Bernard Amos, Helistrat’s chief executive, says he is passionate about waste. Why? “Because I can see what massive benefits can be achieved by managing resources correctly. It’s not difficult – it just takes people to be willing to change.”
Helistrat has grown considerably since its inception in 2009. It recently moved to larger headquarters in Portsmouth and now has more than 70 employees. It essentially sits between a business and its suppliers, looking at where improvements can be made by collecting and analysing a great deal of data, which results in reduced costs and better environmental performance.
“I’ve always considered myself an innovator – some people might class me as ‘disrupter’ because I don’t just do what’s gone before,” Amos explains.
“I will look at any process, any solution and any problem with what I like to think of as a variety of answers and solutions, some of which might be very extreme and blue-sky, right the way down to the very safe and boring. And I’ve always tried to challenge.
“In doing so, we found that, with our offer within waste, we didn’t just want to take on what was going before and manage the existing supplier base. We wanted to look at the supplier base and ask ‘how can we improve it?’ We look at it from a completely, almost novice, pair of eyes but with an intelligent aspect. We have always put the customer first.”
It is an approach that has been serving Helistrat well and enabled it to secure big-name clients including Marks & Spencer, Poundland and Ann Summers.
As Amos explains, Helistrat’s offering of a ‘helicopter strategy’, hence its name, allows it to go into “any building with people in, because people create waste”, and devise a more holistic approach.
Amos has a background in end-to-end supply chain, including a long stint at M&S “in most areas of the business”, but left the company when he had to focus on an illness in the family. He got back into work through consultancy, then found himself faced with an opportunity to do consultancy work back for M&S.
Together with a number of other consultants, he came up with a proposal and Helistrat was born. The business grew and waste increasingly became a focus, although it also offers services that include the management of cleaning and pest control contracts, three areas that very often go hand in hand.
“Our background at that time was not waste, in any form, really,” says Amos. “So when we started looking at what was currently being provided, very often we found ourselves asking, ‘why is it done that way?’ And there is a plethora of answers to all of that – mainly ‘that’s the way it’s done’; ‘that’s how the industry works’.
“It was pretty obvious that there were better ways of working but certain service providers were resistant to change. So we got involved and started coming up with alternative solutions, some of which fell outside of the existing waste infrastructure and some meant developing the infrastructure and the supply services that were already in place.
“The rest is history in so much as we’ve gone on and achieved what I believe are some fantastic things.” This includes being the first company to manage a zero waste to landfill declaration for a major company, M&S.
He says: “We see that as a landmark in our development and our evolution as a business. The ethos has always been ‘good honest service and the revenues will follow’. That mantra has seen us, I think, work very well with our customers. We represent our customers; we don’t represent the waste industry in that respect.”
Helistrat tries to apply standards to waste that exist in other industries. By keeping abreast with developments in the waste and resources industry, be it the circular economy, taxation or legislation, it tries to educate customers about the risks and benefits of what is coming, as well as working with suppliers to provide a better service.
“Waste used to be one of these things where you filled the bin, put it at the back door and you hoped it had gone in the morning,” he says. “If it hadn’t, then you’d make a phone call. We wanted to look beyond that completely, and say not only ‘what happens when it does disappear but what are we putting into it in the first place?’
Amos says he has never come across a single supplier who could do everything: “We put ourselves between the supply base and the customer. And we have the ability to manage multiple contractors across multiple disciplines and with a variety of skill levels and service levels so that we get the most appropriate provider in the right part of the country, doing the right service, at the right standard.”
He explains that, for many companies, this management of multiple contracts in-house, along with the associated administration and checking, is not practical. With waste becoming an increasingly complex area, companies rarely have the in-house resource and expertise to deal with it. So Helistrat’s approach is to be the “in-house team outside”, says Amos.
“We can offer that complete turnkey facility, we can advise on the legislation and the technologies, we’ve got finance information behind that and waste data. On the cleaning side we do exactly the same level of detail. We are empowering customers by giving them the information with a high degree of certainty so they can then make the decisions that previously they weren’t able to,” he explains.
So would Helistrat describe itself as a consultancy? “It starts off with consultancy but then, unlike consultants who later hand over the result, we deliver what we say in one of two ways. We will either do it through a service charge, a fee charge, and we will manage that whole part of their supplier base, working with the customer and working with the suppliers, or we will work with the customer and it will pay us a budget, if you like, to deliver all waste services.”
Data underpins the company’s approach and it builds up detailed management information, often to the level that customers are not used to. Amos says customers love the detail because it allows them to see exactly where their money is being spent.
“Working with that sort of level of detail, they can change what they do and that, in turn, makes things more efficient for the supplier. So it’s a virtuous circle: it gets better at this end, it gets better at the supply end and it becomes mutually beneficial for all.”
Amos adds that, for every customer, it has reduced costs and improved the benefits for them in terms of what happens to their waste.
