Onyx UK no longer exists as such and has been renamed Veolia Environmental Services (sounds impressive doesn’t it?) and its website claims that it ‘currently delivers refuse collection services to around five million residents in the UK… Working with Veolia Environmental Services means Local Authorities can be assured of receiving an efficient, reliable and responsive service.’ Well, things must have changed dramatically there as well because they turned out to be just as hopeless as Cory Environmental.
The main reason for this I put down to the fact that they were a French Company who came across the English Channel without any sort of useful business plan to try to exploit the privatisation of English council services without really understanding them. This was a shame because before this the English had effectively kept the French out for over a thousand years but now Margaret Thatcher and her Tory cronies had simply invited them in. As well as Onyx, Sitaclean, also from France, came as well and it wasn’t only the French because the Spanish company Focsa also turned up, the first time Spain had had a go at England since the Armarda in 1588. By 1995 there were simply too many players in the game, which was driving prices down and as well as the European challenge there was BFI from the USA and the home grown companies of BIFFA, Cleanaway and Service Team.
This is Onyx House on the Mile End Road in east London.
The foreign companies sent over their up and coming senior managers and all of the trainee draft-dodging clever-dicks to come and try to tell us how to be better at something we had been doing rather well for a long time before their unwanted intervention. Our Managing Director was a man called Edouard Dupont-Madinier (Ed knows best) who was a really agreeable and pleasant man and obviously cultured and intelligent but, to me anyway, never seemed especially comfortable managing a waste management business in England.
This by the way is a typical French business management model. If a company is in trouble, it will parachute in a graduate of one of France’s Grande Ecoles, someone who has studied business theory and economics for ten years or so but who has never set foot in depot or done a day’s work on the factory floor.
The important thing to the French is leadership not experience and for that the day-to-day running of the company was actually undertaken by a loveable rascal called Percy Powell and while he was there it was a really good place to work. You couldn’t tell the French anything of course on account of the fact that they were exactly that – French. There is something uniquely arrogant about them which means that even when they are so obviously stupidly wrong they are always convinced that they are right! And, what on earth made the French think that they could keep our streets clean when they can’t even deal with the dog waste problem on the pavements in their own country?
Working for Onyx resulted in a lot of head scratching!
When I moved to Onyx I swapped my clapped out Peugeot 405 (which had been driving up and down the M1 and around the M25 for three years) for a brand new Citroen Xantia and was based at Maidenhead and for a while just concentrated on making my new contract a success. I found myself in unusual circumstances because this contract actually made a profit so there was no longer the day-to-day pressure of trying to improve the finances and explaining reoccurring monthly failure to the bosses.
The money was rolling in and the French really liked my contract because it was Royal and special and the Queen lived at Windsor so they kept bringing dignitaries and potential clients to visit and they always wanted to show off so we used to go to lunch at the Roux Brothers Michelin Star Restaurant on Monkey Island at Bray which must have cost a fortune in hospitality. My friend and manager Mike Jarvis used to visit regularly and we would do a bit of work in the morning and then have a nice lunch together at the White Hart in the nearby village of Holyport. In the evenings we used to go to the Old Swan Uppers pub in Cookham and after a meal and a few drinks stay overnight at the Company’s expense. I was rarely under any pressure and life was good.
I didn’t complain of course but the French were equally as unfathomable as Cory Environmental when it came to spending unnecessary money. Just as with Cory we stayed in expensive hotels and hung out in bars and nice restaurants but what was even better about Onyx was that once a year we all assembled at Waterloo station and they put us on Eurostar train and took us through the tunnel to Paris for an annual conference which was much, much better than Torbay and the IWM conference (even though we still went there as well). One year when they were really showing off after buying out a competitor they took us to the Moulin Rouge for a special treat and we had champagne to drink and watch a variety show. And they called this work!
