got 30 odd staff to think about, and their families. But, that’s what we signed up from and that’s what we’re growing into.”

Not content with one business, Ben is also involved in his wife’s retail cook shops in Jesmond and Wylam, which were started in the depths of recession.

He said: “There wasn’t a cookware shop in Newcastle at the time and we were best placed to do it with our connections. My wife Jess was working for Crosbys and wanted a change so it really made sense. The customers at the shops are young, particularly in Jesmond. You’d think students buy pizzas and so on, but they’re really into cooking.”

In his minimal spare time Ben still enjoys a regular round of golf, but insists he never does business on the course.

“I love it more now as a hobby. When I miss a green or a putt it isn’t the end of the world, whereas it was at one stage. The golf course is where I get away from business,” he smiles.

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