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With social awareness and interaction receiving more attention within the business community at large and the FM industry in particular, Cleanology chief executive officer Dominic Ponniah explains how this has been an integral part of the company since it was formed more than 20 years ago.

Created by his mother Elisabeth Ponniah in the late 1990s, the company has progressed from having one contract and a single employee to being recognised as one of the UK’s top 50 cleaning businesses, with multiple contracts and employing more than 1,000 people in the last 20 years.

“We worked on the same site, with the same client, for four years, but then started to win more work and employ more people,” says Mr Ponniah. “I joined the business in 2004 after graduating from university and initially ran two businesses simultaneously.”

Running two companies meant that he had to work seven days a week to provide the support and input necessary. When the second business ceased trading in 2007, Mr Ponniah states that one of the emotions he felt was relief, having put a great deal of effort into it. However, he was left with a six-figure debt that was a “real mountain to climb” and took several years to clear.

The situation at Cleanology proved to be the polar opposite, however, and once it had reached the stage of gaining more work and increasing staffing levels to 15 employees, the company recorded growth and further expansion for every year of trading until the Coronavirus pandemic emerged in the UK in 2020.

“I seem to have fallen into working in FM more by accident than design but I’m still here 20 years later,” Mr Ponniah continues. “Things really began to change in 2008, when we won a few contracts worth between £50,000 and £100,00 and doubled in size in just a few months.”

Another major expansion of the business occurred in 2013 through its acquisition of the Van Broc Facilities business, which saw Cleanology pass the £4m annual turnover stage. “Although we’d always invested money back into the business, we were more or less at the break-even level, but that deal proved to be transformational as we then began making profit,” he continues.

The acquisition also allowed the company to extend its reach into new areas of industry, resulting in Cleanology winning its first contract in Manchester in 2014 to further increase its geographic coverage. “We found a nice family-run business in Manchester and began to run it for them for a year, which allowed us to clean the client’s office. They then came to us and said they wanted to sell, so we bought it and that gave Cleanology its first footprint in Manchester and the value of the area has grown from around £300,000 to £1.5m for us.”

With the majority of the company’s work located in the London area, Mr Ponniah has noted a trend for businesses relocating from there to Northern England. “It’s been a trend for the last 10 years or so, and a lot of our clients have bases in both London and Manchester.

“Customers want to see the same levels of service in all areas, rather than having premises in three different locations, using different service providers for each and getting three different levels of customer service.”

Similar to many others, Cleanology saw its performance affected by the COVID pandemic and the various lockdowns and other measures. Demand fell by up to 60% and its turnover fell to £8m per year, but having weathered the storm, it has seen a significant increase this year.

“We had our best month ever in March 2020 so went into the pandemic in a very strong position,” Mr Ponniah continues. “We were uncertain how it would play out for us but every month since January 2021 has seen us grow and we’ve bounced back to the point that our turnover is now at £25m.

“It has been a hell of a journey, but it now feels like a lot of the issues with COVID have been forgotten. Most of our clients have returned and quite a few have needed more cleaning. I would say that the importance of hygiene associated with the pandemic has definitely dropped in 2022 and we’re now seeing people talking to us more about price, although we never base our service offering on just cost.”

A more positive development since 2021 is that there is now more focus on sustainability, he continues.  Much more emphasis has been placed on that this year, following a general trend of focusing more on the topics that were of interest prior to the pandemic . Mr Ponniah emphasises the importance for his company of providing the best solution for each client, depending on their individual requirements.

“Everyone has their own priorities, some people want to save money while others may want their offices cleaned three times a day, while others will want to partner with the best companies with the right values. Meeting these requirements has allowed us to increase our growth so much coming out of COVID,” he says.

Another industry trend  sees more companies attempting to work in meaningful partnership with their clients and others, he continues. This has even been embraced by some competitors and he finds that meeting with those willing to engage offers numerous benefits.

“We’ve all got the same issues and you should use these collaborations to your advantage and not see them as a negative. There’s plenty of business to go around and we’re trying to improve what we do and improve the industry.”

Waste management is another important aspect of the company’s service model, and he states that this is included in the majority of its contracts, either as an integral part or a separate agreement.

Recent years have seen the focus change from segregated waste bins to more general containers and then back to separate bins for specific items of waste.

“Pretty much everything is recyclable these days and we’ve also got rid of our plastic packaging, as have many others, so all our packaging is easily recycled and helping us to achieve zero waste,” he says. “Separating the waste makes it much easier to recycle and reduces potential issues caused by contamination.”

Yet more evidence of the company’s core mission to support the FM industry is its membership of the Recognised Service Provider group within the Living Wage Foundation. Mr Ponniah sits on its leadership council and explains that this sees him working with other cleaning companies, along with catering and security service providers, with the aim of promoting the Real Living Wage to clients and the industry at large.

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“We’ve all made a commitment to communicate the benefits to everyone we know and spread the word. I speak to some companies who pay the Real Living Wage but haven’t signed up to it officially.

“It really is a badge of honour, and your clients will love that you do it. It’s really powerful and will help you find and retain more talent and we’re all telling people they need to sign up.”