When Amos meets clients, does the concept of the ‘circular economy’ mean anything to them? “It does for some. But I’d have to say that a lot of customers do not appreciate the circular economy and the principles behind it, in terms of how they apply to operational reality.”
Amos is fully supportive of the circular economy: “Part of our role is to educate and upskill, [teaching] customers and suppliers in terms of getting to a point where you don’t set an objective that is unachievable.”
Helistrat can help clients look at how some of the circular economy principles can be applied to their business for their benefit. But Amos adds that, while some materials already have established ‘circular’ routes, others face more of a challenge. He uses the example of glass, where there can be issues with collection, contamination and transport and it ending up in low-value uses such as aggregate.
While glass waste can be made into innovative high-value products such as water filtration systems and aerated bricks which feature desirable qualities, these need greater take-up and more open mindedness by the industries that could use them.
I ask how concerned his customers are about what actually happens to their waste and where it ends up. “Irrespective of what the customer wants, we need to know what happens. We do a cradle-to-grave analysis of where all of the waste that we manage goes to.”
He adds that dealing with such a disparate supplier base means that “not everyone will be completely open and honest with where waste goes”. But that is where the audit process fits in: it has a team of seven auditors who are constantly going over the supplier base and re-auditing them.
Certain customers, Amos explains, are concerned about what happens to their waste, and want to know both what happens to it and dictate the policy and restrictions as to how it is managed and where it is disposed.
“There is, I think, a bit of a misconception… the assumption is, if waste is dealt with in the UK it is dealt with well,” explains Amos. “I think in the main that is true, but the UK is not necessarily always the best answer. There are some fantastic facilities in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Poland, and because they have invested in new facilities, some of those facilities are reasonably cutting edge.
“With the logistics infrastructure in place, essentially putting in place backhauling, then it becomes economically viable to take advantage. But [you have to] audit, audit, audit and then re-audit. We go out there and check – there are people on mopeds following lorries up the road in order to check.”
Helistrat views waste as a resource and the movement of materials as a logistics exercise. So, for example, with companies such as M&S, it will use its returning vehicles to backhaul materials from shops to the distribution centres, where it can then be dealt with in volume and sent on to the relevant material reprocessors. It tries to separate materials at source where possible, for maximum value.
On materials, I wonder if his customers are interested more in retaining their own materials within their businesses for security of supply? Amos believes there will come a time in the future when the likes of his retail customers will start offering money back or a credit on the purchase of a new suit, for example, if the customer brings their old one back so that the fibres can be reused.
“It doesn’t happen yet, but I can see that this, in time, will come and they will look at recycling those fibres into other products. In doing so they will be securing their own resources.” He adds that he can certainly see the same happening for energy and water usage.
“The bottom line is, if you don’t have those resources, you don’t have a business, no matter what your business is. If you’ve got no water or power, no product to sell on the shelves, you haven’t got a business, so security of those materials is incredibly important.”
The solutions Helistrat offers its customers are bespoke because none of the businesses is the same. Amos explains this can mean reinventing part of its systems each time a new customer comes on board.
“One of advantages we have over some of the waste providers is that we do not have a monster to feed – we don’t have 1,000 bins to collect a day, we don’t have a load of rolling stock out there that has got drivers and needs to be collecting things day in and day out. We don’t have MRFs and anaerobic digestion plants that need to be fed. Instead, the world is our oyster – we can pick and choose the suppliers that fit best the solution that we are putting to that customer.”
With data at the company’s core, Amos is a big supporter of Edoc and worked with the Environment Agency from the start of the project. He believes Edoc should be mandatory and cover all waste streams, and sees it evolving in the same way that the tax return system evolved from paper to an online calculator in recent years.
“Data capture is very important – we have already introduced barcoding systems for a lot of the waste we collect,” he says. This allows Helistrat to know what is coming back from each one of the sites, as well as the quality, the date and so on, because it can all be defined and captured on the system. From the data the company can then produce detailed reports which help it to make better decisions, analyse trends and reassess how things can be done better.
Challenging conventional thinking is one of the qualities that Helistrat sells itself on, according to Amos.
“But the conventional way of thinking in waste is basically – and I’m not being derogatory about the large suppliers – they have this machine to feed. They have all those wheels and bins, and they have their facilities that they have invested millions of pounds in. So when they go to a customer and propose a solution, well, not surprisingly, the solution they propose will fit their machine, won’t it?
“Instead, we will challenge that and say, ‘well, actually, that’s not the best way to do it for your business’. It might be, but it probably isn’t, and we will look at what that business needs.”
And Amos adds: “The people in the business hate me because I challenge all the time. ‘Why are we doing that? Why are we doing this?’ Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m not, but if I get a good answer, then fine.”
CV: Bernard Amos
Chief executive, Helistrat Management Services, March 2009-present
Owner, BER Projects, January 2005-December 2011
Procurement consultant, BAA, 2005-2007
Head of Procurement (non-merchandise), Marks & Spencer, 1984-2004