10 Years On: By Royal Appointment

Just over a decade ago, I was honoured to be asked to speak at the National Equine Forum, one of the most prestigious events in the horse industry. The event was attended, as usual, by HRH The Princess Royal. and, unusually, would be held at The Royal Society in London. Here’s the only news source I can find today that verifies this story.

My speech was entitled ‘How to Run a Successful Equine Business in a Recession’ and, as a speaker, I was asked to meet Princess Anne afterwards – she was very complimentary, by the way. Every year since, I believe the event has returned to its usual venue of the Mechanical Engineers’ Institute on Birdcage Walk (although this year’s event was, of course, virtual) which means I’m also able to say that I’ve spoken at The Royal Society, the very epicentre of science since 1663. From Benjamin Franklin to Charles Darwin to Tim Berners-Lee, the list of people who could say the same is about as illustrious as one can imagine.

A couple of years later, rather less-than-illustriously, the laptop I’d written it on gave up the ghost and died on me. I hadn’t backed it up and, by the time I came to rebuild the data on its replacement, I thought I’d lost the speech. As Edmund Blackadder once exclaimed, ‘Bugger!’

Fast-forward to this morning when I was searching through my archives to find an elusive file for a thing I was doing and what do you know, badly filed in the darkest recesses of a subfolder entitled ‘Meetings’, I found it!

Obviously a lot has changed in the last ten years so I found myself reading it with slightly gritted teeth, hoping that it hadn’t aged terribly. I’m pleased to say that not only was that not the case but the points raised seem as relevant today as they did a decade ago when the world was, in so many ways, such a different place.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s the speech. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did writing it – and perhaps rather more so than I did delivering it…

At the lectern of the 19th National Equine Forum, at The Royal Society, March 8th 2011. Photo: Craig Payne Photography

How to Run a Successful Equine Business in a Recession

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for asking me to come to speak to you today on what was originally going to be the grand and far-reaching title: “How to run a successful business in a recession”.  When I first heard that title, I wondered if I should presume to pontificate on such a topic. 

By adding the modifier ‘equine business’, the subject moves away from the standard and the mainstream towards the niche, the specialist, the quirky – which is an area I’m much more familiar with!

I also feel that the very notion of an ‘equine’ modifier is something of theme in itself – to which I will return:  The distinction, if there is one, between ‘our world’ and ‘the rest of the world’.  

I’m sure the academics amongst you would expect a well-prepared student to gain extra marks by attempting to substantiate or even challenge the premise of a question before going on to answer it. 

The most problematic of all the terms in the title is the word ‘recession’.  Firstly, the UK is not technically in a recession, as I speak – although we’re still wary of a ‘double dip’ taking hold.  Whether or not the equine economy is in recession, nobody really knows and yet, for a “£4bn economy”, it strikes me that we should know much more than we currently do.  We have a variety of surveys but no real indices of performance.  

Does recession put us at most at risk of belt-tightening or will our customers deny themselves everything but their horse? Are any more people taking up riding today or are many riders walking away?  I really don’t know.  No organisation seems to be measuring these effects in any meaningful way.  Whatever is being measured, could certainly be better shared.

Regrettably, there is almost no regular, independent data about the equestrian retail economy.  We piece together a permanently changing hypothesis, based on our own experiences and morsels of information from trusted suppliers.  

I can’t claim to be too frustrated by this, as it has always been thus but I am a little envious when I see more concerted attempts to quantify the ongoing performance of other specialist markets.

I’d also question what our definition of ‘successful’ is these days.  Significant growth is usually the simplest determinant but in the current circumstances, many would argue that profitability will do just fine.  To others, it may even be just surviving in business for another year.  

If this sounds unambitious, I would urge you to leaf through the Plimsoll Report on our Industry.  It paints a grim picture of an industry seemingly over-populated by mediocrity and apparently tolerant of the reduced margins that accompany an over-supplied and stagnant market.

In the quest for success in any economic environment, I’d say that businesses have only three basic forces that operate on us, over which we have some control.  The economist’s twin favourites of Supply and Demand are there – as well as the bit in the middle, Operations.

Our Supply trade is still something of a cottage industry which remains heavily skewed towards the small operator.  It seems that we are only now at the beginning of a period of consolidation that has been in effect over the last two or three decades in other, comparable, specialist markets, such as the camping and cycling markets.

In a downturn, difficulties are most keenly felt by those who are smallest or least professional – and I appreciate that those two terms do not mean the same thing. 

It’s important, then, that every company should tread very carefully in their dealings with any suppliers that are the most susceptible to the icy economic winds.  There are too many small companies offering too many alternatives of similar products, resulting in too much undifferentiated competition and resultant commoditisation. 

This magnifies the risks of suppliers’ difficulties adversely affecting retailers who placed too much reliance upon them.  

Whatever the economic climate, it’s always good business sense to think very carefully before deciding about which suppliers to appoint and which to retain.  In a recession, that process becomes even more crucial.  

