Sodexo’s action man

In a rare interview, Sodexo chief executive Aidan Connolly explains why, where sustainability is concerned, actions speak louder than words. By Nick Hughes.


For a man who declares his principal hobby as “recreational eating” Aidan Connolly has ascended to his dream job. As chief executive of Sodexo UK & Ireland Connolly is responsible for serving one million meals every day in the UK to customers ranging from prison inmates to football supporters.

Despite a recent drive into the facilities management business, where margins are significantly higher than in foodservice, both Sodexo and Connolly’s passion for food remains undimmed. “Food is in our DNA”, he says. “We’re undoubtedly growing faster in non-food, but food is where we come from.”

Sustainability is intertwined with this DNA. Connolly treats the term as “a fad word” and not something he and his executives talk about in isolation at board meetings. “It’s not like a badge or a shield, it’s just woven in.” Indeed, ask him if Sodexo has a sustainability agenda and the answer is “we really don’t, it’s just in everything we do”.

So what exactly is Sodexo doing? In 2009, the company launched its group-wide Better Tomorrow plan that consists of 14 commitments to action in the areas of health and nutrition, local communities and environment. Of the 14 aims, the UK business is the pilot for eight of them reflecting the “proactive” approach to delivering the plan that Connolly says the UK business adopts.

Sodexo has undoubtedly got the key sustainability issues of the day covered: carbon and water footprinting, organic waste recovery, sustainable food supply and health and wellbeing solutions are all accounted for in the company’s latest Corporate Citizenship report. However, in some areas progress appears to be slow.

In 2009/10, just 20% of relevant sites had implemented a carbon footprint reduction programme, 8% a water conservation programme and, most disappointingly of all, just 2% had implemented an organic waste reduction programme.  Is it fair to say that, compared with the food retail sector, foodservice is not responding to environmental issues fast enough?

“I think there’s a certain amount of fairness in that criticism,” says Connolly candidly. “I think the reason I don’t accept it completely is that there’s a significant difference in our output. Our output is to a client that is not necessarily the consumer and therefore where consumer trends are running ahead of people’s willingness to pay me to do something you will get the impression that retailers perhaps are further ahead.”

For a business whose large, diverse client base spans Honda car plants, Ascot racecourse and NHS hospitals, rolling out sustainability initiatives across Sodexo’s entire portfolio is a challenge. “Where the client is saying actually I need you to cut your costs there’s a limit to how far we can go; I can’t impose [policies] on my client,” he adds. “Whilst we’ve had the luxury in the last three years of being able to invest in the business, some of our clients have retrenched, they’ve shut factories, they’ve laid off lots of people and they haven’t had the same freedoms as I have.”

Indeed, one criticism often levelled against foodservice operators is that their involvement in issues affecting their supply chain remains meagre relative to food retailers and, although they have a clear handle on the environmental impact of their direct operations, there is less understanding of the impact of the products they source. On water footprinting, Connolly admits that “we’re only just starting out our journey”, while on carbon “we have got quite a way into working out what our real carbon footprint is”.

Although he claims there’s a limit to how far up the supply chain Sodexo can reach, he also believes the business is taking its sustainable sourcing responsibilities seriously. Sodexo has a supplier charter in place that has expanded in recent years to cover energy, carbon and water in the food chain. It is also working more closely than ever with NGOs and trade bodies to increase its sphere of influence.

“It seems to me that it’s in all our interests that we don’t spend 200 litres of water producing a cup of coffee and we need to find ways of changing that. That’s actually far beyond the reach of some of our suppliers; you need to go right back to the farming techniques in the countries producing the raw materials. By working with NGOs that are multinational we can multiply our reach.”

In some areas, notably those where it has direct control, Sodexo is actually well ahead of its retail counterparts, says Connolly. Take fish: by December 2010, 926 Sodexo sites in the UK offered MSC-certified fish accounting for 17% of the total seafood sourced for the UK business during the 2009/10 year.

The commitment to sourcing 100% certified sustainable fish by 2015 starts at the very top of the UK organisation; it’s a good example of the role Connolly plays personally in driving CSR policy. “Day-to-day I scarcely get involved in MSC issues but I’m very much behind driving the initiative. You’ve got to have a passion to do this job and you get involved when you can leverage your weight to make a difference.”

Connolly’s passion for foodservice shines through during an hour spent in his company at Sodexo’s brand new head office slap bang in the heart of central London. Unlike many chief executives he is good on the detail of his business and, off-the-cuff, is able to cite numerous examples of the work Sodexo is doing on the ground to improve working practices. In a recent board meeting he expressed frustration that joints of beef could only be ordered in a weight range of between 2.5kg and 5kg. As a result, conversations are now taking place with the supplier about narrowing the weight range to between 2.5kg and 3.5kg and 3.5kg and 5kg to save on wastage. “It’s not really the right use of my time, but sometimes you just can’t help yourself but to get involved,” he says.

Connolly is not looking for approbation from the marketplace for his company’s work. He believes part of the reason why foodservice operators are perceived to be slow adopters of sustainable practices is the lack of noise they make about their achievements. But Sodexo is not about to start wearing its green credentials on its sleeve.

“We don’t do this to feel good about ourselves, we do this because we believe it’s right. It’s not a USP in the marketplace in the same way that M&S has its Plan A or Sainsbury’s is shouting about its green credentials because it’s trying to get people through the door […]. We’re not in the business of doing that.”

What Connolly is in the business of doing is going about his day-to-day duties in the most sustainable way possible, not just in the workplace but at home in Beaconsfield where he lives with his wife and two children. “We separate all the rubbish, load the car up at weekends and trot off to the local tip,” he explains. “But I don’t separate that as a sustainability strand, it’s just the way we live these days. If anybody can find a way to get the kids to turn the lights off as they leave the room then please let me know.”