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Contractor Profile: A healthy approach to success

Demand for ventilation and water hygiene services is at an all time high, and Essex-based Swiftclean is riding the crest of a wave.
Contractor Profile: A healthy approach to success
THE demand for specialist ventilation and water hygiene services is on a seemingly unstoppable upward curve fuelled by increased regulation, improved end-user understanding and the ever-present insurance industry.

'There has always been a need for hygiene services but now there is far greater awareness,' says Gary Nicholls, group managing director of contractor Swiftclean, which has offices in Southend and Leicester. He traces the shape of today's marketplace back to the publication of the Health & Safety at Work regulations in 1996.

'That was the first time employers faced a statutory duty to have ventilation systems cleaned 'as appropriate',' he says.
'Since then it has been a very risky approach for any employer to ignore the possible health risks posed by his poorly maintained ductwork.'

It was also in 1996 that the HVCA formed the Ventilation Hygiene Group Branch of its Service and Facilities Group to produce the industry's first guide to ventilation hygiene - The HVCA Guide to Good Practice: Internal Cleanliness of Ventilation Systems (TR/17) - now in its third edition (TR/19. See footnote). Nicholls was a founder member of the branch, later becoming chairman and he continues to serve as an active member to this day.

The power insurance companies hold over commercial building owners and operators is also fuelling further expansion of the industry, particularly in kitchen extract work. 'My involvement as an expert witness in litigation cases, where insurers refuse to pay fire damage claims because grease extract systems were not cleaned, has given me an insight into the devastation faced by many businesses,' explains Nicholls.

A build up of fatty deposits in extract ductwork has been responsible for spreading fire rapidly through buildings in a number of high-profile cases. And insurers now look closely at this area both before offering cover and in the aftermath of a fire.

'In a number of cases, the insurance company has refused to pay out because the extract system was not cleaned even though it had nothing to do with the fire,' he warns.

It is all a far cry from the marketplace Nicholls entered in 1982 with his business partner Paul Argles. Swiftclean started life in the Nicholls family shed in Rayleigh providing a boiler tube cleaning service. Their first job was cleaning the boiler at Finchley Fire Station.
'They saw our first advert in the trade paper, and fortunately we must have been in when the phone rang!' recalls Nicholls.

They had decided to start the business when a friend, who sold tube-cleaning equipment, found that many end users did not actually want to do the cleaning work themselves and would rather use a contractor. They only diversified into ductwork hygiene three years later when they picked up the ventilation cleaning contract for the British Airways cabin crew canteen at Heathrow. Nicholls and Argles vacuumed that system themselves by hand.

At that time, there were very few people carrying out this kind of work although major competitor Overclean also appeared on the scene in the mid 1980s.

The infamous Staffordshire Legionnaires' Disease outbreak of 1988 was another crucial milestone for Swiftclean, which then diversified into cleaning and refurbishing water storage tanks, but it was three years later that the company reached its first major crossroads.

In 1991 with a turnover of around £400,000, Argles and Nicholls secured a £1.8M contract from Bovis to clean up the mess created by the Minster Court fire in London. Many small companies have over-stretched themselves in similar situations and gone under, but the pair used it as the springboard.

'It is still our largest ever contract,' says Nicholls. 'We had to be very careful because big contracts can make or break small firms, but I've always been pretty good on the commercial side. When you are growing fast like that, you need a lot more cash up front and we were able to secure that.'

However, having just successfully completed the Minster Court cleanup work and with the company poised for the next stage of its growth, tragedy struck when Argles was killed in a motorcycle accident aged just 29.

He left behind two young children and wife Julia, who decided to continue the business with Nicholls. Today she is still running the contracts side of Swiftclean and one of her sons also works for the company.

The Minster Court project had allowed the company to buy a half acre site close to Southend Airport and build its current headquarters.
'I have always believed that it is important for a company to own its headquarters as it puts you on a sound financial footing,' says Nicholls. 'It is also a good selling tool, particularly when you are trying to recruit staff as they see you as being a solid, long-term business.'

Swiftclean passed the £3M turnover mark in 2007 and now employs 54 people including 30 carrying out on-site remedial cleaning work and six surveyors doing the initial inspections and risk assessments for both ductwork cleanliness and legionnella risk in water systems.

The company opened a Midlands operation in 2002 when fellow HVCA member and contributor to TR/19 Paul Downing sold his own business to lead the next stage in the Swiftclean expansion programme.

'Our growth has all been organic, but 2007 was by far our best year and breaking through the £3M turnover barrier was significant,' says Nicholls. 'However, we have experienced some growing pains because of the problem of finding qualified staff.

'We first received our Investors in People recognition in 1997 and have renewed it three times because we take the people aspect very seriously,' he adds. 'People are your main asset when you are in a service business like this. We have taken on a lot of people at the start of their careers and trained them up.'

He and his fellow HVCA Ventilation Hygiene Branch
members have also dedicated a lot of time to improving the recruitment situation for the sector as a whole.

'Hygiene contractors are at the bottom of the food chain but the HVCA companies are all committed to improving the professionalism of our sector,' he says.

'An occupational standard, to be certificated by the HVCA, is currently being developed for ductwork cleaning. This will help us all in the long term by widening the skilled labour pool and attracting people who may not have regarded this as a viable long-term career in the past.'

While he admits the hygiene business is not 'rocket science' and will always be primarily a labour intensive activity, Nicholls points out the increasing profile of system cleanliness means there is now greater pressure on the design professionals to pay it more attention.

'The lack of proper access to ductwork is a long-standing problem for maintenance companies like ours and design engineers must consider this kind of on-going operational issue. Also, too many systems are actually installed dirty - full of building dust and the like - and then never cleaned.

'We are being asked to do a lot more pre-commissioning cleaning, but that should become a standard requirement,' he adds. 'Specifiers will make life a lot easier for themselves if they just refer to TR/19 - it is all in there.'

As for the future, Nicholls expects Swiftclean to continue its steady progress past £3.5M turnover this year but longer-term he has a vision for a £10M company because of the 'massive' potential in air and water system hygiene.

As well as the insurance aspects, an increased focus on hospital hygiene, improved standards in social housing and greater investment from local authorities and housing associations in bringing accommodation up to acceptable standards will drive the market.

Legionnella control is also growing faster than ever following widespread national publicity surrounding last year's public enquiries into the Barrow outbreak.

'Most legionnella victims don't die, in fact typically 88% survive. However, some survivors can be permanently and very seriously injured so need long-term care,' Nicholls points out. 'This is a big worry for the insurance companies and I expect to see this going the same way as the kitchen extract market.

'We are well placed because we can offer a survey team to carry out the risk assessment, then the necessary remedial work followed by on-going monitoring, which is crucial.'

The building services hygiene profession has been totally transformed in the 25 years since Nicholls and Argles set up Swiftclean. What was an ad hoc series of one-off jobs is now a fully fledged, strategic service and maintenance operation, which will become an ever more integral part of the safe and sustainable operation of buildings in the years to come.

'Everyone with a building to operate is a potential customer,' says Nicholls. 'The challenge for us now is to deliver the resources and the service to meet the need.'
www.swiftclean.co.uk

· The HVCA Guide to Good Practice: Internal Cleanliness of Ventilation Systems (TR/19)
costs £30 to HVCA members
and £60 to non-members.
Call 01768 860405 or visit www.hvca.org.uk
1 February 2008

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