Your operations, literally, are everything you do and ‘you’ is the operative word here.  It’s the area over which you have the greatest control.  You can have an effect on your processes simply by deciding to have an effect on them.  Suppliers and customers can be influenced but very few companies would ever claim to be able to control either party.

In the good times, there is always the reassurance that growth is there to be achieved, as long as it can then be handled.  Whether it’s extra computing power, a new fork-lift truck or an administrative position, these are significant step-changes that accompany linear growth.  You can very often go from struggling to cope without the resource in question to struggling to justify having it when it arrives.  Generally, as long as the problem your new resource leaves you with is better than the alternative you’ve avoided, you’ve made the right decision.

As the economic cycle slowly turns, aspirations for the future are not as easily funded – every resource needs to be justified by the present, in case that’s all you can reasonably expect.  If that means the fork-lift goes back and the admin tasks need to be shared out again, that’s not an admission of failure, it’s just a recognition that the context has changed.  

The level of demand is expected to reduce in a downturn.  When demand reduces, it risks becoming outstripped by supply and so, prices must fall.  You must lower your prices and in doing so, probably your margins.  It’s simple economics.

Well, I can’t wholly say that’s not true but I can say it’s not the whole truth.  Simple economic effects will only be solely in evidence when the world is full of simple economists and, happily, that’s still not the case.  The Marketing world is a much subtler and more nuanced place to live than the Economist’s world.  We also deal in products that are decisions of the heart more than they are of the head and with customers who have a living, breathing horse to care for rather than an asset to maintain and protect.  

Yes, price competitiveness is perhaps of greater importance today but companies ignore at their peril the importance of customer service, whatever the market conditions.  Reducing prices and margins is not an adequate justification for also reducing efforts to build a positive customer relationship.  If all around are losing their heads in this regard, now is exactly the time to make sure you care more about your customers, if you want to see them more often.  

We pay attention to the price points for each category of product we sell.  It won’t shock you to learn that we sold far fewer rugs over £100 last year, compared to the year before.  Nor will you be astounded to hear that rugs under £50 were much, much more popular over the same period.  Such effects have only to be monitored as closely as possible in order that an ongoing strategy can be formulated around them.  The effects may seem fairly obvious, but with the benefit of a few specific numbers, you can be surprised to see by how much these ‘obvious’ effects are in evidence.  

The absolute favourite tactic of retailers everywhere to stimulate demand without appearing to reduce prices is ‘Bundling’ and it’s used everywhere:  3 for 2 offers, starter kits, family packs and software packages.

Bundling does come at a reduction in margin – the lower unit cost is what makes it attractive to the customer – but it’s a means of eliciting more value more quickly.  Who really needs a stock of three bottles of shampoo in their bathroom?  Or, for that matter, two?  We’ve grown used to it because as consumers, we’ve agreed that if we pay up front for more stuff, we get even more of it free.  

I appreciate that not all business are too concerned with issues such as holding stock but even service sector businesses need to understand that price points are vital to continuing to attract customers who now can’t justify the prices they used to pay.  If the price tag is the barrier, offer reduced options that are cheaper but at the same margin, one-hour riding lessons instead of two, that sort of thing.

If you want an example of service bundling, how about that idea that was invented to keep football teams afloat in the years before sponsorship and television money – the season ticket?

Whatever the state of the economy, businesses always have to perform or eventually, they will cease to exist.  Recession merely brings a heightening of this ever-present reality, a greater possibility that your company will fail.  At the same time, it brings a greater possibility that your competitors will fail, which in turn presents extra possibilities that your company will succeed.  We tend to think of Opportunity and threat as polar opposites but they never exist in isolation of each other.

I mentioned earlier a theme: the curious relationship between the ‘horsey’ and the ‘non-horsey’.  If we are truly to achieve success for equestrian businesses, I must take this opportunity to impress upon us all to better engage with all those in our world and become more inclusive to  those from the wider world.

The sphere we inhabit is different from the wider, mainstream world and yet it is a subset of that world.  In the horse, we share a key differentiating factor from the rest of the world.  We believe it gives us a common reference point and a set of shared values that are distinct to the non-horsey world.  

It’s very reassuring to see the equine community gathering together on occasions such as this but like any community, we must acknowledge that ours has had its fair share of net-curtain-twitching and perhaps even the occasional garden-fence squabble over the years.  With all that in mind, one might take the view there is less solidarity across our community than we’d like to think.  

One might go further and conclude that the very notion of a single, convenient ‘equine’ umbrella to distance ourselves jointly and defiantly from the rest of the world seems more than a little illusory.  ‘Riding’ is really a multifarious, mongrel construct, made up of a slew of different disciplines and, of course, the unaligned, much-maligned ‘happy hackers’.

Even if the horse does define us all as an extended family, such a kinship is both a blessing and a curse.  Like an island community, we very often seem to draw comfort and strength from our differences from the ‘mainlanders’ who “don’t understand our ways” and we are often quick to highlight our differences from the mainstream.  

