Networking for change6 June 2019
Kathy Bowry talks to David Stevens, newly appointed CEO of TSA and networker par excellence, about his vision for the industry and the association
It has been all-change at the TSA over the past few months after former CEO Philip Wright stepped down from his post in December. TSA stalwart Robin Rhodes was swiftly appointed as interim supremo. He barely had time to warm the chair at LABS House before the TSA board announced the appointment of David Stevens to the top job. A TSA Board member himself for more than 20 years, Stevens been actively involved in many TSA activities.
When he stepped up in February, he said: “I am delighted to take on this challenging role and my key focus will initially be to make sure that the TSA delivers a vibrant and innovative programme of activities to engage the membership on both the supply chain and laundry side.”
Stevens explains to LCN how he aims to fulfill that promise and provide the membership, in a time of great changes and challenges, with improvements via a two-year plan that includes widening the membership base, industry training and qualifications, and addressing the whole issue of future recruitment in the industry.
Stevens paid tribute to ex-CEO Philip Wright’s “excellent organisational work” and acknowledged this has alowed him to inherit a sound base on which to build his own framework. “TSA represents 80% of the industry by turnover but probably only around 30% of the commercial laundry companies, albeit many of these will be small, but they are still massively relevant to the industry.” His mission is to get them on board.
The TSA should be first and foremost there to help with the worries the industry faces, he says. “The industry, like many other service sectors, is constantly under external pressures. We’ve come to live with squeezed margins but the role of the TSA is to help laundries move forward by informing them of some of the challenges ahead and helping support them to overcome some of the downstream issues, such as recruiting the right people, training both existing and new team players, and trying to protect them from uncontrollable external forces, such as legislation.”
So, what exactly is Stevens putting in place to achieve these aims? He says, with the conviction of experience: “The biggest benefit, as a launderer, that I got out of the TSA, was networking. A problem shared is a problem halved and the TSA provides a great platform to support each other. With this in mind, we are intending to hold our first Spring Conference on 22 May at Brandon Hall in Coventry. The aim is to inform the Industry of the TSA’s current direction of travel with lots of short, industry related papers. Also, each paper will have a short Open Forum at the end so that we can start to gather some real feedback on what members want. However, I believe a key output of the conference will be the conversations that take place during the evening before and throughout the coffee/lunch breaks. It’s also a great opportunity for our supply partners to meet the membership.”
Labour is a huge charge for businesses and the raising of the minimum wage brings more pressure. Attracting labour is another headache for members. Foreign workers are heading home for a variety of reasons – because of Brexit; they don’t feel welcome any more; the pound dropping; and also because in some cases, ie Poland, living standards in their own countries have risen and the prospect of going home becomes attractive. Stevens says: “Labour is a key issue for our sector and we have recently set up a Knowledge Network dedicated to just that – it’s called ‘People Knowledge Network’. They are currently looking at delivering another Textile Services Management Course following on from the massively successful event held in March at Lane End Management Centre with 26 rising stars of our Industry attending the week-long course. We are looking at apprenticeships and this is being led by David Kinson, the TSA’s learning advisor, formerly of Johnson’s Apparelmaster, who has enormous experience in our sector - we’re currently ready to go, we just need to get the industry to sign-up to the required numbers.
“With regards to Brexit, some of the damage has already been done; the industry has already experienced serious issues around employing people for key roles – there is definitely less European workers looking for employment. As a trade association, we spend quite a lot of money lobbying and keeping a close eye on the Government and I can honestly say we have no idea on what’s going to happen with Brexit going forward. However, for our industry, I don’t think it will be catastrophic - with the exchange rates, tourism will probably do well so, for the flatwork operators, I don’t think it will be a disaster. However, the manufacturing sector will be different and we are already seeing worrying signs there so for our workwear partners, I think, it’s a bit more serious but that’s not all to do with Brexit.”
We are hearing a lot about automation and industry 4.0 (the fourth industrial revolution involving artificial intelligence and fully automated laundry operations) so does Stevens think we are heading for fully automated laundries? In a nutshell, no, he doesn’t. “I don’t think laundries will ever become fully automated. The last major change for our sector was the tunnel washer (or continuous batch washer (CBW)) which did revolutionise the operation but that was 30 years ago and since then, we’ve made incremental improvements, but I don’t see another CBW/CTW around the corner. I think a key focus for the manufacturers will be the automation of the picking/packing/despatch area with regards to flatwork. If we look at workwear, this has been fully automated with garments literally slicking onto the vehicles directly from the operation.”
Does the inevitable deskilling of automation worry him? “No, because with automation you may need less people, but I think the skill level goes up. They need to be logistic managers who are managing the output of the machinery as opposed to just clipping sheets onto a feeding machine.”
