“I have faced many challenges and obstacles throughout my career, learning from my mistakes, but each one of them has only strengthened me to make me the person I am today.” – Philip Atkinson
With over 30 years’ experience, Philip Atkinson, Senior Community Food Service Manager at Durham University Catering understands that the hospitality industry revolves around people, not only your valued customers, but the people you work with every day. The people you train and develop, the people who make your teams the best they can possibly be.
“My first role was actually at Durham University whilst studying at college,” Philip recalled, “I was studying catering but secured the role at the university in the pot wash, which then led to gaining experience in food preparation and food service.” The role introduced him to mass catering but also to dealing with, and meeting clients at a face-to-face level, conversing, interacting and learning how to give a great experience. “I tried to use what I learned at college within the role and take away what I was picking up back into my academic work,” he said.
After leaving college, Philip gained a permanent role with Trusthouse Forte Hotels and also Moathouse Hotels, where he spent more than five years working across each department, gaining the necessary experience through trainee management programmes.
Philip later transferred back to Durham University, and he found that he had a job on his hands. “I had to inspire team members within a sector who had a legacy of low standards, unskilled staff and low productivity.” Philip explains, “There was a lingering perception of University catering staff being ‘dinner ladies’ and Durham historically struggled to attract high calibre talent. I led the development of a recruitment video to provide visual insight into ‘what we actually do’, with the thinking that ‘a picture can paint a thousand words’”. The video also helps applicants understand Durham University Catering’s purpose, its strategy and their core values before deciding whether to join the team. This is an approach has been shared widely and adopted by other University departments and north-east catering organisations facing similar challenges.
Philip’s innovative thinking led him to consider changes to recruitment in the department. “I believed that shortlisting certain catering job applications based on qualifications and standard of English was unfitting,” he said. “So to increase the amount of talent at interview stage, I removed the written application shortlisting process for entry level vacancies. Instead, all applicants are invited to an interview stage, where the formal panel style interview was replaced with a ‘speed dating’ style interviews, where positive behaviour is scored using standardised questions and simple work related tasks.” Again, after proving highly effective this new recruitment approach was shared widely, and is now adopted throughout the University and Visit England’s award winning Beamish Museum.
Philip initiated a strong Learning & Development programme within the University Catering Department. “We have a transparent career path document. I have coached over 33 team members within the previous four years, helping them to achieve promotion.
The Durham University Catering induction programme commences with ‘Passionately Delivering Outstanding Experiences’, an interactive classroom based induction, delivered by the department’s senior management team along with Philip himself and thanks to his operational and industry knowledge, he has the ability to clearly deliver the department’s strategic objectives, and empower their new team members. “I am University Catering’s training champion,” says Philip. “I’m focused on strengthening skills.” Following the department’s success, Philip has been seconded by the wider University training team who are responsible for over 4,000 contracted staff, to assist with the development of a facility-wide customer care training programme.
30 years is a long time in the business and Philip Atkinson has seen standards rise across the board. “’Considering our ‘customers’ are predominately students, their expectations and demands are now at a very high level. They require value for money, flexibility, nutritional value and quality. They are very knowledgeable therefore we need to deliver exceptional products and service.”
Philip Atkinson has shaped and improved the University and the north-east catering sector in a quest for excellence and has genuinely made Durham University Catering and the industry a better place to work. In doing so, he has won the coveted Ambassador to The Industry award at the 2017 Caterer.com People Awards, a singular honour and one of which he is immensely proud. “I was extremely honoured to receive the Ambassador to the Industry Award as was my line manager who nominated me. The recognition received from colleagues at Durham University was monumental, which included the Pro Vice Chancellor of the University, the Director of Accommodation and Commercial Services and the Director of HR. The news even filtered to my previous line manager who is Operations Manager at Strathclyde University.
“I am earnestly grateful for the recognition I have received for my work. I am a thorough professional and I know what I’m aiming for and that is always having the customer at the forefront of any task.
“Winning this award would not have been possible without the inspiration I have received from my line manager, colleagues within the department, colleagues from other departments including HR, Procurement, Sales and external suppliers all for whom I have the deepest respect, and from whom I have derived the strength to challenge myself and perform better at each stage.”
As for the future, Philip Atkinson said, “I plan to stay committed to the organisation, delivering a high and progressive service, ensuring our students receive and maintain the most outstanding experience during their time studying at Durham University. Alongside student service we must make sure that the University remains at the pinnacle of commercial food service within the northeast.”
We congratulate Philip and his team and wish them every success for the future.