I’ve heard many ridiculous statements over the years like “horsey people don’t have time for the internet” or “our customers don’t want that kind of service – they can get that at ASDA”.  

If you looked at our customer database – of over a quarter of a million people – you’d see that many of them live in normal houses in suburbs or even towns and cities.  You’d know that most of them are able to use the internet and you’d conclude that when they’re not around horses, they like to immerse themselves in the subversive counter-culture by visiting such places as Tesco, McDonalds, IKEA…even Primark.  I would add that many of them wondered what all the fuss was about during the hunting debate and a significant proportion even believes, quite firmly, that hunting should remain banned.  

It’s very easy to overlook the huge number of riders and horse owners who, rather inconveniently, don’t care about any of the disciplines and wouldn’t recognise a British Olympic rider if they met one while out on a hack.  This part of the market, our customers, our community views their horse, as an escape from the rest of the world, not as an outward expression of belonging to an artificially-constructed ‘horse world’ or, heaven forbid, any reason to indulge in competitive activity.  

Should that really be such a surprise to us?  Do we really want our community to consist solely ‘the right sort’ of people if it is to flourish?  Can we afford to be too choosy in a recession?  In fact, forget the economy.  Do we dare risk turning away the very people who may even assure the future of equestrian sport itself?

I’ve always felt that above all else, business in general – but retail in particular – demands and thrives on brutal honesty.  If too few people are visiting your shop, who or what do you blame?  The weather?  The economy?  The Government?  Suppliers?  Perhaps even the stubbornly unco-operative customers themselves?  There comes a point where you have to accept that by doing things differently yourself, you can improve the situation.    

Honesty itself won’t add a penny onto your revenue but it has a strange habit of pointing you towards the ideas that do put more money in the till.

As a marketer, it’s natural, even tempting to want to segment the market in which one operates and the horse world with its myriad of different sports seems ideally suited to this.      

What can be less easy to do is to gain that same level of connection with all customers at the same time, from those who would define themselves by their chosen discipline but crucially, also those whose passion is just as fulfilled by ‘looking after’.  

Faced with this challenge, the few elements that I’ve observed to be truly common across the whole of the horse world appear to be grooming, mucking out and a compulsion to support anyone who helps horses.  A common denominator seems to be to do with clearing up a mess of one sort or another.  It strikes me that it neatly highlights a necessary pragmatism that defines those who spend their time around the horse and it’s very similar to the kind of pragmatism that seems to me to be one of the most vital factors in achieving success in any business at any time, not just an equestrian business in a recession.

Thank you for listening.

The speakers at the 19th National Equine Forum, at The Royal Society, March 8th 2011. Photo: Craig Payne Photography
HRH The Princess Royal at the 19th National Equine Forum, at The Royal Society, March 8th 2011. Photo: Craig Payne Photography
The programme of the 19th National Equine Forum, at The Royal Society, March 8th 2011.

CSG: The First 85 Years

Posted on http://www.csg.co.uk/blog on November 6th 2019

https://www.csg.co.uk/blog/csg-the-first-85-years

2019 is an important year for CSG – it’s the 85th anniversary of our birth! ‘Hampshire Cleansing Service’ was founded in January 1934 by Edgar ‘Bunny’ Hart, the patriarchal figure of the family that still owns the company today. In that time, while so many aspects of daily life, business and waste processing have changed beyond recognition, the basic principles of the Cleansing – and the Service – remain very much in evidence today.

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CSG (Cleansing Service Group) celebrates its 85th birthday in 2019.  Photo: CSG

In 1933, Bunny Hart was a man in a hurry. Born in 1898, the seventh child of a successful butcher in London, he’d already crammed a lot into his first thirty-five years. He’d served in The Great War from 1917, become an expert skier in Kitzbühel, graduated as an engineer in 1923, taken a job in Chile in 1924 and, when the post became untenable, worked his passage as he toured around North and South America for the next two years. Upon his return to Britain, he started work for a tanker manufacturer in Southampton and began to court the woman he would eventually marry.

Despite the respectable job and steady relationship, his independent spirit hadn’t waned – he wanted to control his own destiny. The contacts he’d generated around Hampshire had convinced him that there was was a business opportunity for emptying the contents of the products he’d previously sold. Collecting sewage could never be described as attractive work but he would almost certainly have been encouraged by the old adage “where there’s muck there’s brass”. The growing levels of regulatory reform, even then, were an encouraging sign that unprofessional competition would be prohibited and it meant that, if Bunny could earn a carrier’s licence, he was sure he could build a healthy business.

Evidently, Bunny’s acumen and professionalism were impressive enough to convince the licensing body to award him a licence towards the end of 1933, sufficient for his needs. Now, all he needed was a vehicle. On 2nd December, he managed to procure a second-hand, solid-tyred 800-gallon Dennis tanker from Wokingham Rural District Council for the princely sum of £5. It’s difficult to imagine a real-terms value of such a figure without knowing the effects of over eight decades of inflation so you may be surprised to learn that £5 then was the equivalent of just £250 today. Compared to the 25 guineas (the equivalent of £1,330 today) to buy the latest ‘2 in 1’ gramophone and radio set from His Master’s Voice, Bunny’s £5 tanker still seems like a real bargain.

