When I worked for Onyx UK in the waste management industry I was contract manager at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead and that meant collecting rubbish and picking up litter at posh places like Eton, Windsor town centre and Ascot.
Ascot of course has a race course and hosts one of the premier events of the racing calendar and with over three hundred thousand people turning up for the Royal meeting in June, mostly getting slaughtered and thoroughly misbehaving and although picking a winner might be down to chance the one thing for absolute certain was there would be an awful lot of clearing up to do afterwards.
In 1996, because public sector waste contracts were such a financial disaster, Onyx, to try and compensate, began an aggressive expansionist campaign in respect of commercial waste collections with a division of the company called Ipodec and a salesman called Richard was parachuted into Maidenhead to try and win lots of lovely new profitable business.
Richard did quite well at first as he took on the existing companies and slashed prices and pretty soon the money was rolling in but then the competitors who had been caught off guard by this aggressive new sales assault got their acts together and started to take the business back by further slashing prices to the bone and in turn undercutting the new upstart intruders. The business model started to fail quite quickly as revenues dropped and fixed costs remained stubbornly high and Richard needed new business.
At the Ascot racecourse there was a new manager called John Holdstock who wanted to make changes and cut costs and one fateful day in the spring of 1996 Richard gave him a call and was invited along to talk about commercial waste collections. At the subsequent meeting the issue was raised of clearing up after the race meetings and Richard sniffing more high profile business was soon hooked.
This is quite similar to what happened with compulsory competitive tendering actually and it turned out that John wasn’t too popular with the grounds staff who considered the overtime perk of clearing up as something quite important to their personal budgets and they didn’t want to see the job transferred to anyone else. They completely misled John about the scale of the work and the resources required and he passed this duff information on to Richard.
Richard offered to collect all of the waste after every meeting and dispose of it, which wasn’t really a problem, but he also made an offer to clear up all of the grandstands, the paddock, the hospitality areas and the racetrack every night and that was to become a serious problem indeed.
Richard proposed to do this work with twelve men!
17th June 1996 was much like any other day at the contract, it was the first week back after the annual Institute of Waste Management Conference in Torquay and everything was going pretty much to plan, the crews were finished for the day, the workshop was shutting up and I was thinking about going home when I received a phone call from Richard who was in complete mental melt down.
He was screaming down the phone and was almost incomprehensible as he tried to explain that there was so much litter and rubbish and that he was completely unable to cope. I remember being rather flippant and dismissively told him to give it another half an hour or so to see if things might improve. Five minutes later he phoned me back and now he was even worse and screaming like a mad man so I thought I had better abandon plans for going home and drive over and see what all the fuss was about.
Holy Shit! I had never seen anything like it!
I swear I have never ever seen so much rubbish in my life except on a landfill site. I had no idea that the people who attend race meetings behaved this way and who clearly thought that creating vast amounts of litter for someone else to clear away was just part of the day out. They may consider themselves to be the cream of society but I have never witnessed such contempt for the environment or for the people who have to clear up after them. I really had seen nothing like it before and the whole of the site was ankle deep in rubbish. I could immediately see why Richard and his twelve men would certainly not be able to get this place cleared up before the Queen was due back the next day.
John was going crazy, Richard was having a nervous breakdown, the litter pickers didn’t know where to start and the Ascot groundsmen were all falling about and laughing fit to burst!
It was about five o’clock so I had to make some urgent phone calls to the depot to get some more men and machines down to the site regardless of the cost and even this wasn’t enough so there were more urgent phone calls to other Onyx depots as far away as Brent in London and luckily everyone rallied around and by eight o’clock there were more men and machines than I thought it possible to mobilise at such short notice. And not just Onyx personnel either because we had to use all of the recruitment staff companies in the surrounding area as they responded to the revenue earning opportunity and flooded the place with resources.
We didn’t get finished until well after midnight and at one o’clock we completed a final inspection and then sat down, completely worn out and enjoyed one of the best beers ever under the stars.
Onyx were good at cock-ups and this was one of the worst, it was going to be a financial disaster and poor old Richard never really recovered from the shock of it all. He left the company soon after following another tendering disaster when Ipodec won a contract with Qatar Airways at Heathrow Airport to dispose of their commercial waste. Richard and his boss gave them a good price with plenty of profit for the Company but unfortunately they hadn’t realised that food waste from the Middle East was considered special waste in the UK and it cost more to dispose of it than they had negotiated in collection charges. Whoops!
Back to Ascot and the real problem was of course that the Royal meeting goes on for five days so we couldn’t relax for long because sometime between now and five o’clock the next day we had to make some plans to make sure the same thing didn’t happen again tomorrow…