I went today to a thoroughly entertaining talk about how to succeed in business. I really wasn't sure what to expect from the title, The Essex Scrubber, and the friend who took me did not elaborate. Since she is a sensible person and from what I have seen of her women's group they are all sensible people as well, I thought we would not go too far wrong and went along with an open mind.
Appearances can be deceptive. Not knowing most of the members of the group I couldn't work out who the guest speaker was as we took our seats in somebody's farmhouse sitting room, and even once she was revealed as the woman with a lively expression, brown hair escaping from her French pleat and a long piece of cream coloured crochet work wound round her neck I was still none the wiser about what The Essex Scrubber might entail. A talk about Braintree town museum, perhaps?
Wrong. The Essex Scrubber, MBE, had built up a cleaning business employing 850 people and turning over £3.5 million by the time she sold it, chaired a commission into the cleaning industry for the Blair Government, been the only woman on the board of the Cleaning and Support Service Association, advised Frank Field about some of the practical realities of life on a low income, and was the first female Rotarian in Colchester. And she was very funny.
She did not set out to be a cleaning entrepreneur. Cleaning was born of financial necessity, because shortly after giving up a salaried management position in engineering sales to set up his own export business, her husband was diagnosed with melanoma. The outlook for melanoma patients is not great now, and it was worse in 1975. They had a mortgage and two small children, she had a part time job as a school secretary. In the evenings she went moonlighting, cleaning in Ipswich because she was ashamed for her friends and acquaintances in Colchester to know she had stooped to a menial job.
One thing leads to another, when you are clever, and desperate. Her father was a wartime Polish bomber pilot, her mother a Cheltenham lady who had taught her to ride a horse and write proper thank you notes, but not how to clean. She was taught cleaning on one of her first jobs by a woman who was such a natural teacher that years later she came to work in the business as a trainer. She employed a few other people at first on a couple of small contracts, then got a break with Norman Foster's recently built and award winning Willis Faber building. She did not think she could face running the business alone when her husband died, then looking at the assembled Willis Faber cleaning workforce as they stood waiting to learn if they still had jobs she changed her mind. They were going to grow the business.
She had two revolutionary ideas. The firm tried very hard to weed out the no-hopers at the recruitment stage, interviewing them in their own homes and trying to assess whether they would last the course before taking them on. That's unusual in a badly paid service industry where normal staff turnover is two hundred percent. And then she treated her employees as people. Individuals with names, and families, and particular circumstances that were in many cases very difficult. People who could not necessarily read very well, or fill out forms. And she was polite to them, and went out cleaning herself on new contracts to learn the wrinkles, and treated her staff with the consideration with which the daughter of an officer and a Cheltenham lady had grown up expecting to be treated. And they responded in kind. And as the business grew she promoted from within, and had a welfare department to help with government forms and setting up bank accounts, and held an annual cleaners ball.
And was not above going herself to find out why the cleaner working at Pauls in Ipswich docks had phoned up incoherent with tears, and on discovering that the reason was the a mouse had got sucked up into the vacuum cleaner dismantled the machine, plucked the mouse out by the tail, and dropped it out of the window, before fainting. To be brought round by her cleaner fanning her and saying, She knew it was against the rules but could she make the boss a cup of tea? And after laughing at the cleaner's parting shot about how they had better not go into pest control, resolving on the way home to add pest control to the list of services offered, but outsource it.
Her name is Christine Beedle, and she has written a book (all profits going to charity) about it, which somebody is now looking at turning into a TV series. After her talk I felt as though I had seen a Fry or a Cadbury, reincarnated in female form for the late twentieth century. I'd have liked to ask her about how TUPE, the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations had affected her business' ability to take new contracts on, but as she began to tell me one of our hosts whisked her away for her lunch.