Of course, it wasn’t quite as cheap as it sounds – the ancient tanker needed to be updated and that’s where the real costs were. Renewing the old hose cost £47 7s (£2,400 in today’s money) and replacing the impractical solid tyres with a modern, practical pneumatic set cost a rather eye- watering £104 18s 4d (£5,300). Finally, sign-writing costs were £4 2s 6d (£209), a canny bit of marketing spend to publicly announce the new company everywhere the tanker went. The legend of the ‘£5 tanker’ sounds romantic but in reality, it represented what might today be considered an initial investment of over £8,000. Not a lot to start a business, perhaps, but quite a lot of money to stake on a firm belief of success.

On January 1st 1934, with his Dennis tanker upgraded and his ‘B’ licence effective, Bunny was ready to take on the waste disposal industry. It has to be said that 1934 wasn’t the most encouraging time to start a business. The Wall Street Crash was only a few years before and Britain had endured three years of economic decline as a result of the Great Depression. Then, just as the economy was recovering, tensions began to rise again in Europe as a resurgent Germany fell under the spell of Adolf Hitler, barely fifteen years after the Armistice was supposed to have put an end to the threat of more war. Perhaps this all seemed a world away from rural Hampshire as Bunny pursued his ambitions. Whether or not such concerns formed part of his thinking, they would not stop him trying.

He knew that, as they said about the Gold Rush, a century earlier, there was money in them there cesspits – but unlike 1840s California, the ‘gold’ was being constantly replenished. And so it proved. As the 1930s went on and the world moved inexorably towards another war, Hampshire Cleansing Service had indeed begun to grow as Bunny had intended. At the outbreak of war in 1939, six vehicles were operating around the county.

It couldn’t be denied that the war footing was good for business. With so many army bases, airfields and camps becoming established in the area, a huge increase in demand for sewage collection was, literally, a natural consequence. By the end of the war, the company employed a hundred people, the fleet had risen to thirty-five vehicles, and coverage had extended to three counties.

Unsurprisingly, the post-war years saw the military sewage collections dwindle but crucially, the company had become capable enough to replace that revenue with work from schools, factories and holiday camps. The fleet extended to a range of different vehicles, capable of extracting and dispensing the matter in different ways but the same basic principles of ‘Cleansing’ remained – and wherever people were gathered, the potential for another sewage collection existed. It may seem to have been a rather rudimentary business model but it’s easy to overlook another vital element – ‘Service’.

It’s unlikely to have been by accident that Bunny ensured that the word ‘Service’ remained in every iteration of his company’s name. His years as a salesman will have convinced him that sales do not just happen mechanically; they are agreed to by people, placing their faith in the quality of a job done well, assured that the experience will offer the reward of diligence and integrity beyond the basic process. Particularly in the case of domestic customers in remote areas, with their cesspits, the regular, reassuring sight of a friendly driver has defined their relationship with our company, retaining their trust and their custom over many years.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the company continued to seek out further opportunities to grow but by the beginning of the 1970s, Bunny had become gravely ill. When he died in 1971, he left a hugely successful legacy – a company that had begun to develop its capabilities and diversify into other areas of waste disposal. For some time, it had became necessary to add ever more specialist knowledge in order to operate in each specific sector of the wider waste industry.

In the years that followed, a wave of new regulations on employee health & safety, pollution, the deposit of poisonous waste and many more must have seemed frustratingly restrictive, compared to the ‘good old days’ of simply dispersing sewage into the field of a friendly farmer – but it was a benefit in disguise. Just as Bunny had benefitted from the the protection from unprofessional competitors that his licence gave him in 1934, the industry was challenging its most competent exponents to expand at the expense of those who could not adapt to the tighter regulations. Few companies were better placed to meet these challenges than the newly-assembled ‘Cleansing Services Group’.

Over the last five decades, the market has continued to sub-divide into more distinct specialisms, regulations have continued to strengthen, CSG has continued to add greater capability to the group and performance has continued to grow. Were he alive today, Bunny Hart may be amazed at the depth of knowledge now required in order to operate in so many sectors, the level of expertise in chemistry, logistics, environmental law, employee training – let alone the disciplines required to support it all, such as funding schemes, HR policy, social media management and many, many more. Given his fore-sightedness, perhaps he might not.

In 85 years, CSG has undergone a metamorphosis from a small, local provider of a specific service to a huge, diverse amalgamation of a wide variety of specialisms, all loosely connected with the world of consumption and waste. In a quirk of fate, one of the most innovative areas of our operations today is the same, necessary removal and treatment of sewage. Now, as it ever was, there’s still ‘brass’ wherever there’s ‘muck’.

