As one of the world’s largest providers of portable kitchens and catering equipment for hire, Cheltenham-based PKL has a major role to play during this summer’s Olympic Games. Catering Insight sat down with the company’s managing director, Chris irving, to find out more.
A lot of people in the market are aware that PKL has a big role to play in this summer’s Olympic Games. What can you tell us about that?
We have got a number of different contracts across the whole Olympic Park and some of the more remote venues, as well as quite a few corporate clients around the periphery of the Olympics. It is the most we have done for any Olympic Games so far and numbers to something like 86 kitchens, which we have got to put in between now and the end of June. So it is quite a lot of activity and we have got a big project team of project managers, logisticians and engineers to bring all that together along with the sub-contractors that we use as well.
PKL employs about 80 people. How many of those will be onsite or connected by phone during the Olympics?
About 80! I guess it would probably be about 40 people, and there are a lot of sub-contractors around that as well. There is more people involved in the build-up than there is in the running of it. Once you get it up and running, it is actually not too bad — touch wood.
Given the 2012 Olympics are on your doorstep, will you be treating it differently to previous major projects you
I don’t think so. It is still the same operationally. You have got to do it right. We treat them as very high priority clients every time, so we can’t really make it much more of a higher priority than it already is.
What are the biggest challenges you face in delivering such a huge project?
I think one of the biggest challenges for us is just the logistics of getting in and out of London and around London. It is going to be hard this summer for everybody. And that’s not just in terms of the Olympic contracts, but in terms of the normal events that go on as well.
What sort of provisions are you making to overcome that?
We are forward-locating people and we are forward-dumping parts and materials so that we are more self-reliant, and we are designing out risk on some of the projects. But it is still a pain if someone realises they need a pump and the pump is in Essex for instance! Everybody is going to be in the same boat, but that doesn’t mean clients are sympathetic to that. It’s our problem, not theirs.
You’ve already set aside 4,000 pieces of kit for the summer period, much of which is going to London. How does that compare with an average event?
It is a higher number than an average event. It is a very big event, but I guess it is just a bit more than previous [Olympics]. In previous years we have had stuff go all over the world and still done projects here. This year we have got a bit more stuff going to London, but our normal business carries on as usual so there are still thousands of items of equipment out on hire the whole time. They were out on hire last year, they are on hire this year, and they will still be out on hire in 2013.
The Games are approaching fast. How important are the next few months to the company?
We have done a lot of planning in the last two years around the Olympics. A lot of work and thought has gone into it, so it is now just about carrying on with that and executing it as best as we can. We have got a good track record of delivering things successfully and that is absolutely what we intend to do this time. Our experience from a number of other Games in the past will help us because we know what it looks like, tastes like, and feels like to go through it and we know where a lot of the problems will be. And what we are always trying to do is pre-empt those problems with our clients.
Getting all the kitchens and equipment ready for the Games is one thing, but what happens after it is all over?
We remove it all. We decommission and return it here, and that is a whole logistics exercise in itself! You have got to plan that very carefully otherwise you end up with all of your stuff back here in all sorts of different places and in the wrong condition, so for us that is every bit as important as putting it in. It is less [important] for our clients — they just want it out as fast as possible. We have got a very tight turnaround at the end of the Olympic Games to do that.
What is your policy when it comes to reselling surplus hire equipment?
It is something that we will periodically look at. We always want to reuse kit. The sales guys are advertising complexes that are about to come off hire before they come off hire, to try and move those on again. And during busy periods, I guess like most hire companies, a piece of equipment will regularly come in on Tuesday and it will be going out on Wednesday. And that is quite normal for us.
The Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 recently published a report that criticised hire companies for not responding to the challenge of supplying HFC-free refrigeration systems for the Games. Have you seen that report, and what is your response to it?
I haven’t seen that report. I know we are a pretty careful in making sure we are using safe equipment and our engineers are trained. We are also F-Gas registered, so we do take that side quite seriously.
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How much does PKL spend on new equipment every year?
It varies from year to year, but we certainly invest a very bare minimum six figure sum every year on equipment. We are constantly getting new lines in to suit particular client needs and where we have a requirement for large or new contracts we will invest in those to service that client. We are also always spending money refurbishing our units to make sure they are in tip-top condition.
What sort of relationship do you have with the manufacturers?
We have worked for a long time with a number of different manufacturers who know us well, we know them well, and we have quite a good relationship with most of them. They know what we want: good, reliable kit that is relatively simple to use and can be well-supported after they have sold it to us.
Are there any partners you work with on a preferential basis?
Across a number of different sectors we are always looking at different brands. We have done a lot in the past with Falcon and Williams and we’ll look to work with them and others like them in the future. We like working with good quality manufacturers.
As a hire business, it must be important to maximise the life of a piece of equipment. How do you keep track of that?
As a management team, we have KPIs that look at how well our kit is performing on site every month. We look at things like failure rates of equipment in the first 10 days on hire, we look at how often we fix equipment on the first time an engineer attends site —the ‘first fix’ rate. And we look at how many calls we have in a month, and what we are spending on maintenance of equipment in the field and back here as a percentage of our turnover. You are always looking to do whatever you can — there are hundreds and hundreds of boring little things that can be done to reduce this or improve that.
Considering the volume of kit you hire out, have you ever considered manufacturing equipment yourself?
Not really, no. We are good at bringing it all together, we do the value add, we bring together the various different bits of kit, the design, the M&E, the unit, and the ability to put all that on site in quite a short timeframe. That is what we specialise at and it is a different culture and set of commercial dynamics to manufacturing.
PKL in numbers
1985 Year the company was formed by chairman Peter Joy
£18m Annual turnover
50% Portion of annual business often made from export sales
80 Full-time members of staff
900 Portable kitchen units available for rental
10,000 Items of catering equipment for hire