Q&A: Derek Maher, MD, Crystaltech Services

The commercial warewashing arena has changed a fair bit since Derek Maher first started mending machines for local pubs and restaurants.

It was back in 1980 that Maher founded Crystaltech, running the business from his garage as the firm’s sole employee. Three decades on, the company styles itself as the largest provider of warewashing-only maintenance services in the whole of the UK. It directly employs almost 50 engineers, handles a portfolio of 48,000 machines on a daily basis and claims to hold £1.5m worth of stock.

The company has also changed ownership in that time after running into financial trouble back in 2004 when a key supplier started its own services division and began competing against it. Fearful that it would no longer be able to continue, the company succeeded in attracting investment from the Maidaid Group, which took a controlling stake in the business. Subsequently its name was changed from Crystlatech Limited to Crystaltech Services Ltd.

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While Crystaltech carries out all of Maidaid-Halcyon’s UK warranty and service work, it is certainly anything but a single-supplier outfit.

Its engineers carry spare parts for all the leading warewashing brands, while its biggest customer is not actually Maidaid, but Electrolux.

“We have been doing this business for many years now and we don’t sell equipment and we don’t sub-contract,” explains Maher.

“The brewers use us because we don’t sell equipment and we don’t tend to write equipment off, and also because we only specialise in warewashing. It is a field which, if they are honest, doesn’t fit comfortably with kitchen repair companies. It is a field within its own right.”

He adds: “From the figures we get back from companies, warewashing is about 50% of the catering budget’s spend and it is very prone to breakdown. The modern equipment breaks down more frequently because the machines are so complicated now. Their longevity has been reduced. If a part goes, it is quite expensive, and the equipment gets written off.”

As well as brewery chains such as Bramwell, Orchid and Greene King, the company serves the likes of Morrisons supermarket and Priory Group hospitals. “We are on four-hour response from the tip of Scotland down to Cornwall, seven days a week. If it is physically possible with a supermarket it has to be done,” says Maher. “Some of our engineers are carrying £17,000 worth of spares. It is a huge overhead when you think that it is just warewashing parts — and we still struggle at times with a first-time fix even though nobody else would carry that volume of spares.”

Many of its customers now rely on Crystaltech as a leading authority on warewashing practices, with the company even producing staff training literature to help the likes of Cask Marque, Fullers and Heineken achieve the best wash results.

Most catering equipment services companies are at pains to stress the importance of preventative maintenance contracts these days, but interestingly it’s not a line that Maher is inclined to toe. In fact, his view on the matter contrasts sharply with the standard industry message.

“We don’t recommend that preventative maintenance is carried out on the range of machines up to pass-through because when we go to a site we not only repair the fault but we do a mini PM on them to bring the machine up to standard. We deal with Pizza Express, which is the Gondola Group, and we have proved to them that by taking this stance and actually doing a proper repair on the job we have reduced the number of calls they have by about 20% to 25%.

“The industry at the moment is driven by KPIs and the one that you are fiercely measured on is first-time fix. What that means is a lot of companies will go in, fix the fault and close the job down so that they are looking good, even though there are still other problems with the machine. This actually reduces the life of the equipment,” he argues.

Maher claims customers have forced maintenance companies down this route through their obsession with KPIs, even though he argues it is not best for their equipment.

“It is detrimental to the life of the machine and it increases the frequency of breakdown because you’ve got an engineer there with the chance to put other things right but they are not allowed to do it because that may involve a second visit. It is a case of making the figures look good even though the actual level of service is not quite as good.”

Maher reckons Crystaltech has saved one supermarket chain £85,000 simply by removing preventative maintenance budgets from their contract. While this approach could be seen to backfire on the company by eliminating a chunk of revenue, he plays this down on the basis that there is still work there anywhere and engineers can operate more efficiently.

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It is perhaps no surprise that Maher describes the “misunderstanding of KPIs and first-time fix” as his biggest frustration with the industry.

“Companies with knowledgeable people understand that the KPI isn’t everything and that it often works against the best principles of doing a good job. But it’s often more difficult for large companies when they are being measured from above. The figures are black and white; it doesn’t show a true figure of how a contractor is performing. It bites us back every now and again and it is hard work, but we sincerely believe it to be the best for the customer.”

