Chris Cracknell urges industry: “Let’s make a difference”

23rd of September 2014
Chris Cracknell urges industry: “Let’s make a difference”

Chris Cracknell is chief executive of OCS Group, one of the UK’s leading total facilities management companies, which has operations across five continents. He speaks exclusively to ECJ editor Michelle Marshall about why he believes the cleaning industry must work together more effectively in spreading a more positive message about its vital role.

Chris Cracknell has been with OCS Group since 1977 and was appointed to the board in 1985 after holding various posts in the UK and overseas. He is now chief executive of a company operating across five continents, managing over 90,000 staff. Sales exceeded one billion euros in the year to March 2013.

Having had such a successful career with one of the sector’s most highly rated companies, Cracknell has also become well known as a thought leader and he has been a speaker at events including the 2014 congress of the World Federation of Building Service Contractors (WFBSC) in New York earlier this year. He is clearly passionate about the vital role the cleaning industry and its dedicated staff play in society and strongly believes there must be a more cohesive strategy in order to promote that message to the world.

“If we look at our industry, it is extremely fragmented, there is no ‘joined-up’ thinking,” he says. “The services we provide are considered to be menial and insignificant and in general people pay no attention to how cleaning is achieved. But within our sector we recognise that how we work sets the tone for how each client and their building is judged. Planes, hospitals, all public buildings – would we visit them if they were not clean?

“There is such contradiction in how important our services are compared to how lowly they can be considered.”

Cracknell explains that among clients there is often the view cleaning can be cut back in difficult economic times. “However this approach eventually presents such a negative image as buildings become more and more neglected.”

Rise to the challenge

He feels that up to now the industry has simply not risen to the challenge and promoted itself to the world in the right manner. “We must come together to present ourselves properly,” he continues. “For example, amongst ourselves at industry events we always talk about the vital job we do in hospitals – the links between cleaning and infection control, etc. We have been doing this job for a very long time and we do it well. But we certainly have not done a good job of taking that message ‘out there’ to talk about it in a wider context.

“We have so many staff at grass roots level looking after their clients extremely well and going the extra mile every day. Those people are usually the lowest paid in the building – for some reason they may not have had the best of educational opportunities perhaps. However they are responsible for enhancing the reputation of their clients, maintaining asset value and making a valuable contribution.”

According to Cracknell, the problem lies in the fact there is so much industry fragmentation that we only discuss these issues amongst ourselves – sector trade organisations, trade press and within individual companies. “In my view industry representation needs to consolidate, with greater coordination nationally, Europe-wide and on a global level.”

He points to parallel industries such as construction, which has been highly successful in elevating its image.  “In our industry we have also not done a great job of engaging with government in comparison with other sectors,” he explains. “We absolutely must build upon the foundation we have.

“What are our standards, what do we stand for? We must differentiate ourselves from the more disreputable employers and create a code of ethics. We only demean ourselves by regularly reverting back to our ‘Mrs Mop’ image, and unfortunately that image is sticking – and along with it the view that the services we are providing are not valuable.”

Who can take the lead in such an ambitious and far-reaching initiative? Cracknell replies: “Medium and large sized companies must belong to trade associations and those associations should have the resources available to promote more effectively how we contribute to society.

“Our industry is an extremely important employer of large numbers of people everywhere in the world. We present people with real opportunities to start a career, we offer them skills that are both valuable to them and to the client organisation they are working for.”

Although positive developments have been happening in the industry over recent years, Cracknell feels change is not happening rapidly enough. “I fear we are all so focused on the day job that we’re not looking at the top end of the market, the wider picture. What’s required is a positive PR campaign from the industry as a whole – local, regional and global.”

The industry’s trade associations do come under widespread criticism for being ineffectual and insular, criticism which Cracknell feels is often valid. “Associations are failing to make a real difference and that is because their funds are so limited. There are far too many associations too – maybe there should be fewer of them.

“At least we do have inter-country representation now, which we did not have before, but the trade associations will not change the widely-held perceptions about them if they are not proactive. It’s essential we have a unified voice.”

In Cracknell’s opinion it’s only mass representation at this level that will lead governments to take notice of the industry and listen to its views and concerns. “We provide essential services and employ massive numbers of people – our voice should be heard,” he says.

Cracknell is also of the view there should be better links between manufacturers and service companies. “We share the need for innovation and it is our joint responsibility to bring that innovation – whether it be daytime cleaning or robotics – to the forefront as an industry, rather than in the fragmented way we often act.”

He is very much aligned with the goals of the leading solutions manufacturers. “Some of them are presenting world class innovations and developments, however the industry has not always been effective in embracing and implementing them.”

Better opportunities

Having said all that, Cracknell is encouraged by the progress that has been made. “In general the amount of money staff are earning in the cleaning sector has increased, there is more full-time employment and better training – which has improved productivity for sure.”

We are now also beginning to see better opportunities for a real career path, Cracknell says, “Some of the environments now being cleaned by our employees are now more complex and challenging than ever before and that requires more specialist training. Much of the work we do suffers from a perception problem,” he acknowledges, “the idea that what we do is simple, and anyone can do it.”

It’s in the emerging economies that the cleaning sector is playing a truly pivotal role, Cracknell explains. It’s these areas, he says, where a cleaning job can truly make a difference by helping people take the first steps out of poverty. “In our experience staff in emerging countries are very engaged – there is a real positivity about being employed, undergoing training, wearing a uniform, etc.”

Chris Cracknell is not only responsible for heading one of the best-known businesses in the cleaning sector, he is passionate about the importance of the work being done by the millions of staff worldwide and how that should be recognised for its value. “We are an incredibly exciting industry with so much potential. I would really like to see us harness that and promote the message about the value we contribute to society,” he concludes.


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