To the horror of many green-minded folk, we live in an increasingly throw-away society – which is great news for the likes of Biffa Group, one of the country’s biggest waste management companies.
Biffa is constantly looking for innovative new ways to dispose of or recycle our rubbish, and yet on an IT level it remains curiously low-tech, as group IT director David Gooding explains.
“It’s fair to say we’re probably at the lower end of spend in terms of what you’d expect,” he says, pointing out that Biffa, which is 102 years old this year, has always been a pretty lean operation.
Like many senior managers at Biffa, Gooding rose through the ranks, having joined the company in 2003 as a coder. He was made IT director in 2011 and has a team of 50, comprising developers, technicians, project managers and analysts, with half based at Biffa’s High Wycombe HQ.
Over the years, a number of outsourcing contracts have also been put in place, so Biffa’s data centre is run by Phoenix while its network has gone out to Azzurri.
But it’s still surprising to learn that Biffa has been using an IBM UniData-based Unix system (which it simply calls “the Central System”) since 1991, apparently with few, if any, issues.
Gooding describes the Central System as “very much in-house”, with so much modification done to it over the years, it now runs entirely autonomously from UniData – which is now owned by Rocket.
“In 1991 it was a basic finance system – essentially a manufacturing system,” explains Gooding. “Since then we’ve developed a full waste ERP system, and basically that database enabled the phenomenal growth of the company.”
The Central System is, says Gooding, “completely scalable”, and can support 800 concurrent users, which is all Biffa needs. And ongoing development is carried out entirely in-house.
“In the early 1990s, there was no choice of package software to run a waste company, and even now there’s limited choice,” he explains. “So it was an absolutely solid choice for then. We’ve done everything with it. In 2003 we put the first in-cab PDA out there, so you can integrate with it, and it’s obviously fine when integrating with other applications.”
But there’s a natural drawback to all this in-house development. Who does the developing?
Biffa is fortunate enough to have a group of six developers, one of whom has been with the company since the system’s installation in 1991, with one other member joining in 1995.
“But what we do have,” admits Gooding, “is a high dependency on staff. We’re in the position where these people are hugely valuable to me, but obviously represent a risk as well.
“We move the developers round as best we can, but the difficulty is we’ve just been through a tactical phase of cost reduction. The last 18 months have been brilliantly positive – we got refinanced in February 2013, so there’s a sense of stability now that means, rather than looking at tomorrow, we can look further into the future.”
A big part of that future will revolve around Project Fusion, which will see Gooding handling “transformation within the business”.
Biffa has “been through some tough times”, admits Gooding. It was owned by Severn Trent up until 2007, and was listed on the stock market, on the cusp of the economic slump. Taken private again in 2008, it’s spent the past four years clawing its way back to what is now an £830m-a-year turnover company, recycling 750,000 tons of waste a year from 1.8 million households a week.
Gooding reveals that, despite the outsourcing taking the heat off, the Central System is now “creating some bottlenecks” as Biffa seeks to digitise more of the business and better tailor its services to the needs of its domestic and commercial customers – which is where Project Fusion comes in.
“I don’t just want to know you’re a corporate customer now – I want to know what you’ll put in the bin depending on your business, and whether you’re happy to become a digital-only customer,” he explains.
After launching its “CustomerZone” last year, Biffa is already seeing 20,000 of its 75,000 business customers trading with it online, which Gooding calls a “phenomenal uptake.”
CustomerZone has also led to far more customers contacting the firm by email, and accessing billing and account options online – hardly ground-breaking, but in an industry that has never been particularly IT-led, Gooding is happy with the progress.
“But we need to keep looking at the end-to-end process,” he says. “We still let some customers down in terms of support channels, how they’re invoiced, and even understanding their invoices.
“We’re looking at all processes specifically focused on the customer – from customer to cash, and the organisational structure that supports that.”
Gooding says the first phase of a customer services system overhaul is complete, with an operating model almost built. It won’t be a “big bang” replacement for the Central System, but will involve buying in some software as well as developing its own.
From contact to cab
Biffa has a number of local contact centres that use hosted NetSuite CRM systems and Avaya softphones provided by Azzurri.
To crunch its data, in 2006 Biffa put a SQL data warehouse in next to the Central System, because the latter was “rubbish at reporting”, says Gooding. This is currently being handled by MicroStrategy.
“We’ve also put a web portal on the front of it, as well as removing all paperwork from the cabs with our own software”.
The software was developed with the assistance of cab drivers on Windows Mobile 6, which Gooding says Biffa – and indeed the rest of the ruggedised market – is still happy enough to keep using.
However, it’s at this point that Gooding admits to what Computing’s eagle eye had already spotted on a reception desktop PC: “Our organisation is still on XP, though we’re migrating away”, spills Gooding.
“Our priority is making sure there’s no laptops with XP on, but actually if you’ve got an XP desktop that’s firewalled on a corporate network, so the risk, from what we’re reading and being told at the moment, is not acute,” he says.
A Windows 7 migration plan is under way, and Gooding wouldn’t dream of letting XP machines out into the field. But why has the firm left it so late to upgrade?
“We’re constantly challenged in terms of the resources and budget we have. So how do I go and ask for what is a substantial amount of money to upgrade everything?”
Gooding believes only the more tech-savvy users will really benefit from a move to Windows 7 anyway, asking: “The clerk who’s been doing the same job for 10 years and never used any of the Office suite – why update him?”
With no BYOD policy to speak of (“We haven’t seen a big own devices trend,” says Gooding ) and a slew of aging platforms, including an Access database and a 23-year-old Unix system, it’s safe to say Biffa’s IT set-up is far from cool and sexy, but it’s cost-effective, functional, evolving and a very long way from being rubbish.