In 1934, a very different Britain was still shaped by her Victorian heyday, in the twilight of Empire. The country mourned the passing of two of its greatest composers, Elgar and Holst, a 19 year-old called Stanley Matthews made his England debut and a writer from Australia called PL Travers published a book called ‘Mary Poppins’. It was, in so many ways, nothing like the Britain we inhabit today. And yet, the basic rules of business apply today, as much as they did then – the vital importance of doing a job well, to the absolute satisfaction of the customer.

May those fundamental guiding principles continue to guide CSG over the many decades to come! 

The Forester’s Needs You!

Without prejudice.

44475389_565954213836552_2111173384594259968_oI was saddened to read this post from our local pub, earlier today. I don’t know what happened but I have no reason to disbelieve the account given. I also know that in the year or so that Gareth has run the pub, he has returned it to its former glory, making it a place you want to visit, rather than just put up with going to. I was sure he’d make a success of the place when his first act was to re-instate its traditional name after the sacrilege that was ‘The Silver Tally’.

Anyway, It’s a lovely pub these days with a good beer selection and a wide choice of good food that’s very reasonably priced. Now, with staff reportedly out of pocket, it needs your help to trade its way out of the fate that has befallen it. With the weekend upon us, why not go there for a meal and see if you agree with my recommendation? If you can’t make it this weekend, there’s always another chance to go to a pub!

We happened to go there for a meal last night, for the first time in a while, and had no idea they were facing this awful situation. Needless to say, we won’t leave it as long before we go back. I hope this setback is short-lived and that, in the longer term, the change of structure becomes a change for the better for all concerned.

Good luck to Gareth, Minnie (the Rottweiler) and the rest of the team as you make The Foresters such an asset to our local community. Let’s hope the wider community can do their bit to increase its value to the surrounding area!

Vist The Foresters’ website

CSG: Brand Pillar 4 – People

Posted on www.csg.co.uk/blog on March 15th 2018

https://www.csg.co.uk/blog/brand-pillar-4-people

In earlier blogposts, we’ve examined how CSG’s Heritage, Innovation and Customer Service make up three of the ‘pillars’ identified as upholding our brand values. In this, the final part of the series, we focus on the fourth pillar, our People.

Accountants are often quick to remind business owners that ‘wages’ constitute their greatest expense. Unfortunately, while one of the fundamental principles of accountancy is to ensure assets and liabilities are listed and balanced, a company’s workforce isn’t ever given the status of an asset. Looking at the ways certain companies seem to operate, that one-sided view of employment can appear to sum up their relationship with those they employ.

At CSG, it couldn’t be more different. Across the business, there is a strong sense that the people who work for CSG are not just considered an asset but are very much the company’s greatest asset. You only have to flick through the pages of ‘The Hart of Waste’, the updated edition of the official CSG book and you’ll see that photographs of people from all parts of the business today (captioned with their names and their roles) are interspersed with all the significant events you’d expect to read about in an ‘Official History’. This focus on the importance of ‘The Team’ doesn’t happen by accident – it requires a strong ‘people’ culture, something that can really only be driven by a Board who truly believe in it.

Today, CSG has a turnover of over £65m but it is still a family-owned business. Through Heather Hart, CSG’s Chairman the founder’s daughter, there is a deep connection to the days when ‘Hampshire Cleansing Service’ operated from a single site, where the owners worked side-by-side with the staff and where every member of the team knew each other well. Today, with sites all over the country, spanning various different sectors of the market, clearly, that level of closeness is not possible – but it doesn’t mean that the same basic relationship between the company and those who work within it should change. In fact, one of Heather’s recollections explains much about the way her influence has set this tone.

“My father was always ‘Mr Hart’ and when I started, it was natural to everyone that I’d be greeted ‘Miss Heather’. I was never comfortable with that and preferred just ‘Heather’, so we began to adopt a first-name culture, which still exists today.”

The chief defender of the faith in the basic decency and unlocked potential of people is CSG’s Managing Director, Neil Richards.  Disarmingly engaging and frank, you don’t need to be in Neil’s company for long to see how passionate he is about the importance of people to a successful business. Just one question about his personal management style is all he needs to warm to the subject.

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CSG’s Managing Direct, Neil Richards.  Photo: CSG

“I learnt early in my career that a business can only be as good as its people, that most people are good and just require the right management. As a manager, you have the choice to release their potential or dumb down their abilities. I’ve always tried to empower people, to add enjoyment to what they do. I believe the potential of a workforce is huge so it’s not just something I do because it’s ‘a personal style’ – it’s an approach that’s good for business!”

CSG and Neil seem to be made for each other. He frequently refers to the people at CSG as the “brain power”, even the “horsepower” of the company, a central metaphor in his philosophy that good people, managed properly can add significant value. It’s hardly surprising that in Neil’s six years at the helm, the company has grown from 382 employees to 482 and its revenues from £44m to £65m.

