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A real eye-opener

With Undercover Boss on Channel 4 shining the spotlight back on waste, Colin Drummond, out-going chief executive of Viridor, reflects on his own experience of the programme

As a Belfast boy raised in the shadow of the shipyards, hard graft and working with some gritty and great people didn’t worry me.  What concerned me - and our lawyers - was the lack of editorial control and the possibility that I, or the programme, wouldn’t accurately reflect our people, our business or our sector.  Participation was a controlled leap of faith and it is one I’m glad I made.  It offered me, as chief executive, real insights and I know that it benefited our business.

Looking back three years, the big learning experience has been attitudinal. At Viridor we work hard to empower our people at all levels across the company and we value initiative within stringent financial, environmental and safety parameters. I envisaged a keen and responsive workforce, hopefully with enterprising ideas to help customers and to do their jobs better. Most people, I believed, wanted to do a good job. Was I deceiving myself?  Were they adequately supported and what was really happening at the sharp end?  I was pleased by the results.

What Undercover Boss showed me was the pride and inventiveness of people in their respective jobs, however unattractive those jobs appeared to viewers. I was particularly struck by the system of welcoming introduced by the team at Arkwright HWRC, by the customer relationship skills of collection operatives and above all by the dedication of Tim Lake at our Plymouth depot, who refused to take time off sick despite suffering an aggressive cancer. Viridor and the industry more generally can feel proud of its workforce – an often under recognised key component of the green economy.

We moved quickly to implement changes identified in the programme. We’re now using automatic weighing to assist management of our trade waste routes, helping to engage with customers who persistently overload bins. We share best practice between our regions through transport and recycling working groups, recognise and reward bright ideas from employees, and we immediately put right the inadequate welfare facilities in Filton. We reviewed the trade-off between full time and agency staff to better balance business needs and our employees’ requirements, and we were able to provide Tim and his daughters with a holiday which he took in Ireland to my delight. I joined Tim’s friends and colleagues at his funeral this year, with a fleet of Viridor trucks, to pay my respects to a fine man.

As a company and as a sector in transition we’re working hard to change perceptions and the programme really helped.  Historically our industry has kept its head down, allowing others to form their own perceptions. Hopefully it gave an insight into modern resource and waste management, recycling and renewable energy recovery.  We had positive feedback from viewers and the programme did us no harm in at least one contract negotiation. We keep track on where the programme is currently featuring across the globe via the emails, tweets and facebook posts we continue to receive.  It’s currently airing in Singapore and South Africa I believe.            

There is always room for more improvement and a healthy legacy of the programme is people, both within and outside the business, feeling able to share ideas, often citing Undercover Boss.  With retirement approaching, I regret there never seems to be enough time to do everything I would like to.  I wish I could spend more time at the very sharp end with the great people featured but other priorities take over.  Real challenges remain in continuing to deliver for our customers, our shareholders, people and communities - and keeping pace with the legacy of Undercover Boss.

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