MERRILL KING, joint managing director of Capitol Caterers, has had a 36-year career in the food industry. "I wake up every day and I am really excited to go to work. Every day is full of challenges, deadlines and new experiences," she says. Merrill qualified as a chef through the trainee programme at the Royal Hotel in Durban. This culinary background has served her well, providing Merrill with a thorough knowledge of food preparation and service. Pursuing her passion for excellence on the plate, Merrill founded Blue Strawberry, a high-end catering service to corporate and private clients in Durban. On relocating to the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands in 1992, Merrill sold Blue Strawberry and it continues to operate with an impeccable reputation to this day.
Merrill served as group executive chef for a period of twenty years at Capitol Caterers and was appointed joint managing director in 2017. Headquartered in Pietermaritzburg, Capitol Caterers was founded in 1992 by her husband Giles who as chairman, plays an active role in the business. The industrial catering company is currently entering its 27th year of service and caters for over 100 clients in KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Free State, Gauteng as well as in Eswatini. Capitol Caterers core business is providing contract catering services to the education, healthcare, commercial and retirement sectors.
Merrill says that much of her time is spent travelling to the regional offices to ensure that these operations are well supported. In addition, she values the relationships that she has developed with her staff and she strives to understand their needs and ensure that they are happy.
"My life has changed from being hands on and working in all our kitchens, to managing people and the business side of Capitol Caterers' daily operations," she explained. "I am inspired and humbled every day by the women on our staff. Many of them need to be at work by 6am and before leaving home they first tend to their family needs and then walk and catch buses to get to work and still serve our clients with a smile! They are the face of the company." However, in assessing the role of women in business, Merrill says that she thinks that women's roles are often undermined. "As much as one constantly strives for equality, discrimination is still alive and well. It has been, and still is, a tough struggle for women to be taken seriously, even though huge strides have been made in this area."
Consequently, Merrill believes that much of her professional journey can be attributed to the support of the women in Capitol Caterers. "I believe that I am a successful woman in business because of all the women that I work with. We employ 1496 staff and of that 74% are women with 82% of our management positions being held by women. This shows that women aren't there just to wash the pots, clean the floors and make the odd salad. Women are the reason why catering companies such as ours are successful in South Africa." Merrill added that because women often rely on the support and strength of other women, they have become collaborative in the workplace. "A collaborative style of leadership is how I work at Capitol Caterers, ensuring input from all divisions when decisions are to be made, which generally results in ownership and buy in from everyone."
Striving for excellence
Capitol Caterers not only keeps up with food trends but ensures that all the food that is prepared in their kitchens is nutritious, fulfils a wide range of dietary needs while being beautifully presented and within budget. In order to ensure that the staff are skilled, Capitol Caterers has registered Midlands Hospitality Academy (MHA), which is accredited by the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO) and CATHSSETA. "We used to believe that we needed to be the best that we can be. However nowadays, it is more important to ensure that our staff are upskilled and supported enough to ensure they are the best that they can be, and better than me," explained Merrill. "The success of a person should not be on how good you are but on how good your staff are at getting the job done. This approach ensures that the business can run effectively when you are not there to supervise."
Merrill says that she lives her life to the absolute fullest and states, "If you are not living on the edge you are taking up too much space." She is an avid sportsperson and enjoys spending time in the gym, paddling or running to stay fit and 'to ensure a flow of endorphins.' A competitive canoeist, Merrill has won several agecategory gold medals in the Dusi and Fish River Marathons as well as a silver medal with partner, Sonja Bohnsack, at the World Marathon Canoeing Championships in Pietermaritzburg in 2017. She hopes to complete her 16th Dusi in 2020. Merrill has also competed in running events including two Comrades Marathons and five Two Oceans ultra-marathons. Merrill was the first woman to hold the position of president of Canoeing South Africa, which she occupied from 2008-2010. She is a long-serving board member of the South African Confederation of Sport and Olympic Committee (SASCOC). Whenever possible, Merrill enjoys relaxing with her husband, their three children and grandson.