WOMEN OF THE IRISH FOOD INDUSTRY – PAULINE COX, MANAGING DIRECTOR
Pauline Cox is the Managing Director of Gather & Gather Ireland who are essentially a workplace catering group.
Born in Birmingham to Irish parents (from Down and Roscommon respectively) she moved back to Ireland when she was 13 when her parents decided to buy a pub just outside Strokestown. She worked in a local hotel during her final years in secondary school and also in the family pub business.
The launch of a new range of enhanced family benefits at Gather & Gather Ireland including improved maternity, paternity, adoption and parental leave, along with flexible working, has come at a time when Pauline is heading up an extensive recruitment drive. Due to exciting recent new business wins, there are a number of new positions to be filled.
With the type of benefits and reported generous salaries, Gather & Gather seem to be more and more of an option for chefs who want out of the madness. And who could blame them? But that’s for a different piece. Today is all about Pauline and her fascinating career.
I love someone who learned from the ground up, there is truly no experience like it and it can make all the difference between an average manager and a great one. While I’ve not met Pauline yet, she strikes me as approachable and frankly inspiring.
How did your career path bring you here?
I didn’t consider doing anything other than hospitality as a career, although maybe Art as a second option but I probably wasn’t good enough to make a career of it, and so the natural college choice for me was Hotel Management. I studied 4 years at Cathal Brugha Street for a Hdip & BSc Hotel & Catering Management.
After college I went to Australia with two friends, and I stayed for five years. This is where I first got involved in the “contract catering” business, working in remote sites providing camp services for the mine workers across varied locations in Western Australia. It was challenging work in many ways. I worked as a Chef and in many locations the kitchens were going 24 hours a day. I was working 6.5 days a week and the roster was six weeks on and one week off. It was relentless but I learnt Lots learnt during that time, it was a fantastic experience with many lessons along the way. It certainly opened my eyes to the wider world.
I returned to Ireland on leave when I had a few months free. I applied for a job with Sodexo (Gardner Merchant at the time), and I never went back. My first job with them was in Jacobs Biscuit factory in Tallaght. I’ve been involved in the food service sector since then, makes me feel like an elder of the community when I think about it.
I’m married to Des and we have one daughter. Home is in Bray Co Wicklow where we have been there for 25 years now, same house! We are currently contemplating downsizing now that our daughter has moved to London for university.
I spent 13 great years with Sodexo working as an operations manager and then at director level, before taking an opportunity to move as MD of Management Catering Services (acquired by Compass group).
Another ten years flew past with Compass Group, which is a fast-paced organisation with large volume of business across Ireland and Northern Ireland.
My role there was varied but for the majority I had responsibility for operations and then sales & retention and business excellence. A great time of learning and development, I gained lots of valuable experience.
In 2014 I joined Apleona to work with them on establishing a food brand as part of their portfolio on services. Working with a small team we developed a new service offering and named it FoodSpace. The ethos focused on delivering sustainable food services with a brand philosophy and brand identity that supported that proposition.
The opportunity to come to Gather & Gather Ireland came in February 2018, and it was too good to turn down. I admired what they were doing in the market, including the company’s great food philosophy and lovely client base.
Gather & Gather has been very successful in the Irish market, establishing a significant client base and turnover in a short period of time. Moving into this role was perfect timing to build on that success and develop the business strategy for the future.
How does your career fulfil you?
I have always said the day that I don’t want to get out of bed to go to work is the day to give it up and do something else! I count myself as lucky, lots of tough times and problems to solve but nothing that would dent my enthusiasm for the business. Although Covid has certainly tried its best!!
I think that says a lot about the people I’ve been lucky enough to work with over the years. Our business is fundamentally about people, and I have been surrounded by great colleagues and friends all focused on doing the very best for clients and customers.
I have worked with some of my current Gather & Gather team in previous roles and here we are again delivering great food & service and having laughs along the way.
Even through the last 2 years we have worked together. a tight knit team making our way through the lockdowns and restrictions, keeping an eye on the future, and getting ready to capitalise on the opportunities that will come after the crisis times. You have to keep a positive frame of mind.
That’s what fulfills me about this role, so many lovely people, no day being the same as the last and a sense of excitement about what we can achieve.
What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Pauline Cox?
