Inn or Out Ltd.: Lena Bjorck

How a passion for business has given Lena Bjorck her just desserts

If there’s one person who exemplifies the principle that what really matters in business is a passion for what you’re doing it’s Lena Bjorck. She started without any financial help or basic equipment, delivering food to customers courtesy of the London underground. Eight years later on and her company – Inn or Out Ltd – is one of the most respected and celebrated catering success stories in the UK. She tells Startups.co.uk just how she did it.

Name: Lena Bjorck What does your business do: Catering company Business name: Inn or Out Ltd. Number of employees: 12 full time and 150 part time

Situated in a narrow street, lodged between London’s Smithfield market and Barbican centre, Inn or Out Ltd has become the name that’s on every city banker, diplomat and highflier’s lips when asked to pick their caterer of choice. The company was founded back in 1995 by Lena Bjorck who, after arriving in the UK from her native Sweden, was appalled at the level of service offered by the hotels and restaurants here.

“I left Sweden with absolutely no qualifications whatsoever and I had the most terrible grades,” she says. “I just traveled around the world as a kitchen porter and a bus girl and then I came to the UK in 1988 and worked in various restaurants but I couldn’t get a work permit because we were not part of the EC. In 1994 I moved back here and got a job as a breakfast supervisor in one of London’s five-star hotels. Within days I just came to realise the people around me weren’t actually in the service industry at all.”

Without a pound in her pocket, a computer or even a car and not actually able to cook that well, Bjorck then quit her job. She manage to persuade friends in Sweden to send her some printed menus by post but when she went to the bank to ask for money they, unsurprisingly, turned her down. It was while signing on for the dole she went to see the East London Small Business Centre. They recommended she get in contact with the Prince’s Trust who eventually awarded her £2,500 to start up.

Opportunity

In a relatively short period of time her business was up and running. After investing £270 in a membership of the Swedish Chambers of Commerce she used their computer to harangue the capital’s major banks into giving her some work and eventually they caved in. Then her really big break arrived.

“I had only been in business a few months when I got the contract to cater for President Clinton which was quite amazing,” she explains “I didn’t have a computer so I had to write the quote by hand and I was up against the big catering companies who offered to do it literally for free not to mention the American Embassy’s own catering. Against all the odds I won it. Then afterwards then I got a letter from the White House office saying it was the best food they’d ever had on a foreign trip. It was a huge marketing tool in the beginning.

Bjorck is clearly aware of how this stroke of fortune has contributed to her success and the picture of herself and Bill Clinton proudly adorns her office wall, along with her many subsequent awards. But, as she puts it: “Every one has luck but seeing the opportunity and actually using it is a different matter.”

But even when she was catering to the high and mighty Bjorck was still living and breathing her business, working over sixty hours a day, seven days a week from home. Her day would begin at four in the morning with a visit to London’ s fish, veg and meat markets, carting all her groceries back to her flat to prepare them. Then after catering for the function, all the dishes would have to be brought home to wash up before going to bed.

So how did she get through it all? Put simply self-motivation: “I’ve always set little goals. Even when I was a kitchen porter I felt like it was a fabulous job because I motivated myself. By the time all the dishes had gone in, I would set myself the task of making sure the side was polished. Every time you reach that little goal you get a better sense of self confidence,” she says.

Customer satisfaction

Along with the principle of self motivation the other key value to Bjorck’s success is the importance customer satisfaction. In fact, she says without it, her business would not exist:. “From the minute somebody picks up the phone that’s what it’s all about. And the customer is always right – it wouldn’t matter if it was Prince Charles or the chap down the road who can’t afford our services. “We always have comments on how fabulous our waiting staff are. We pay them well, as professionals doing a job. We teach them about what they’re serving and motivate them so they actually understand how importance it is to deal with a client in the right way. They are the ambassadors for the company.”

Amongst all her successes in business the one Bjorck feels most proud of is being honoured as 1999’s businesswoman of the year. As fate would have it the ceremony was hosted in the very hotel she had worked in before quitting to go it alone. “It was a very nice feeling to go back and see all the people who had doubted me. What goes around comes around,” she says.

And even the ever-increasing burden of red tape and legislation has failed to diminish her love of business. Comparing the situation to Sweden she believes the climate for entrepreneurship in the UK is ideal. “”Of course bureaucracy can be a problem and it is time consuming but it is just something you have to deal with. Compared to Sweden it’s a dream. For example I got my first health and safety certificate through the post here, back there I would probably never even have been able to get started.

Spend any time in Bjorck’s company and it’s almost impossible for the infectious enthusiasm for what she does not to rub off on you. It’s why she’s also in high demand as a public speaker believing by adopting a positive attitude it’s possible to achieve anything you want. She certainly provides a pretty powerful case for it.

“I am a positive person, my mother’s a positive person. If somebody from Mars came down to Earth and started reading the newspapers, listening to the radio and watching television what kind of impression would they get of the world. But actually the reality is not that bad. We hardly look like we’re suffering do we? We’re fortunate for the life we live when half the world can’t even feed their own children. At the end of the day it’s only work and I feel very fortunate, I have a good life, I have a great family and I do whatever I want. So how could I complain?”

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