Grease lightning: The man building a food services empire with deep-fat fryer management company Filta

Francesca Washtell
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Filta's machines service deep-fat fryers (Source: Getty)

On the surface, it’s difficult to see what links Slug & Lettuce, Harvard, Microsoft, the Federal Reserve, and Holiday Inn.

But that inconspicuousness would be typical of the sort of company connecting them all. Support services firms rarely get much glory.

The company in question, in this case, is Filta. Little-known outside the hospitality world, Filta is a service company that makes deep fat fried food safer to manage for employees, as well as making the fryers more efficient and environmentally sound.

Since joining Aim in November 2016, its share price has almost doubled, to close at 176p on Friday. In its half-year results in September, it unveiled a revenue rise of 39 per cent to £6.6m, and a 62 per cent hike in underlying profit to £1m. It’s a lucrative, virtually one-of-a-kind business that has expanded over 20 years from a “man in a van” type operation to a now rapidly growing listed enterprise.

Cricket club

For Filta’s enthusiastic 47-year-old founder and chief executive Jason Sayers, the idea for the company came at his cricket club in 1996, when a friend there had severe burns on his hands from having to clean out a deep fat fryer at work.

“That’s when a friend and I thought, there’s got to be a safer way of doing it,” Sayers says.

Fryers are mostly cleaned by hand, by opening up the bottom of the machine, usually over a bucket, meaning the oil slops out and can injure the person unlucky enough to be doing it. Sayers’ idea was to flip the procedure over.

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“Why not take oil out from the top of the fryer rather than the bottom? That’s when we thought, why not filter it at the same time.”

The machine developed for Filta does just that, working as a vacuum to suck oil out from above the fryer and filtering it as it goes.

The FiltaFry machine Source: Filta

Soon after Sayers discovered this gap in the market, he contacted a hydraulic filtration company in Harrogate to produce machines to sell. There were other filtration machines on the market, though, and it was a conversation with a franchise consultant that helped the business take shape.

“I was at an inventors fair at the Barbican in London and a franchise consultant was there and said, ‘look, I’m involved in lots of restaurants we have filtration machines, but there’s a need for a service’.”

Shortly after, Sayers brought vans in and started the mobile service of filtering oil and cleaning fryers for people, rather than selling machines.

As the service began to develop, Filta acquired its first two franchise owners in Scotland (home, of course, to the deep fried Mars bar).

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Sayers then met with Victor Clewes, who helped accelerate the business in the initial years, then took over the sales side while Sayers ran the day-to-day business. They moved to having master licences around the world, such as in Australia, Portugal and Spain, where people could franchise it out.

But as the business expanded, it soon became clear that there were bigger fish to fry. And that fish was America.

Super-size life

Filta, and Sayers himself, went stateside in 2003.

“The US is the obvious market to look at – there are big fryers everywhere. I mean, it’s the unhealthiest place on the planet eating-wise. It’s Mecca for us.”

In 2009, Filta changed its model in the States to be multi-unit. Then in 2011, there was a major turning point which “catapulted” the business, according to Sayers, which was putting in place an inside sales team to help franchisees get business.

Growth has increased quarter-on-quarter since centralising the sales and Sayers points to it as one of the company’s main watershed moments.

The North America business is Filta’s biggest arm; it contributed £4.3m to the £6.6m revenue in the first half of 2017. The group as a whole has over 180 franchise partners, providing services to more than 5,000 restaurants and other commercial kitchens every week, and it’s the non-restaurant field where the US business is thriving.

“In the US, we have these stadiums, we have universities, we have hospitals, there’s thousands of hospitals in the States with loads of fryers in them, you wouldn’t believe it. And we have a massive customer base out here, again over 300 stadiums the biggest one has over 200 fryers in it, to give you an idea of scale.”

There are also national contracts with some of the biggest catering companies in the world, including Compass, Delaware North, and Centrepoint.

Filta’s core service is FiltaFry, focusing on the nuts and bolts of oil filtration and fryer management.

This service consists of weekly visits from a van with the special machine that sucks oil from the top and filters as it goes, leaving companies with less waste oil, and keeping the whole operation cleaner. In 2016 alone, FiltaFry customers saved more than 7,000 metric tonnes of cooking oil.

Founder Jason Sayers, originally from Surrey, moved to Florida in 2003 Source: Filta

Feeling sexy

It’s impossible to determine exactly how many commercial deep fat fryers there are in even just the US, but Sayers estimates that Filta has a one or two per cent market penetration there. With 98 per cent to go, and no real rivals, there’s a lot of room left in which to grow.

Running Filta has clearly been a lucrative venture for Sayers, but what about the fact that his business isn’t very, well, sexy?

When I pose this question, Sayers chuckles. “Our business Filta is not in filtering cooking oil, it’s in getting franchise owners on board and driving franchising. So in terms of being sexy, our business is good, the franchise owners employ the people that go out there, and they’re very successful at doing it, so I don’t see our business as particularly non-sexy.”

The City certainly doesn’t have an issue with the company’s perceived sexiness.

“We don’t lose customers. Big statement. We don’t tend to lose customers once they’ve taken the service and so the repeat revenue model is very attractive to franchisees, and it’s very attractive to us at the corporate level.”

Sayers clearly loves running the business, and his life in Florida. He admits that the better weather was a big pull for him when he decided to move out there – we spoke via phone on a balmy Floridian morning and wintry London afternoon.

The only drawback: he doesn’t get to play cricket much nowadays.

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