With all of this extravagance you would have thought that the company was making a fortune and all of the contracts were highly profitable but not a bit of this was true and just as Cory Environmental the thing they really excelled at was getting tenders wrong, under pricing to win the work and then losing money in dramatic style. Councils up and down the country from Berwick-on-Tweed in Northumberland to Teignbridge in Devon were all taking advantage of cut-price services and the French were subsidising council tax payers all over England by hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Another surprising thing was that although financial performance was woeful every April we all used to get a generous annual bonus of two or three thousand pounds each. This was very nice but ridiculous because the company was going down the financial plughole fast. I have to confess now that I contributed to that because I was part of the tendering team that successfully bid for the Wycombe contract and have to accept my full share of the blame. Angela Sives, was the tendering manager, who, in a delicious twist of fate, later went on to work for Wycombe District Council as the Procurement Manager because presumably they thought she could do a great deal like that every time?
This one was a real shocker and although not quite on the Cory Environmental Southend scale, lost significant amounts of money from day one.
Thinking about this reminded me of the Onyx management method of assessing mistakes. Basically there were two, a SABU and a FUBAB. A SABU is a ‘Self Adjusting Balls Up‘ and not particularly critical, the sort of mistake that will put itself right with a bit of adjustment and covering up but a FUBAB, ‘A F*** Up Beyond All Belief’ is much more serious, impossible to cover up, requires lots of work to straighten it out and can be a potential career wrecker. Well, believe me the Wycombe tender was a monumental FUBAB and one that cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and was never put right.
In my opinion, the explanation why tenders were so consistently underbid was down to two reasons. First the tendering team always assumed that the operational teams would be able to deliver everything according to plan and always in the most efficient way and sadly this was rarely the case. Secondly because each tender went through a review process and at each stage as it travelled up through the company hierarchy someone would take something out here or reduce resources there or make unrealistic assumptions about the whole bid and by the time they were signed off they were always another potential financial liability.
Imagine my surprise that despite my contribution to the Wycombe fiasco I was rewarded with an annual bonus just the same and shortly after that a promotion to Regional Manager of the North. This was a huge region stretching from Berwick on Tweed on the Scottish border to Derby in the Midlands and from Boston, in Lincolnshire, on the east coast, to Copeland in Cumbria on the west. In all there were thirteen contracts in the region and except for Trafford in Manchester they all made a loss. The downside was that the regional office was in Derby and I had to live at home for a few months.
Luckily, being such a large region naturally involved huge amounts of travelling and being away from home meant more time in hotels and more hefty bar bills. Eventually the company rented me a nice house in Richmond in Yorkshire and I had a very enjoyable year living in the Yorkshire Moors at their expense. It was like being on a permanent holiday and disappointing therefore when Colin Whitehead, the previous Regional Manager (who had left and gone to work for Service Team, a competitor) decided he didn’t like it there after all and wanted to come back.
Being a mate of Percy he was reappointed and given his old region back and I was sent back to Windsor and Maidenhead with the compensation of a new Central Region, which unfortunately included the financial millstone of Wycombe. And not just Wycombe because I also inherited a lot of unprofitable contracts from a man called Peter Clint who had cleaned out all the reserves and all the bargaining opportunities on the way out. Peter was a bit of a crook, a chancer and a rogue and he stitched me up good and proper and later on was to gang up on me with others to lose me my job.
The real shocker however was that Windsor and Maidenhead was also beginning to lose money through the loss of profitable bits of the contract and the addition of new work that didn’t make any money at all, there was a new council client manager who rather unreasonably expected us to do all of the work in the contract specification and Mike was too busy in another failing contract at Westminster to drop by and visit.
This is the Swan Uppers in Cookham. Swan Uppers is a strange name don’t you think? Well, here is the explanation:
Swan upping is a means of establishing a swan census, and today also serves to check the health of swans. Under a Royal Charter of the fifteenth century, the Vintners’ Company and the Dyers’ Company, two Livery Companies of the City of London, are entitled to share in the Sovereign’s ownership. They conduct the census through a process of ringing the swan’s feet, but the swans are no longer eaten.
Swan upping occurs annually during the third week of July. During the ceremony, the Queen’s, the Vintners’, and the Dyers’ Swan Uppers row up the river in skiffs and literally ‘lift’ the birds – hence ‘upping). Swans caught by the Queen’s Swan Uppers under the direction of the Swan Marker are unmarked, except for a ring linked to the database of the British Trust For Ornithology.
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