The FCSI interview: Stephen Arnold

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The design director of UK consultancy Humble Arnold retains his drive in the pursuit of excellence, after nearly 50 years in foodservice consultancy, as he tells Michael Jones

Today he is considered one of the most world-renowned foodservice consultants and designers, but had you asked a young Stephen Arnold FCSI what he wanted to be when he grew up you would have received a very different answer.

“In my teens, I wanted to become a professional racing cyclist. But I had to accept I was never going to be good enough,” he laughs. The Tour de France’s loss was, however, the foodservice sector’s gain. Since joining David Humble Associates in 1975 and eventually forging Humble Arnold Associates from that company with his long-time business partner, the late Andrew Humble FCSI, Arnold has built up an enviable reputation over the successive decades.

Humble’s untimely death in 2018 was a huge blow, but Arnold continues to set standards for the sector from his Hertfordshire, UK-based headquarters and his love for the foodservice and hospitality sector is undimmed. Humble Arnold Associates celebrated its 50-year anniversary in 2016 and continues to thrive, winning projects around the world across a range of sectors.

Family values

An intellectual curiosity for design and imaging how spaces can be utilized creatively, was perhaps, inherited. His father was a partner in an architectural practice and Arnold describes him as “a huge influence” on his career options when dreams of cycling professionally became unfulfilled. “I would study his space planning sketches and read his site meeting notes. Subconsciously, I wanted to emulate his achievements,” he says.

While Arnold junior grew up enjoying “good family food” he had, at that stage however, no specific interest in the hospitality industry. Art and technical drawing were his preferred subjects at school though, and these led him to pursue a career as a design technician.

At that time, Arnold’s careers officer, who was a member of the cycling club he belonged to, told him about a vacancy at David Humble Associates, the respected foodservice design consultancy practice formed in Radlett, Hertfordshire, in 1966 – based relatively close to Arnold’s home of Leverstock Green. “I was interviewed by David and Barbara Humble and offered a draughtsman position in June 1975. I joined the company on an initial salary of £18 per week,” he says.

The owner’s son, Andrew Humble, joined the family business one year after Arnold, having been employed by Laing Construction in London, where he gained experience in site construction processes. “Andrew and I developed a strong working relationship,” says Arnold. “His family bought me into the business and we were always seen as equal.”

As David Humble wound down his commitments, the two younger men eventually became shareholders in the early 1980s and took center stage in further developing the business.

“Our ambition was to build on the firm’s strong reputation as kitchen and foodservice designers, particularly within the hotel, corporate dining and airport catering sectors,” says Arnold. “I did much of the hotel project work, while Andrew was more focused on the business and industry (B&I) projects. We were incredibly ambitious, but in a calm way.”

Reputation building

As project work racked up and with increased exposure to high-profile hotel group clients such as ITT Sheraton and InterContinental Hotels, Arnold developed a passion for travel in the early 1980s, particularly within the Europe, Africa and Middle East region, which continues to this day.

“There are many highlights, when you consider my 46 years in the business,” reflects Arnold. “I owe everything to sheer hard work and a willingness to travel extensively, but certainly, my travels to Egypt in the 1980s were inspirational.” He also cites visits to Tehran and Beirut as being hugely influential on his love for travel.

He also lists his pioneering work on the Pyramid Hotel in Dubai – now known as the Hotel Raffles Dubai – and other properties in 1990, which were Arnold’s first assignments in the UAE. Another career highlight was designing kitchen, foodservice and laundry facilities in a series of Starwood Hotels properties through the 1990s in Poland and Eastern Europe. Arnold’s 1990s project work on the Grand Hotel Stockholm main kitchen masterplan and detailed design was, he says, “one of the very best client/consultant collaborations” in his career, highlighting the extraordinary “attention to detail respected by all parties.”

Elsewhere, his work on the restaurant Zuma London – “superb interiors and excellent client direction,” says Arnold – for chef Rainer Becker, and his designs for approximately 25 food and beverage outlets at Atlantis The Palm, Dubai, managed over a two-year period before a $1.5 billion construction, were other milestones in his career.

And yet, all that aside, Arnold’s proudest professional achievement is simply in “leaving education without a degree and becoming the head of a highly respected kitchen, foodservice, laundry and waste management design consultancy.” This has enabled him to develop a dedicated team of consultants and technicians that have “embraced technology and become highly proficient contributors to our project delivery,” he says. “Clients, end-users and design teams we work with are the biggest influence on us and how we do business.”

Being able to listen to, and understand clients, is the most important business lesson Arnold has learned along the way, he says. “I endeavor at all times to get into the mindset of our clients.”

In the face of tragedy

Success, while hard-won, was well earned, but Andrew Humble’s death after a two-year battle with cancer was extremely difficult for Arnold and his team. The company has, however, continued to honor Humble by building a lasting legacy in his name. “When you lead a business together for so long, there is a total understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We had huge respect for each other. I miss the trust we had in each other’s capabilities – and the pride we shared in the way in which a number of our colleagues joined us from senior school and have become highly competent and trusted foodservice design consultants, leading assignments,” says Arnold.

“When Andrew passed away, we knew we had the strongest and most skilled team in the history of the business. The values that he and I instilled into the business are respected. My co-director Ed Bircham FCSI and other senior team members share the company ethos and will ensure that the business continue to develop when I am ready to slow down.”

Now 64, slowing down, is not on the cards for Arnold. “This business is my life. I remain totally committed and ambitious and will do all that I can to ensure the company continues to develop and prosper. Ed Bircham FCSI and I are incredibly proud of our teams based in the UK and Johannesburg,” he says. His immediate goals are, he says, “to ensure that our team is adequately resourced to deliver mega-projects,” including The Red Sea Development Company resort in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The simple pleasures

The cut and thrust of project work is something that still fires Arnold – particularly when those initial sketches begin to take shape. “I very much enjoy the brief definition period and like being on site to review progress,” he says. “My passion is developing hand sketches that define operational flow and functionality. It really works to bring that freshness and personality. BIM/Revit goes on to enable the design – it’s fundamental, it dictates your specifications and elevates the equipment – but there’s nothing better than the feel of a sketch. If I have a sketch pad and pen, working with a chef and the design teams, I am at my happiest.”

Away from the office, Arnold finds that having “a close family and good friends” is a vital part of life outside of the business. “I enjoy collecting second-hand vinyl, focused on rock, jazz and classical music.”

Having served as the chair of a car club, Arnold also has “a small collection of classic cars” including an Aston Martin DB MK III and a Gilbern GT that has been in his family since 1966. “Older cars need care and maintenance and I enjoy tackling maintenance work that is not highly technical. My idea of motoring heaven is walking through the paddock areas at the Goodwood Revival, admiring the best sports racing cars in the world,” he says.

Whether on two wheels, or four – or simply driving a successful business – Arnold continues to blaze a trail.

Michael Jones