For ten years between 3rd December 1990 and 2000 I worked in the private sector in the waste management industry and I have some rather good memories of that time.
When I say waste management to be more accurate I suppose I should say waste mismanagement because the two companies that I worked for were completely hopeless.
The first was Cory Environmental and today their website claims “We operate across the country, providing expert services in the collection, recycling and disposal of waste as well as municipal cleansing… Cory’s services have been recognised with a number of awards for sustainable transport, the management of facilities and city cleanliness”. Well, if that is the case then things must have changed dramatically because in my time they were completely incompetent.
I found myself unexpectedly in the employment of Cory Environmental because in the 1980s and 90s local authorities were obliged to market test their services through direct competition with the private sector and this included waste management. I worked for a Council in Nottinghamshire and we lost our work through the tendering process. This wasn’t because we were too expensive or couldn’t put a decent business case together but rather because the people running Cory Environmental didn’t have much of a clue and submitted an under priced bid that they couldn’t possibly hope to financially or operationally achieve but was absolutely certain to win the contract.
The company had been hastily set up in the late 1980s to take advantage of this privatisation opportunity and the two men in charge were Blunders, who was the Managing Director, a man without any previous knowledge of waste management, and the Operations Director, Bodger who had once been a bus driver with Southend Borough Council and on this rather flimsy basis the companies ‘expert’ on all things transport.
They had set about winning as many contracts as possible and had been stunningly successful but this had mostly been achieved by massively under pricing the tenders and the estimator, a man called Tony Palmer, had sharpened his pencil so hard that he had to wear protective gloves so he didn’t cut his fingers. When he won the Gedling Borough Council work in late 1989 this was added to the growing list of unprofitable contracts that was draining the Group Company bank accounts dry.
I met them for the first time when they paid a visit to Nottingham to a) gloat about their success and b) wonder just how on earth they were going to manage it. In a conversation with a union shop steward I had condescendingly said that working for them might not be too bad and his response was to challenge me to give up my council job and guaranteed pension and do the same and I decided there an then that that was exactly what I would do! They were in an office that had ben provided for them and I knocked on the door and waited to be invited in.
Here were two men who suffered from severe delusions of adequacy. Blunders was a tall softly spoken man in a dull grey outfit and Bodger was a spiv in a 1930s double breasted blue pin stripe suit and Diedrie Barlow glasses that magnified the size of his pupils which was good for him because without them he had narrow squinty not to be trusted eyes. He was a tall man and he had a physical hand shake trick to assert an authority that compensated for lack of mental ability and as I stretched out my hand he grabbed it and jerked it down almost dislocating my shoulder in the process which was almost certainly intended as a statement that said ‘I may only be a bus driver, I may be thick, I may be stupid, but I am the Operations Director!’
I said that I was interested in the job of Contract Manager, they asked me a couple of dumb questions, had a whispered conversation between themselves and offered me the job right there and then – it was as simple as that!
The poor financial performance worried Blunders and Bodger and they had two assistants who were a couple of company odd job men and general bully boys whose job it was to go around the contracts and beat up on the poor contract managers who were completely unable to meet the ridiculous financial targets that were set in their contract budgets by Peter Crane the Financial Director.
What didn’t help matters was that because it was an almost impossible job to do no one really wanted to be a contract manager (even with the Peugeot 405 company car as an incentive) there was a lot of staff turn-over and Cory Environmental ended up with a lot of people who, quite frankly, really just weren’t up to the job. The only advantage of this to Head Office was that it made Blunders and Bodger look reasonably clever and kept them in a job but it didn’t help one bit with financial performance.
What also didn’t help was that, generally speaking, local authorities (especially Labour run Councils) didn’t really want to contract out their work, only did so reluctantly, and then made life as difficult as they possibly could. This frequently included the unreasonable request that the company actually carry out correctly the work that they had promised to do and the council taxpayers were paying for.
This was difficult to achieve because most of the contract managers hadn’t really got any idea about waste management, man management or financial management. Every month there were thousands of pounds of defaults for work not carried out according to the specification and then more cash penalties to follow up in retribution and this made the Company’s financial performance even worse.
Like all companies, Cory Environmental had a business plan and it has to be said that for this pair of bone heads this one made quite a lot of sense. They planned to win work along the A1 corridor and just like the Romans, two thousand years before, use the Great North Road as the backbone of the Empire. At first things went to plan and there were successes in Sedgefield and Wear Valley in County Durham and Wansbeck and Castle Morpeth in Northumberland, so four contracts fairly close together which made a lot of sense – not far for the enforcers to travel between contracts and knock people’s heads together when they needed it! Like Gedling, East Northants was reasonably close to the A1 and the plan seemed to be working. Unfortunately, faced with fierce competition, the Company then suddenly stopped winning work in its target area and was now losing so much money that it desperately needed new contracts.
Cory Environmental had two really successful contracts at Bethnal Green (Tower Hamlets) and Bromley in London which were managed by the two best contract managers Mike Jarvis and Gary O’Hagan (contract manager of the year for three years running) but with more and more loss making contracts to cover up for the Company was hemorrhaging money and Blunders and Bodger were beginning to get nervous. They abandoned their sensible business plan and went looking for work anywhere in the country. Their first two successes were in Carrick and Kerrier in Cornwall, which, for those who remember their school geography lessons, are about as far from the A1 as you can possibly get and that was their master plan in ruins.
And things were about to change!
I enjoyed my first six months with Cory Environmental, it was different, I had my first real set of working overalls and a pair of steel capped boots and used to go out on Saturdays with Martin Edwards, Vic Stanfield and Debbie Doohan and do some manual work (and drink lots of beer afterwards) just because it was good fun but soon I would be off to work elsewhere…