Training and qualifications, of course, are a big issue – no colleges or universities have anything to offer nowadays, so the onus is on the industry to train its own. What can the TSA offer, how comprehensive is it and how accessible to members and their personnel? “We’ve already mentioned that we see the People’s Knowledge Network as key to improving our training of people. I recently hosted a meeting of the TSA Knowledge Experts and I was astounded at the current work programme and what was being proposed,” he says. Just a few of the projects include:
Amending the code of practice for CTW entry
Machinery European standards
Textile waste management
Re-write of BSN14065 guide
H&S guidelines for delivery
“In total, we have 28 different project work streams. My role is to make sure we get much better at telling members what we’re doing and making sure what we’re doing is what members want. Anybody can join a Knowledge Network, although we’ve split it into observers and active participants. If you just want to see what’s going on, then speak to us and we will log you as an observer. If you want to get actively involved and contribute, speak to Shyju Skariah, our technical manager.”
Sharing information globally
On sustainabilty, individual companies have taken initiatives, but will TSA be coordinating the UK laundry industry’s response as part of a European-wide European Textile Services Association (ETSA) drive, and does Stevens and the TSA see the industry in global terms, particularly in the current Brexit atmosphere? “Another surprise for me were the information platforms we share with both ETSA and other associations throughout the world, particularly the American TRSA. There are many global issues for our industry particularly on the environmental front and we are working with all these organisations to set up a sharing platform for information under the global banner of International Textile Services Alliance (ITSA) which we hope to have operational in the next few months. We want to make sure we don’t conduct a piece of work that has just been done by FBT in Belgium, for example. By sharing information, we will avoid duplicate work.”
The big players currently are very focused on the hotel and catering sectors (and of course hospital/healthcare), but is there a danger that the hospitality bubble may be about to burst? “I don’t think so,” says Stevens. “The hospitality brands continue to consolidate but also grow. For example, Travelodge recently announced another 100 hotels. While we continue to deliver good value and good quality, I don’t think the hospitality sector will look elsewhere. Of course, there is a danger that we could drive the sector to go back down the OPL route and part of my role is to ensure they understand that this is unlikely to be the right path in 95% of cases.”
With large groups continuing to gobble up successful independents, consolidation means fewer individual businesses but as this happens it seems that small operations are starting up to fill the vacuum left at the bottom end to service the world of B&B, small hotels and the burgeoning new markets of Airbnb and serviced apart-hotels. Certainly, in the recent past, TSA seemed to be heavily weighted towards larger textile rental businesses (hospitality, healthcare and uniforms/rentals). Are there plans, going forward, to involve all aspects of commercial laundry from the mega groups, through substantial independents right down to small family businesses?
“Absolutely, the more diverse our demographics can be, the better. I particularly see some of the training will be more relevant to the smaller operators as they are unlikely to be able to provide these services in-house. I recently attended an NLG Meeting and when I asked the room so full of launderers how many had been to a TSA event, only half the room said they had. These small independent operators are exactly the people we want to attract into membership but they need to feel it’s not a ‘big boy’ club and that’s part of my job going forward.”
So what benefits can the TSA offer these potential new recruits? Stevens believes that membership of TSA should be as necessary a part of the business as any other yearly cost. “I want the membership to feel they are getting value for their fee, through the TSA’s work, activities and benefits. I feel it’s important that members really want to join and get involved; to see being part of our membership as something that is good for them and the whole sector.”
One of his challenges has been to prepare a booklet on ‘why would you be a TSA member?’ and a few of the bullet points would be:
Climate Change Levy
Laundry Cost Index
Credit checking service
To finish up, where does Stevens see the UK industry going over the next few years…what is achievable and what and where are the pitfalls to look out for? “In summary, I am excited about the industry (but I always have been). I’m excited about trying to reinvigorate an all-encompassing TSA - together we have a great sector but I think it can become even stronger and I look forward to the next few years,” concludes Stevens.
DAVID STEVENS PROFILE
David Stevens has spent 40 years in the commercial laundry business, starting early, when he attended the UK’s only laundry-based higher education course, Laundry Technology and Management at Derby College. Despite his technical training, Stevens’ career has leaned towards the entrepreneurial side of sales, service and marketing.
He joined the family laundry company, Paragon, in 1982 as a production manager, before moving up to become general manager and then managing director in 1995. Not shy of taking up new challenges, David was one of the founding forces and later director of leading national laundry conglomerate, the Brilliant Laundry Group which had a turnover of £120 million. Having sold the family company in 2016 to CLEAN linen, Stevens now maintains a consultancy business, NewGen, as well as heading up the TSA.
Stevens has played a notable part in the UK laundry industry, having been chair of the TSA commercial committee for more than 10 years and a regular chair at the National Conference. He has been a board member of the TSA for 20 years;
Outside of work, Stevens has always been on the move. He has been passionate about climbing and adventure sports since an early age, working closely with youth organisations to encourage youngsters to actively participate. He also runs an indoor climbing centre. Stevens lives in the Cotswolds with his wife Alison, their three children and four dogs.