“The first time I met Heather, I knew we had the same values. I saw how the family ethos was most evident at our Hampshire office and I wanted to ensure it was felt as strongly across the wider organisation. The waste industry is all about dealing with and benefitting from change. You can’t manage change any other way than with people”

But surely there’s a limit to all this new wave of collaboration and inclusivity, isn’t there? Hasn’t it all gone a little too far from the autocratic days when “everyone knew where they stood”? Presumably out of habit, Neil is quick to spot the counter argument of ‘old school’ management thinking – and quickly debunks it.

“It’s a fallacy that a ‘people’ style is all based on just being nice and offering incentives and rewards. There’s actually more conflict, more harsh exchanges of views when you empower people – which usually results in the right decision being made.

“In management, you mustn’t ever believe in your own propaganda, you need to be self-aware and a positive influence – you get more from a spoonful of sugar than a barrel of vinegar. It takes character and humility to do that, as well as common sense – a quality, which, unfortunately, isn’t that common! I’ve also learned that you know the culture is right when people begin to coach each other.”

There’s a simple reason that it’s important to see people helping each other, people empowering each other, even people occasionally arguing passionately with each other. They’re all symptoms of a workforce that cares about the work they do – a commodity that can sometimes seem to be vanishingly rare in the wider economy.

Hard-bitten traditionalists may smile and say that’s all very well but such observations amount to little more than anecdotes, circumstantial evidence. Where are the facts that support the assertion that there’s such a thing as ‘people power’?

You need look no further than our HR team to find the answer. The data they administer shows the number of people whose length of service runs into the decades and, perhaps most persuasively, the number of employees who apply to re-join, having previously left the business. Such statistics simply don’t occur at organisations where the workers feel they’re little more than a number.

Of course, you’d expect any company who claims to be committed to recognising the potential of its workforce to hold the ‘Investors In People’ accreditation, something which CSG has done for many years. Then, consider the number of apprentices CSG has developed into full-time employees in recent years and the many and varied ways the company supports the personal charitable efforts of its team. Finally, look at the number of retirees with at least ten years’ service who continue to benefit from the activities of The Margaret Hart Trust – a possibly unique fund, created to assist those who have helped to make CSG what it is today.

Neil Richards’ mantra is “it’s all about the people” and there are few companies in the UK today who can claim to be as focused on making the very most of their human resource as CSG.

CSG: The Importance of Being Recognised

Posted on www.csg.co.uk/blog on December 12th 2017

https://www.csg.co.uk/blog/the-importance-of-being-recognised

It’s been an enjoyable month of compliments and affirmation, here at CSG – and an important reminder of the importance of recognition.

What started with a speculative conversation in early summer eventually led to us attending a prestigious formal event in London, surrounded by many of the UK’s most go-ahead businesses. How did that happen?

We’ve recently become a member of our local Chamber of Commerce as well as others around the country to help support our local economies; something we’ve found to be tremendously useful both for supporting our staff and also for developing contacts with potential customers. When we received a communication from the Greater Manchester Chamber, inviting us to consider entering their annual awards, we wondered if we should.

CoC BA 2017 logo

At this point, all the usual negative thoughts tend to fight for attention: ‘we won’t win’, ‘there’s bound to be somebody better than us’, ‘it’ll take up more time than we can commit’ or ‘it’ll cost too much for very little benefit’. None of the above is to say we’re not proud of our capabilities and achievements but when surrounded by the unfamiliar, it’s naturally the safest course of action not to be taken in by the allure of glamour and glitz. After much conversation about the chances of success in the various categories, Louise Holgate, our Marketing & Tendering Manager decided we should go for it – in the ‘Best Use of Technology’ category.

Over the next few weeks, with the Chamber’s very specific brief as our constant guide, we lifted the lid on all aspects of the whole CSG group, interviewing a range of knowledgeable people from all parts of the company, understanding all the technical processes we undertake. We asked questions about the technology involved: why it improved things, how long it had been done this way versus that, what difference did it make? One curious discovery we made was that very often, the people closest to the technology were so used to its capability, they didn’t always recognise the significance of what it enabled them to do. On several occasions, impressive processes that are done every day were seen as ‘everyday’ in nature – and that’s nowhere near the same thing! Using the freshness of a different perspective, we were able to remind ourselves – and, importantly, the very people who use the technology – just how amazing it all is!

Very quickly, we realised that all the examples we’d found tended to fall into two basic categories: principally, the technology necessary to do the job itself and then the technology to help us run the operation that supports the services we offer. Basically, What We Do and The Way We Do What We Do. At that point, we realised that not every competing organisation would be able to have that dual reliance on technology. Suddenly, we began to wonder if our chances of winning the award were better than we’d previously imagined.

With the information gathered, written up and the entry submitted, the use of time was already justified by the deeper understanding we were able to convey to the rest of the business about so many practices within it. As an exercise in internal PR alone, we felt it was time well spent.

Then, one day in September, we were contacted by the Greater Manchester Chamber to inform us that we’d won the Regional Award! We were invited to collect our award at a lunchtime presentation at the Chamber itself, on Deansgate in Manchester. Excitingly, this also meant that we would be automatically entered, as a Finalist, in the National Chamber of Commerce Awards in London, in November.