The other issue that Maher believes is impacting the services market is the increased emphasis on certifications. He is a member of CEDA’s technical committee and has been able to get the backing of key institutions to recognise SSIP (Safety Schemes In Procurement), a government initiative that reduces the burden of bureaucracy by bringing multiple health and safety proficiencies under one standard.

“The bottom line is that customers have become harder on accreditations,” he says. “A few years ago the health and safety thing was the big issue, now it’s the environmental accreditations. A lot of the supermarkets won’t even allow you on the tender list if you haven’t got those accreditations. The amount of paperwork just to stay in business is huge. For a new business coming in now to try and pick up those accreditations, it must be a nightmare. We have grown with it over 30 years so we have seen all of the changes, but it is very difficult and the cost has to fall on someone.”

With a customer base that is growing, Maher is optimistic that 2013 will be a good year for the company. He believes there is sufficient capacity to increase its engineering headcount to above 50. And if that proves to be the case then it is likely the company will pursue its usual method of recruitment.

“Without being detrimental we always employ from outside the industry. Generally we do not take engineers from the industry, we prefer to take an engineer from outside, normally white goods, and train them. Obviously if we have someone leave, it takes a couple of months before their replacement is ready to go out on their own, but it is quite a process to go through before an engineer has come through his time and we trust him in front of a customer.

“We would love to invest in apprenticeships, but they are only fine if you have got a workshop where you are repairing equipment. All of our work is done out on the road. We have tried [apprentices] and unfortunately it hasn’t been practical.”

It might be considered a bold move to focus purely on warewashing equipment and ancillaries at the expense of all other commercial kitchen equipment, but the company insists the level of business it continues to do is proof that demand for specialist skills remains as pertinent as ever.

“Most of the major breweries will separate out warewashing as a specialist item now,” suggests Maher. “It doesn’t sit comfortably with catering engineers because they do exactly the wrong things to get a result. Their logic is completely different. If they are not getting a good result on glass they turn the temperature up, turn the rinse aid up, they get flat beer, and it affects the product. We have developed our own reverse osmosis system as a solution to the problems customers have and we’re working closely with Cask Marque and all of the others. We have installed 10 or 12 units across Fullers and they are really setting the standard in how much effort they put into presenting their products properly.”

Life in the services market may have undergone tremendous change during the time that Crystaltech has been plying its trade, but Maher admits the over-riding philosophy of providing proactive and reactive maintenance remains the same today as when he started out in his garage.

“You always try and give good service first, that is the absolute priority. Then you try and make it profitable. You need profit to maintain business, certainly, but you don’t go into service to make a profit.”

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Power swings in favour of facilities managers

Having been in the industry for more than 30 years, Crystaltech Services’ managing director, Derek Maher, has seen some major shifts in the way that operators maintain their warewashing equipment. And when he reflects on his time in the business, he highlights the influence of the facilities management companies as one of the most significant trends to impact the landscape.

“I think the biggest change within the industry has come from the strength of the facilities managers,” he says. “[Maintenance for] a lot of the major customers, such as Punch and Gondola, would be part of facilities management companies and really the strength behind this is that you have to comply with their procedures. Then you have got ProNett, which is the Wetherspoons-type live operation. They are driving the way forward without a doubt.”

Maher remembers a time when the management of maintenance and repairs was largely dealt with in-house, but even one of the company’s most recent contract wins, with a high street pasty chain, was via a facilities company, he notes. “If you are not onboard with facilities companies you will never win through,” he says. “You think you are dealing with the brewery, you are not, there is a facilities management company there somewhere. They are managing it some way or another.”

Company profile

Name: Crystaltech Services
Address:
Unit 14, Redbridge Enterprise Centre, Thompson Close, Ilford, Essex IG1 1TY
Tel: 0370 350 2424
Email: info@crystaltech.co.uk
Website: www.crystaltech.co.uk
Headcount: 46
Stock: £1.5m
Lines: 40,000
Focus: Installation and servicing of all makes of commercial glasswashers and dishwashers

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