The Planet Earth Cleaning Company Provides A Platform For Positive Change
Flourish and grow
It may sound strange, but after 18 years in the business John Engelander says that he doesn’t feel as if he is running a cleaning company. That’s because he is more interested in bringing about positive change, and The Planet Earth Cleaning Company just happens to be the platform that allows him to do it.
John’s general philosophy in life is to “flourish and grow”, but in a personal and intellectual sense rather than a material one. “To me, The Planet Earth Cleaning Company is more of a way of life than an exercise in business,” he says. Indeed, at one point the general lack of interest in the sustainable and environmentally positive story John had to tell saw him looking for an opportunity to sell the company. Then Al Gore came along and raised awareness of environmental concerns. More people listened to what John had to say and he started to love the business again.
Ups and downs
In the 1980s a much younger John built what was, for a time, a very successful IT business. “It went to the wall in 1991 and I lost the lot,” says John. “It was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
For one thing, it led him to Kyocera printers which influenced his philosophy. “They don’t need to have their drums replaced,” John says, “and they can use lower grade recycled paper that often jammed other printers. I just thought that the idea of reducing waste was a good story.” It wasn’t an idea that many people were open to at that time, and John moved on to help a friend who ran a cleaning company. Within three months he had grown that business by 50% simply by making a promise to customers and delivering on it.
Eye watering eye opener
Filling in for a sick cleaner one day, John discovered the nasty side to many of the cleaning products they were using. He suggested to his boss that they look for non-toxic alternatives, but he wasn’t interested. “It turned out we just had different values,” says John, so he went his own way and established The Planet Earth Cleaning Company in 1994.
Planet Earth quickly gained some good accounts from customers who believed in what John was doing, but the green nature of the business wasn’t of interest to most people. How did he succeed? “We had to deliver on service,” says John. It also helped that, although the environmental attributes of the products that John employed didn’t gain much traction, their healthier nature did.
Beyond just cleaning
Planet Earth go beyond just cleaning. “We look at how the building works,” says John. “For example, when we move customers from toilet rolls to interleaved toilet paper, total paper usage is reduced and the paper lasts longer. We are constantly looking at how we can do things better by going beyond the requested scope of work. We’re not in the cleaning business; we seek to enhance our customers’ sustainability.”
Planet Earth has an in-house team of six that manages around 130 cleaners. “We provide thorough training,” says John. “We focus less on how to clean and more on why we do it the way we do.” This includes an awareness of energy use, to ensure cleaners turn off lights when they have finished.
As for the business itself: “we use green power, recycle whatever we can, and intentionally chose an office that faces south to reduce air conditioning load.”
From service to product
In 2008 Planet Earth developed a line of coloured recycling bins to encourage separation of waste at source. Most customers were not good at recycling, but with Planet Earth’s help some customers are now diverting 80% of their waste from landfill.
“Just labelling the bins with what can go into them doesn’t work,” says John. The colour coding is the key, but Planet Earth goes even further. “We run morning tea talks for customers’ staff, and give them a mini recycling box to sit on their desk to act as a reminder. It’s a very effective combination.”
The bins have been one successful product innovation. “We’ve also developed an app to help our supervisors conduct their cleaning inspections. They can photograph any problems to report back to the cleaners and customers, and we are looking to sell the app to the wider market.”
Less successful was John’s attempt to introduce their own line of cleaning products into Australian supermarkets. “The products are made from sugar cane, soy and corn and have a low carbon footprint,” he says. They come in concentrated form to be diluted into reusable spray bottles. “We were losing too much money trying to get the range to market in Australia so put them aside. But they are made in the UK under license.” John still hopes that at some point in the future he will be able to introduce the line to Australia.
John feels it is important for there to be a good fit with their customers. The hallmark of a good customer, he says, is one that looks after their staff well. The path to those special customers isn’t always clear. “A marketing company recommended that we change our website to look more like a cleaning company,” John says. “We got more enquiries, but not from the right people. We lost our signature and are now working to get it back. It’s working!”
Despite that, and in the face of greenwash and pricing pressure from competitors, business increased 17% last year. Higher growth expected this year. John notes that cleaning isn’t a high priority for most companies. “We can demonstrate that an effective cleaning program reduces maintenance and waste disposal costs,” says John, “but it really comes back to the formula that worked right from the start. Make a promise, and deliver on it.”