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A total focus on the customer

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When the owners of Biffa, Montagu Private Equity and Global Infrastructure Partners bought Greenstar UK in June this year for £135m, it looked like an excellent strategic fit. Greenstar would bring to Biffa developed recycling infrastructure that would fit nicely into the latter’s operational capabilities.

Two months later, Ian Wakelin, the chief executive of Greenstar, became the new head of Biffa. Just weeks into the job, he is still getting used to the surroundings in his office at Biffa’s headquarters in High Wycombe. But, more importantly, he is still getting used to the challenges faced by Biffa.

“For a start, it is a lot bigger,” he says. “But the issues that Biffa has are the same that Greenstar had. At Greenstar, it was about ‘where do we build the infrastructure that meets the needs of the new industry?’. With Biffa, we have to focus on the whole of the UK rather than a small geographic area, which we did with Greenstar.”

Wakelin plans a full integration of Biffa so that Greenstar, which he founded in 2001, will be fully subsumed and the Greenstar name will eventually disappear in the UK.

“We touch more customers than any other waste company and we haven’t fully exploited that, at the moment. It is a real asset of this business”

“We’ll work off one system, with one management structure,” he says. “This won’t be easy. But we delivered really good customer service at Greenstar, and we will need to deliver that at Biffa too. But Greenstar customers will also benefit from a different scope of services that can be offered by Biffa’s national network.

“For example, Greenstar customers will be able to take advantage of a national glass collection service. They will also be able to use Biffa’s anaerobic digestion plants that will be built across the UK and therefore get food waste collections.”

One big difference is that Greenstar was a recycling-led business, while Biffa has come from a more traditional background and, as aconsequence, still has a number of landfill sites. Wakelin still sees a place for landfill as part of Biffa.

“Landfill will be a very important part of Biffa for the indefinite future. In the coming years, part of Biffa’s success will be in managing the decline of landfill and replacing it with recycling and energy plants. But there will always be a place for landfill, even if it is just for getting rid of bottom ash, and so on. Landfill will never go away, but it will become a smaller piece of the nation’s waste requirements.”

He recognises that the perception of Biffa has to change.

“Biffa has great collection infrastructure, but this was based on putting the waste into landfill. Biffa has failed to capitalise on the strength of this underlying infrastructure. It has put through some very good operating initiatives, but it hasn’t executed things perfectly.

“It needs to be more customer-focused. We need to be easy to do business with and, at times, I think Biffa has been seen as difficult to do business with.”

To help this, Wakelin has reorganised Biffa into five separate divisions led by senior people from both Biffa and Greenstar. These are:

  • commercial and industrial collection
  • municipal collection
  • recycling division, which will operate all of the MRFs in Biffa
  • landfill and treatment business, which will look after landfills, in-vessel composting and environmental services
  • energy, which will oversee landfill gas production, anaerobic digestion and its integrated waste management contracts on the Isle of Wight and Leicester.

These will be supported by central services such as finance, business development, IT and HR.

“The divisions are all responsible as profit centres,” he explains. “The reorganisation has gone down well with staff, and I hope to see an impact in terms of profit by the early part of the new year. The idea behind it is to try to get a much more entrepreneurial approach to drive the business forward.”

Changing the culture at Biffa is a really important task for Wakelin, which he hopes will be helped by this restructure. “We have to re-motivate the 7,500 staff who work with us,” he says. “It has been a difficult period for them, with the recession and all the changes that have been happening at Biffa during the past few years. Part of this is making the existing business much more customer-focused.”

He says that Biffa has spare capacity at all its MRFs and transfer stations, and it will be important to put more business through these to ensure they are working at full capacity. This new business will come from re-aligning the commercial sales team to help it capture more new contracts.

“We will have a greater emphasis on local authority work than at present,” Wakelin says. “The combined Biffa/Greenstar local authority business is probably the second largest after Veolia. It has been a key part of Greenstar but less so of Biffa. By combining Biffa and Greenstar, [local authority contracts] have now become a much bigger focus for Biffa.”

He still sees a future for PFI projects and says that winning these will be vital for the business. Biffa will also invest more in technology under his leadership.

“I am a strong believer that this industry needs to embrace technology more than it has with large-scale technology plants. We will continue to invest in managing waste further down the chain. So with Greenstar WES, we are building another mixed plastics plant. We need to invest in plants likes these to extract as much value from the commodities we have control of.”

I ask Wakelin what his ambition is for Biffa: “It is to get Biffa back to being the number one waste company in the UK in terms of size, range of services and profitability. I am enjoying that challenge. There is a lot to do.

“We touch more customers than any other waste company and we haven’t fully exploited that, at the moment. It is a real asset of this business. We have the opportunity to ensure that waste is no longer a cost but an asset. The companies that will succeed in this business will be those who have control of the waste and are able to get value from the commodities they have.”

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