He finds that the momentum is continuing to build for companies that pay the Real Living Wage, to the point where those that do not are beginning to be regarded “as a real outlier”. This peer pressure is increasingly persuading more businesses to become accredited.

“It’s an emotional decision but the moral argument is obvious. If you’re paying people more money and helping to pay bills that has to be better and we’re all trying to attract more talent into our businesses, so in many ways it’s a no-brainer.”

With more than 80% of Cleanology staff paid the Real Living Wage, the company is continuing to discuss the issue with clients with the aim of reaching the 100% level. Mr Ponniah further states that 97% of the company’s new business this year includes the Real Living Wage for cleaning staff.

“If you’re working with like-minded companies, it just makes it a lot easier and our clients come to us because we want to pay the Real Living Wage and walk the walk, so we’re not really having to sell it.”

He further explains that he understands the difficulties faced by companies that have not paid these rates. While those paying it from the start of a contract do not know any difference, those joining at a later date are faced with increases of up to 30%, which can be difficult for them. He finds that one-to-one conversations help to explain the numerous benefits of becoming accredited.

“We’re all struggling with resourcing and it’s the same for clients, which makes it easier to explain the benefits of the Real Living Wage. I’ve also noticed this year that it’s become the new minimum wage, with quite a lot of companies now paying more than Real Living Wage rates,” he continues.

As with many businesses, Cleanology has found staff recruitment has presented a considerable challenge this year, with £1m of business placed on hold due to a lack of employees at the beginning of 2022. With many other companies experiencing the same issues, Mr Ponniah says this is one of the reasons that businesses recognise the need to pay much higher levels for services.

Additional evidence of the company’s determination to add further to its meaningful social support can be seen in the transparency of the business and its activities. “It’s important to avoid just paying lip service and saying you do things, but then say you’ve planted a tree or bought an electric van, it has to go a lot deeper than that.”

Investing in the workforce, engaging with diversity and inclusion and supporting environmental actions are all important aspects for Cleanology and part of its DNA, Mr Ponniah continues. It is continuing its journey to become a zero-waste business, having introduced new products and changed its packaging options, amongst many other initiatives

“We’re not scared to try new ways of working more sustainably, new innovations in technology. They don’t always work, but it’s important to give these new developments the chance to make a difference.

“We also try to partner with like-minded companies and our supply chain is almost an extension of us. We work with companies that are sustainable and come to us with innovations and new ideas and it’s great to share knowledge like that.”

One of the most positive aspects is that there is never a shortage of options to consider, he continues, both from within the FM sector and the business environment in general. Using the topic of sustainability as an example, Cleanology has numerous awards for this, but never considers that it has reached the end of its journey.

It has recently completed the acquisition of TC Bibby & Sons to further extend its geographic coverage. The family-owned business was formed in 1931 in Wigan and will see all staff join the Cleanology business, including third-generation owner Geoff Bibby.

The number of people employed by Cleanology now exceeds 1,200 and its areas of main activity include Manchester, Liverpool, Blackpool, Preston, Blackburn, Bolton, Warrington and North Wales. With London accounting for approximately 60% of business activities, North West England adds another 30% and is further supported by contracts in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee in Scotland.

In addition to contracts in Manchester and Leeds, the company has continued to win work in all areas of England and Scotland. This has prompted it to begin establishing = regional hubs in its main areas of work to assist with improved support and coordination. Mr Ponniah explains that the company will continue its efforts and establish five hubs in key locations around Great Britain, which will be increasing in size over the next three to five years.

“We’re starting to work with more national clients, and they have an expectation to partner with a company like us that can be everywhere. We’re also changing our business structure to ensure we manage the key accounts, middle-sized and smaller ones with the aim of making sure each customer gets the right level of support.”

He further explains that the company finds there is a different level of expectation from its larger clients, who typically require more information and data to show the effectiveness of service delivery. This has seen the company’s London head office double its staff number to 60, which has resulted in the acquisition of new offices in the Vauxhall area of London.

Further activities include the entering of more awards, which is likely to see Cleanology add further to the impressive number of trophies it has received to date. Mr Ponniah and his colleagues were celebrating the winning of the ESG and Social Impact category at the Scale Up Awards on its first attempt.

With the average size of entrants stated as being around the £50m turnover level, he says his expectations of winning were low, as Cleanology was turning over around £15m at the time it entered.

The company is also anticipating the presentation of its B Corp certification, which has seen a considerable rise in application numbers. This has resulted in the time of processing increasing from six to 15 months. “I believe it’s grown something like fourfold since COVID, which is absolutely phenomenal, but they’re recruiting people from all over the world to reduce waiting times.”

Further to its many and varied efforts to support all social elements within the business and establish regional hubs, the company plans to continue its support for the Hygiene Bank, for which it organised a charity auction last October. The event raised £13,000 and its popularity has encouraged Mr Ponniah to look at increasing the size of venue and number of attendees in 2023.

The considerable efforts of the Cleanology team confirm beyond any doubt that it is entirely feasible for businesses to be run on a sustainable basis, while delivering support and benefits to employees, partners and society in general.