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The heart of the matter

Biffa chief executive Ian Wakelin took part in TV programme Undercover Boss earlier this year. Andrea Lockerbie gets his take on the experience and how it has affected the business

Channel 4’s Undercover Boss takes chief executives, disguises them and gets them to experience the nitty gritty jobs of the companies they run from an employee’s perspective. The cover story is usually that the person is unemployed, seeking work and taking part in a programme about their experiences.

“I’ve never made a TV programme before but it was actually quite fun,” says Ian Wakelin, chief executive of Biffa. “I thoroughly enjoyed it.” But it was hard work and long hours, often 6am to 10pm. “It is quite daunting, because you give complete editorial control to the programme, so you don’t know where you are going to go from one day to the next or what you are going to see. Anything can happen – and quite a lot did happen as you saw in the programme.”

This included experiencing: the poor working environment at its Barking transfer station; food waste bins from pubs and restaurants that were so heavy they could barely be moved; a driver reversing into an overhead warning sign; witnessing perfectly good equipment being consigned to skips at a HWRC; and spending a day with a field salesman pounding the pavements trying to sign up new customers, with no success.

“Listen, every company has got its issues, no one is perfect,” Wakelin says. “And there are some things on that programme that we all saw that we would like to fix. And that’s the crux of it really – to go out and see those things and identify the opportunities and then come back and fix them.”

Since filming, which took place at the beginning of June, changes have been implemented. “We have made and are making further investment in Barking,” he says. The plan is to spend £250,000 there in total, although this had not all been completed at the time of writing.  “We are fixing some of the environmental issues you saw on those transfer stations,” Wakelin says. This includes bigger fans, ventilation, getting windows open, and installing cooled water – not across the board but at a number of facilities.

On looking at reuse at HWRCs, he says: “We have discussions going with a whole series of charities around what we can do around reuse. Whilst it is probably a little bit early to say that we have actually solved that problem yet, there is enough discussion going on with various people for us to be confident that that would happen.”

The company is slightly further from a solution for the food waste collections. “We will probably, almost certainly, end up putting a false bottom in them, I suspect is the answer,” Wakelin says. We are trying to figure out how we would engineer that at the moment.” Food waste collections are charged per bin, “so that will have a knock on effect” Wakelin concedes. “But actually most of our customers, they have at least one bin that isn’t completely full, so if we put a false bottom in all of the bins, I suspect they will all end up being full but not heavy,” he says.

Use of agency staff came up in the programme, an issue that also cropped up when Viridor’s Colin Drummond took part in the programme a few years ago. Wakelin says the company’s use of agency staff is actually quite small, 3-5% of staff, and is used mainly for jobs like picking stations. “We do employ a lot of agency labour and the reality is that agency labour is flexible. Our demand for people does go up and down depending on seasons,” he explains.

The company tries to have supervisors as permanent members of staff and to promote agency staff up into supervisors and therefore on to permanent terms. Wakelin adds that on the picking jobs “you do get an awful lot of staff turnover” which means “having that flexibility around the use of agency staff is really important”.

On the sales front, since filming, Biffa has given all sales people an iPad. Previously they completed paper contracts, with information transferred manually to other systems. Now it is typed into a tablet, the customer signs digitally and the contracts automatically go into its invoice and billing system. These are also being rolled out to its business improvement managers who resolve customer queries, such as changing services, and get new contracts signed if needed.

A more proactive approach by its telesales operation has also been taken, with more appointments made for its sales people rather than just having them “walking up and down the streets, knocking on chip shop doors”. The learning visit to the US mentioned in the programme is likely to happen in October, when the plan is to go and spend time with one of the big waste companies there.

“We are trying to move the company more and more to a business that transacts more over the internet and uses digital technology more than paper, for example. It’s all to make the customer experience – I hate that word – but to make it better for our customers,” he says.

“The customer doesn’t want anything that is complicated or difficult, he just wants the bin picked up every week – if that’s what it is – and taken away. So anything we can do to make that an easier process is better.” He adds that with the market tough at the moment, retaining customers is vital.

Having come from Greenstar, Wakelin basically inherited Biffa and its culture when he took the helm a couple of years ago. Has that taken some adjusting to?

“It has. We needed to create a business that is much more dynamic, that is more creative in the way it thinks, that absolutely has the customer at the forefront of everything that we do – customers don’t want to hear that the truck has broken down, or Bob’s off sick, they don’t care about that, they just want their waste picked up.

“I’ve worked hard to try to create an environment where we have creativity, we have entrepreneurs in the business who want to do things differently and where good customer service isn’t good, it has got to be absolutely great. We have a principle in the business that we try to be easy to do business with, because if we make it difficult in any way, whatever it might be – service is poor, or the invoice is wrong, credit control is doing a bad job or customer service don’t answer the phone on time - any of those that make us difficult to do business with is a problem.”

Wakelin wants Biffa to be “the most well-known brand, the largest waste management company in the UK who provide the most efficient, greatest coverage of collection services available for our customer base”. And recycling or recovering energy from as much that is possible.

He’s positive about the experience and how the company has already moved to make changes. He’s positive about the Biffa brand: “The heart of most of what we do is really very, very good. We have 54,000 customers – it can’t all be wrong.”


Wakelin on key learnings:

“I learnt a few things: that we need to invest in the working environment a bit more, so upgrades to our waste transfer stations to make our working environment a better place to be. I think we need to have more empathy with people, more understanding that the business needs to be somewhat more flexible with how we deal with our staff. I think the service is great – I was really pleased with the level of service – but work hard to get staff motivated and engaged to go the extra mile to really make that difference – because that is what is needed at the moment. In a tough market, it’s not good enough to be okay, you’ve got to be really good, and the only way you can be really good is if you have got staff willing to go that extra mile.”

Wakelin on the response:

“The response I have had has been enormous, I mean hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of emails from members of the public, customers, staff, colleagues, retired generals who are writing to me, telling me how to run the business – it’s been great.”

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