We have a three-year strategic growth plan for the business that I fully intend to deliver, if we can put the pandemic behind us and get back to full capacity that will set us on the right path to meet the growth targets.
My mantra is keep it simple, plan well, execute at the highest level and put people first.
The next few years will be tough across all sectors – only the best at innovation and consistent delivery will prosper. But the key again is the need to employ the right people.
Tell us of one woman in the food industry who consistently inspires you and why?
There are so many women in the food industry that are consistently at the forefront for different reasons. But they all have an impact and make valuable contributions. But here are some that stand out for me:
- Arlene Stein who I heard speak at this year’s Food on the Edge symposium. Arlene believes that through educating hospitality professionals and looking at food systems through a terroir-based approach (focused on a region’s environment, history, and culture) that we can bring people together through culinary diplomacy, with food leaders as our ambassadors. I think that’s a fantastic opportunity. I was super impressed with her contribution to the event.
- Michelle Darmody who I also heard speak at this year’s Food on the Edge event. When I look at the contribution she is making to Irish food and education across a wide range of areas, it’s pretty amazing. Super talented lady.
- Annette Sweeney is an educator and I admire that as a starting point. As a culinary lecturer and coordinator of culinary arts programmes at TU Dublin, she leads exciting programmes like Applied Culinary Nutrition for practising chefs and the work she does to promote innovative culinary education and positive learning is fabulous. I could also include Cait Noone and Jacinta Dalton, two talented ladies also involved in education that make a standout contribution to bringing talent into our sector.
- And not to forget our trailblazing chefs galore! The more high-profile ones include well-known names such as Jess Murphy, Danni Barry, Grainne O’Keefe, Grainne Mullins, Claire Smyth, and Anna Haugh are only a few that come to mind straight away.
We have an abundance of talented female chefs in Ireland, and I can confirm that there are quite a number of them in the G&G kitchens who are just super talented people to have on our team. So a shout out to our Gather & Gather Chefs who inspire me every day!
Laura Dent, Ciara Mc Grath, Michelle Valentine, Louise Mc Grath, Georgie O’Neill, Tina Byrne, Siobhan Mahoney, Anna Guseva, Isabelle from the CPU team, Sarah Rooney, Eimear Spillane, Paula Feeney and Ciara McGrath.
What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry?
Pieces like this one without a doubt go towards raising the profile of women in the food industry. Ultimately this is still a male dominated industry and that influences the perception of the sector and the way it’s covered in the general media. There has been a big improvement in the way women are profiled in the last couple of years with lots of Irish food writers doing really strong features on the many fantastic women working in food. But we could do more to raise the profile and also to support women starting out in the sector.
Although there are a number of women’s network groups in Ireland, I’m not aware of one aimed at those specifically in the food industry. I feel we need a platform that champions women in food so that we can collaborate and share stories, sponsor and mentor new entrepreneurs and provide opportunities for growth.
I like this collaboration and if we could get something similar going in Ireland it would be a good place to start.
What was the proudest moment of your career so far?
I’ve had a lot of proud moments, it’s hard to pinpoint one single event along the way but they would all centre around people achieving great things.
I love working with good people and I get my biggest thrill seeing people develop, especially those with a real ambition and a drive to change things making both personal and professional progress.
I’m very proud to lead the G&G team here in Ireland, walking around our business just makes me smile, our teams are fantastic.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Travel, get out into the world, and experience life. Try lots of different work environments before settling on where your niche is in life.
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
These three come to mind!
- Team & relationship skills – team-oriented, capable of multitasking continuously. The role is leading and developing the entire company’s team, from the senior team to the front-line team.
- Communication & presentation skills – the capability to interact with a wide variety of stakeholders. Formally and informally. It’s a big part of the role, and getting it right is hugely important.
- Technical skills – have an in depth understanding of the sector but also need to know about the associated areas such as finance, law, project management, technology. You have to be an all-rounder in this role.
Are you a savoury or sweet kind of person? Please tell us about a real treat.
I’m a savoury person. Sacrifice dessert for cheese every time!
A real treat for me is simple food cooked well, uncomplicated flavours.
Particularly enjoy fresh fish & seafood cooked over the BBQ coals, but my guilty pleasure has to be clams and linguine or a bowl of fresh gnocchi is a close second!