The Manchester presentation was an informal affair, a chance to talk to the winners of the other categories in a relaxed atmosphere, comparing experiences and making useful contacts. Each winner was announced and, in the customary way, representatives were invited to the podium to receive a framed certificate, naming their company as the award winner. A Chamber-branded backdrop and official photographer lent a little extra ceremony to the proceedings. Once all the categories had been awarded, each winning company wished each other luck for the National Awards in London, together with best wishes to the Greater Manchester Chamber, which was itself in the running to win the prestigious ‘Best Chamber of Commerce’ at the awards night.

A few weeks later, it was time for the main event, a black-tie occasion held near the Barbican Centre in London’s financial district. The winning companies from each of the various Chambers across the country assembled and took the opportunity to share stories and experiences in a rather more formal setting. We were welcomed by Francis Martin, the President of the British Chambers of Commerce and reminded that, as regional winners, we represented the very best of British commercial expertise before handing over to the host for the evening, TV presenter Kate Thornton.

And so to the main event of the evening: the awards themselves. Tension filled the air around the CSG contingent when the time came to announce the winner of the ‘Best Use of Technology’ category… …and unfortunately, it wasn’t us! No matter; the experience of getting this far had proved invaluable, providing a huge amount of positive publicity for CSG along the way. Added to that, the chance better to understand the finer details of many of the processes across the company and, by doing so, recognising their importance – and, by extension, the contribution of those who are closest to them.

It’s fair to say that most people in most companies would have asked themselves the same rather negative questions when faced with the opportunity to make an award submission. There’s nothing wrong with being pragmatic and unwilling to be distracted from more important day-to-day matters. The underlying message from our experience is that the true importance is the value of recognition – especially internal recognition. Of course, the ultimate accolade, the Award itself, was the most obvious form of recognition – and that’s a great thing to have – but perhaps it’s more important to be able to recognise the excellence that’s before our very eyes every single day – and ensure that recognition is acknowledged.

In that sense, just as the saying goes, our experience of the whole exercise shows that it really was the ‘taking part’ that was more important that the ‘winning’.

CSG: Brand Pillar 2 – Heritage

Posted on www.csg.co.uk/blog on October 11th 2017

http://www.csg.co.uk/blog/brand-pillar-2-heritage/

By now, you may be familiar with CSG’s recent efforts to identify the most important elements that make us what we are – which we’ve called our brand pillars. Last week, we examined our unique approach to customer service. This time, the focus falls on another area that makes CSG so special: our heritage and no examination of CSG’s heritage would be worth reading if it didn’t feature our Chairman and the eldest daughter of our founder, Heather Hart.

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Heather Hart signing a book at this year’s CSG book launch for “The Hart of Waste A History of Cleansing Service Group”.  Photo: CSG

Edgar ‘Bunny’ Hart had started his Hampshire Cleansing Service in 1934, with the purchase of a single tanker and dreams of greater success, which he was busily pursuing several years later when the time came to start a family. Heather was thus born into a household dependent upon the success of a new business in a world shrouded by the uncertainties of war. It’s likely to have been a time which offered more than a little stress to disrupt this domestic idyll but Heather recollects little about her father’s work, back then.

“I remember knowing that my father was ‘back from the office’, when he arrived home but at that age, I didn’t question what that might mean.”

One reason for that may have been that Bunny was also an active member of the Home Guard, tasked with monitoring enemy activity, principally around Britain’s southern coastal towns. The Home Guard may now be inextricable linked with the hapless efforts of ‘Dad’s Army’ but in reality, their role was one which put them in the front line of any threat to occur on British soil.

Another reason why the two Hart daughters were shielded from the family business was the fact that their mother, Margaret was keen to keep the two spheres separate. She always insisted that they would not be forced into the business, by default. It’s something of a stereotype that family businesses are apt to carry discussions readily from the boardroom to the dining room table but if that ever happened in the Hart household, it was only when the girls were absent, a situation made more likely by their attendance at boarding school.

Heather’s first memory of visiting ‘the office’ (CSG’s original site at Botley, Hampshire) came when, aged “between 12 and 14”, she and her younger sister, Hilary rode their ponies there – literally all the way into their father’s office. When one of the ponies did what comes naturally – and what can always be expected of them at such moments – all over the office floor, Heather recalls “Bill Norton from the yard dealt with it”. As unfortunate as the incident was, at least you might conclude that it was the best possible place to have such a waste removal requirement!

By her mid-teens, Heather had become more aware of the nature and culture of her family’s business. At 15, something happened that was to push her further into the world her father had created:

“One of my father’s employees, Rosemary Rogers (always known as “Ro”) decided to marry Bill Voller, one of the drivers. Unfortunately, her parents disapproved of the marriage and let it be known that they would not be attending the wedding. My father offered to attend in support of Rosemary and, as my mother was ill at the time, I was to accompany him.”

Not only did this more closely acquaint Heather with the business, it was also clear that those who worked there were regarded by Bunny as a kind of extended family. It was a formative experience.

