Susan “Sue” Fleischl, founder of The Great Catering Company, never thought that she would start her own business. Sue considered herself more of a follower than a leader. This I found hard to believe, since she was so engaging during our interview and her personality filled the room.
Early in her professional life, working at catering companies for other people both abroad and in New Zealand, Sue would always note at the end of the day what went well and how things could be improved. In 1995, Sue decided that she could do things better than the others. She started by buying a stainless steel counter, and she stuck it in her living room. She exhorted herself to think B-I-G and to grow into it. That’s how she landed on the name The Great Catering Company, even though it was just Sue and a bench in a small house.
Within a month, Sue landed her first three clients: PWC, Carter Holt Harvey, and Chapman Tripp. She was on her way to greatness.
Today, The Great Catering Company employs eighteen full-time employees and fifty casual staff. Their motto is “serving amazing anywhere.” They supply the food, beverage, and staff for corporate events, private parties, and weddings. The emphasis is always on amazing, delicious, high-quality food.
Clients want to work with Sue Fleischl—her name is a brand on its own. She gained some celebrity as a mystery critic on a TV show in New Zealand called The Kitchen Job. But the food holds up on its own merit: it’s all made onsite at the Great Catering Company kitchen using the freshest possible ingredients.
Everything that Sue does at The Great Catering Company she learned for herself. Since cooking is her passion, the challenging part of running her own business has been what most entrepreneurs confess to struggling with: human resources. As Sue describes the dilemma, “Unless you are trained in HR, how do you really know about it?” Reviews are something that don’t just give her a headache figuratively: they actually make her stomach turn with anxiety!
The following are important lessons she has learned in developing reviews, hiring and managing the people that Sue credits as helping make the company “Great.”
Owning Employee Reviews
Before running the show by herself, Sue was never subjected to a performance review. So for the first few years at Great Catering, she outsourced the process and then took a course to improve how she conducted reviews. But she continued to find the practice wanting: questions were superficial, and she didn’t get enough information from the same questions year after year. Now, she does all of the annual reviews herself for eighteen employees, which is quite a task. Most leaders will only review their own direct reports or a handful of managers at most. But these days, Sue gets much more out of the process, including ample feedback.
Right-Sized Review Investment
Each person gets a week to complete the review form. On average, it takes about two hours to complete. She leverages the form to conduct and dig into the review. Since Sue is selective about how much time she spends with each team member, one review could take one or two hours while a more senior person might require two or three hours. Understandably, she has the emotional stamina to do only one or two a day. On the other hand, a delivery driver might require just a casual conversation. So she tailors the review to the individual’s needs.
On occasion, as a curveball, her staff will get a form with their job description and expectations listed along one side. Sue gives each person about fifteen minutes to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10, based on how well they performed the expected duties. If they can’t complete this form, Sue sits down and peels back the layers to discover underlying issues.
Separate Performance and Compensation Reviews
Sue doesn’t think that performance and compensation reviews should be linked. When people are performing at a high level, she will proactively provide them a raise or bonus. She likes the surprise aspect. Sue definitely dislikes and dispels the notion that a performance review equates to a raise. If somebody expects a pay raise for time put in as opposed to what contribution they made to the company—surprise! Better luck next year.
Sue strategically reviews the more junior folks in the company first before moving up the ladder to review their managers. She receives an amazing amount of insight regarding how the managers are performing, which adds to the data she can leverage when reviewing the managers.
A New Year, a New Surprise
As I mentioned, Sue likes surprises. To this end, she changes her performance review annually to keep people on their toes. This switch yields different insights from the previous years. For example, one year the review focused on providing Sue feedback on her personal performance. This included commentary on how well Sue was communicating the vision, goals, and expectations of the company. Another year, the review focused more on peer assessments.
Open Family Atmosphere
The Great Catering Company schedules offsite events for team-building at least twice a year. They’ve done events like horseback riding and paintball (Sue was a popular target for the paint). Sue is happy to pitch in with chores like mopping and sweeping, and claims that she’s still the fastest chopper in the kitchen. Closed doors would create barriers in this environment. Instead, it’s a place where everyone sits and works together like a big family. In fact, a lot of the workers call her “Ma.”
When interviewing candidates, The Great Catering Company administers a color profile/personality test from a consulting firm. When Sue took the test, she was designated a very strong red and green, which means that she probably intimidates 90 percent of her staff—and maybe even her customers! She now surrounds herself with softer people to balance out her energy. Everyone in the company knows their teammates’ colors, which fosters greater understanding and improves communication.
I think personality tests are great icebreakers and effective tools to better understand a person’s motivation, communication style and personal preferences. We dabbled in DISC and Myers-Briggs tests in my previous companies, and this is something I’d like to investigate and invest in more in in my future ventures.
— David Niu
It’s amazing that Sue Fleischl took notes on improving processes at the companies she used to work for, yet never thought about starting her own business. But when she did start The Great Catering Company from her kitchen, she wasn’t afraid. She aimed for the stars and already had a lot of ideas about how to do things. Now, she’s appeared on TV and is a two-time winner of the Lewisham Caterer of the Year Award. Like most successful entrepreneurs, she thinks fast and constantly tries to make things better. It reminds me of how important it is to think positively and future-proof your company by looking ahead, envisioning where you want to be, and taking the steps necessary to get there.