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Food with a touch

by system
Tue, Sep 23rd 2003 10:00 pm
Business First  [ View Original Article ]


What's going on: Personal Touch Food Service has been feeding hungry masses of Western New York students, nursing home residents and business people for the last 18 years.

The company provides cafeteria and resident food services along with vending services and catering for client events.

Personal Touch principals say that the secret to the company's longevity lies in a reputation for quickly responding to client requests and maintaining a company culture that values people over profits.

Who's who: Owner Jim McHugh is president and CEO; Dave Cervi is vice president.

Company history: McHugh and Cervi met when both were employed by World Food Service, working their way through college.

McHugh was managing the cafeteria at his alma mater, Canisius High School. World Food Service was facing a second change in ownership, and administrators at Canisius suggested that McHugh start his own business.

He took their advice, opening Personal Touch in August 1985 with three clients: Canisius High School, Mount Mercy Academy and Holy Angels Academy.

The first six years held major struggles for the business.

"I could have declared bankruptcy easily," McHugh says. "I borrowed against my house and threw everything that we had into the company, hoping that it would work. And we've been very lucky."

The 1990s heralded a turnaround for McHugh's company. Every year since 1991, he says, Personal Touch has experienced growth of 10-20 percent.

The acquisition of Sermat Vending four years ago gave Personal Touch the ability to snag business and industry accounts. The vending division runs out of a warehouse in Lackawanna.

Cervi, involved in the business from its inception as a consultant, came on full-time in 1988 and was named an officer two years later when another partner left.

Personal Touch operated from space at Canisius High School until last year, when McHugh and his wife, Maureen, purchased a building that was last home to WGRF-FM 97 Rock.

What kept you going in tough times? "Pride," McHugh says. "And, I think, family values and advice from siblings. I'm the youngest of six, and we all ended up being entrepreneurs."

One of his brothers, William, is a co-founder and executive vice president of Independent Health.

"So probably, competition kept me going too - sibling rivalry."

Employees: Approximately 450, with a full-time equivalent of roughly 315. For each client location, Personal Touch appoints a manager who hires the staff for that site - cooks, dietitians, line servers and cashiers.

Based out of corporate headquarters are McHugh and Cervi, two of three company supervisors and a support staff of three.

Clients: Personal Touch counts nine private high schools, 13 public school districts, seven resident accounts, such as elderly care residences and convents, two summer camps and 21 commercial accounts as its clients.

Among them are General Mills, Graphic Controls, Merchants Mutual Insurance Group, New Era Cap Co., Outokumpu American Brass and Russer Foods, as well as Buffalo State College, Trocaire College, and the Clarence and Orchard Park school districts.

Revenues: More than $10 million annually, McHugh says.

Greatest challenge: "I think as with any business, it's people," Cervi says.

"When you have the amount of employees that we're dealing with, managing a staff to make sure that they're meeting your expectations of service and quality - to me, that's the biggest challenge."

McHugh adds that maintaining corporate culture - in the case of Personal Touch, a sort of anti-corporate culture - is crucial.

"Our supervisors come from large companies, some of them multinational companies, as do several of our managers. And getting them to change their thought process is a continuous job process," he says.

At Personal Touch, McHugh says, "There aren't the big-company games, there aren't ladders. It's treating people right, being good with your clients. It's that simple."

Cervi says that philosophy gives the business staying power.

"It's not about lining your pockets, it's about providing service," he says. "So we're going to be around tomorrow and the next year and 10 years from now."

Most gratifying moment in the last year: Signing the contract to service City View Properties' LCo at Exchange building in April - the culmination of an aggressive bidding war between Personal Touch and a Goliath-sized international competitor.

McHugh and Cervi were taken aback when City View management said they weren't convinced that Personal Touch was the right choice for the job. So the pair responded with a flashy proposal geared toward City View's needs.

"I hate to be told 'No,'" McHugh says. "They wanted us to drop off some food, and instead we created a visual feast of foods on the boardroom table. I had a waitress walk in with a tea cart, wearing a tuxedo and white gloves."

On the horizon: Expanding the company's market share within the business and industry sector, which now accounts for about 18 percent of its operations -- and the company's only for-profit clients.

"That's a part of the company that Dave and I are really concentrating on growing," says McHugh. "We think that's a small division with great potential."

Taking a tip from advisers, Personal Touch also plans to increase its profile generally so that it no longer falls under the rubric of one of the area's "best-kept secrets."

"For years we've very much been under the wire," McHugh says.

There are times when... "You think that you've dealt with every surprise in history that you think can come about, where you're taken aback because another new problem or challenge has arisen that you never expected."

Some years back, when McHugh was still directly involved in food preparation, Personal Touch was catering an event for 120 people for a prestigious client. McHugh took the prime rib out of the oven and began to carve it, only to learn that the meat was raw inside. The ovens at the site, as it happened, had gone down without his knowing about it.

Acting fast, McHugh sliced the roast and broiled it on sheet pans to get the meat cooked fast.

"Dinner was about 10 minutes late, but not one person in the crowd knew that there was a problem," he says.

Dear Gov. Pataki: "The way New York state is run right now, (government leaders) often make decisions that adversely affect small and medium-size companies.

"I would like them to concentrate more on running the government as smoothly and economically as possible, because that's what entrepreneurs need to do to survive," McHugh says.

"Sometimes I find it very offensive when inefficiencies of the government are compensated by passing legislation or reform that increases the challenges of a company to run efficiently."