Despite her mother’s concerns, Heather later sought to develop her interest in CSG – to Bunny’s great delight – and began to work in the office a few days a week “learning bits and pieces, shadowing Father and reading lots of Directors’ correspondence”. As her compulsion to join the business had been entirely self-generated, her mother was placated. Heather’s involvement therefore seemed to suit everyone.

Within a few years, Heather had become elevated to the Board, already widely experienced and yet, in her own words, “not knowing I was learning – but then I’ve always underestimated my own knowledge”. Around this time, Bunny’s health was beginning to falter but still, Heather had no expectations to succeed him – “it wasn’t in anyone’s mind, certainly not mine. I was in control of the cash book at that time as we did not have an accountant in those days”.

Upon Bunny’s death in 1971, Heather became thrust towards a leadership role, a mere seven years after her first day in work. Heather refers to her status over the next years as a “gap filler”, diverting her attention variously to Human Resources, Sales and gaining British Standards accreditations. As modest as this description sounds, her approach of adding or enhancing systems to produce continuous performance improvements in different areas sound more like the actions of a trouble-shooter, adding value to the business and maintaining the family interest.

Within months, she and CSG would find themselves at the centre of an emergency making national headlines that many observers, Heather included, believed would shape the very future of the whole waste industry.

It was February 1972 and police were called to a site near a children’s playground in Nuneaton to find 36 drums of highly toxic sodium cyanide ash dumped on open ground. The incident made front-page news and resulted in an emergency debate in the House of Commons the next day. Sweetways, a CSG subsidiary had been engaged by the authorities to move the material to our Botley site, where it was safely treated.

MPs were calling for reform of an industry that had failed to prevent an incident that could potentially have resulted in a major tragedy but many in the industry seemed resistant, aware that stronger regulation threatened to disrupt their livelihoods. CSG had to decide if it was better to position itself as a more responsible operator, with the expectation that tougher legislation would gain more business in the longer term, or add its voice to those keen to maintain the status quo. Unanimously, the Board chose the former option, embracing the brave new world of regulation and greater professionalism.

From today’s perspective, it seems as if it was an obvious choice but ours is a perspective shaped, in part, by that decision. It must have taken a great deal of courage to see through the uncertainties and dissenting voices to choose to reject the comfortable certainties of the past and invite a huge level of change, based on little more than a belief that that’s where opportunity lay.

Today, 45 years on, Heather is sanguine about the seismic shift that she and her fellow Board members saw coming.

“I think we all knew there was a need for the industry to be more responsible. The issues we faced were how to achieve that: via what processes and over what timescale? Many of the changes required increased costs or risked turning away business. Of course, we had to make these changes but we also had to remain in the market long enough to see them through.”

History now shows that this single issue heralded many of the changes the waste industry has since undergone: professionalism, consolidation, specialisation, while not alien concepts beforehand, have all become commonplace in the years since 1972.

One thing that hasn’t changed much in all that time is the strong culture within CSG; where employees are still able to think of themselves as part of the ‘extended family’. As in the rest of society, the style has become less deferential, although here too, Heather can claim to have driven this progression.

“My father was always ‘Mr Hart’ and even the Board used to refer to each other in this way. When I started, it was natural to everyone that I’d be greeted ‘Miss Heather’. I was never comfortable with that and preferred just ‘Heather’, so we began to adopt a first-name culture, which still exists today.”

It’s a culture that’s often remarked upon by new starters and it’s one that’s made more evident by the number of people who’ve been on the payroll for twenty, thirty, even fifty years. To Heather, this is more than just a statistic; it’s part of the very essence of CSG.

“The importance of having a mix of different people, with different experiences and backgrounds, each learning from the other, is hugely underestimated.”

Today, CSG has revenues of over £60m and profits of over £4.5m. In such rarefied business circles, the term ‘family business’ is often derided, as shorthand for parochialism or lack of professional impetus. Is CSG really still a family business?

“We’ve always needed professional management at the highest levels – and we’ve backed them – but the involvement of the family adds focus”, Heather insists.

Perhaps the most prominent evidence of CSG’s unique heritage is the Margaret Hart Trust, set up in 1975 by Bunny’s wife, (Heather and Hilary’s mother) as a lasting tribute to CSG’s Founder. The trust was established to provide later-life assistance to any retired CSG employee with over 10 years’ service as well as any current employee who might be long term sick.

“It assists with gardening, stair-lifts, holidays amongst many other things – and we have a lovely party for all those it helps every year, which is great fun. I think its greatest achievement is that it has consistently enabled people to keep living in their own homes for longer. My sister Hilary chairs the Trust and we are both very proud of it.”

CSG has always tried to combine the best of both worlds: the achievement and capability of a dynamic corporation with the lighter touch and firmer identity of a family concern. It’s a rare combination and one that’s a testimony to the vision, not just of the man who started it all, but to his descendants who have worked to retain the essence of that family business, established 83 years ago.