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The road to survival

27 August 2014

To future-proof their business, independent contract cleaners must diversify and keep ahead of market trends, advises Bob Vincent, executive chairman of LCC Support Services

There has never been a better time to observe the warning – don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Specialisation enables contractors to provide expert knowledge and experience to clients in a specific sector, but when that bubble bursts it is difficult to build your business in a new sector, because there are already plenty of established firms who know that sector better than you.

Who would want their cleaning business focused 100% on the high street retail sector in which 30% of premises are empty and major retailers are dropping like flies?   Internet sales and trends like the death of DVD hire have seen the demise of top brands offering quality products such as Allders of Croydon, JJB Sports, Past Times, Woolworths, Blockbuster, Barratts Shoes and most Jessops and HMV stores. 

Independent contract cleaning in the next ten years will be like ‘spread betters’ – spreading risks so that they have several strings to their bow and clients in less fashion-conscious or high profile risk business.


Learning the hard way

When I set up my business in 1978 I vowed never to have more that 10% of my business with one client or more than 30% in any specific sector so that I was relatively bullet proof. I broke this rule once - ten years ago when my two major high street banking clients had to close branches. I lost £8m from my overall £16m turnover and it hurt.


With proactive marketing we had added more than our loss within a year, but I did have a few sleepless nights. If we had not already built a good name in other sectors we could have gone to the wall through no fault of our own.

Today, I follow my original strategy with no contract becoming over 10% of my business. My client list is spread across some solid lower margin clients, selected retail stores, educational establishments which are here for the longer term, multi-tenanted offices, shopping centres, some new emerging sectors with growth potential and opportunities such as the recent Olympics in London.

During the recent recessionary times we have turned our business into a truly national service provider and stopped sub-contracting in the remote areas. This has opened the doors to national accounts with multiple sites adding another string to our bow.


Market forecasting

To stay ahead does not require throwing lots of resources and tele-sales at the same markets as your competitors, it’s about taking an Alan Sugar approach – look ahead at the way you think business, retail, manufacturing and service industries will change and the effects these will have on cleaning and support service needs. Look for the emerging requirements of all types of ‘away from the home’ premises.  

Health and safety and risk assessments have previously opened many opportunities such as air conditioning ducting and keyboard cleaning. These are good illustrations of ways to prevent the spread of germs and bacteria and I firmly believe that organisations prefer prevention to a cure. Avoiding an office flu outbreak is better than suffering lost output caused by illness and staff feel cared for if they see their employers acting in their best interests.

The road to survival only requires you to take a hard calculating look at your business and stop thinking ‘this always worked in the past’ because it may not in the future.  Ask yourself, ‘If I were a business tomorrow, would I buy current available services or would the needs change?’.


I liken this to the office stationery situation: Did office supplies companies continue to sell carbon paper when they forecast that the world was changing to computers that used printers with ink cartridges?  The future existence of a cleaning service provider depends on it looking ahead and having the right services and equipment available to meet the customers’ changing needs. When on site you should ask, 'how can we do this task better, quicker, cheaper etc.?'

Contract cleaning and support services providers have a great future as businesses become more ‘hygiene aware’ and demand higher levels of cleaning, but in most situations your future is largely in your own hands. Keep up to speed with your client needs, visit the trade shows to see the new equipment, products and systems and marry them to customer needs for the ideal scenario.