Jacqueline O’Donovan, MD of O’Donovan Waste Disposal, tells Martin Bewick about the importance of training and staff development, and why waste professionals need to help ensure a better future for the industry

In 1990, Jacqueline O’Donovan became managing director of O’Donovan Waste Disposal after her father – who founded the firm in 1959 – died. When she took on the company, aged 19, turnover was £175,000. Now, it is more than £21m and the business employs 165 people.

Over the years, O’Donovan has received many awards and accolades, including PwCUK Private Businesswoman of the Year, the Building magazine Female Leadership Award, and Business Woman of the Year at the 2018 National Business Women’s Awards. She was also named Woman of the Decade in Enterprise and Leadership by the Women’s Economic Forum.

With men still outnumbering women throughout most of the sector, O’Donovan has been credited as something of a champion for women in the construction, logistics and waste industries, as well as for her entrepreneurial skills.

Circular (C): Do you think your personal career development in some way mirrors the growth of O’Donovan’s?

Jacqueline O’Donovan (JO): I didn’t know there were no women in the industry when I started, and I think that being a woman means I’ve always seen things a little differently. I also came into it with no experience and, from the start, I’ve realised that training is vital. My first challenge, for example, was that we needed a transport manager – so I went off to night school to learn about it.

Once I’d passed my transport manager Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC),
I went on to do my WAMITAB certificate of technical competence, and then my National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health. I’m now just finishing my Master’s degree in demolition.

I think it’s very important that staff are trained and given opportunities. For us, it has led to massive staff retention and a real family and team spirit

Not being academic and running my own business means this has, sometimes, been a challenge. But I’m an avid campaigner for upskilling staff and giving them the opportunity to better themselves to allow them to grow, have aspirations and meet their goals. Our waste handlers, for example, have all got NVQs in waste management, and new people are enrolled with WAMITAB to get their NVQs too.

I think it’s very important that staff are trained and given opportunities. For us, it has led to massive staff retention and a real family and team spirit – which has all contributed to our success and growth as a business. Instead of feeling that they are the lowest paid or lowest skilled, everyone can feel pride that they’ve got a qualification and that the company has spent time in helping them do that.

C: Does this differ from what you see elsewhere in the sector?

JO: When I meet other people in the waste industry, they can see what we’re doing – and not only with our compulsory training programme (for example, our HGV drivers go out cycling with instructors to experience the road from another perspective), but the add-ons, too. They often only see it as an expense that takes money off the bottom line. I see it as an investment. If my waste handlers – who are, in effect, at the coal face – are educated about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, it really helps. It means they know about health and safety, they’ll work more productively – and we’ll get cleaner waste from what they are picking. I see training as an asset, not an expense.

I never found education easy. At school, I used to sit next to a boy whose dad was a dustcart driver, and the teacher constantly reminded him that, if he didn’t do his homework, he might end up the same. That always stuck in my mind. Lorry drivers can earn good money – there’s nothing wrong with it; it’s a profession in itself.

We have a wellbeing programme that teaches them breathing techniques to help them stay calm and to better assess situations.

It’s one of my missions to get the HGV driver recognised as a professional, as is a solicitor, an accountant or a doctor. They’re not ‘just’ drivers, and the waste industry needs to get into the 21st century and understand this. It also has real benefits. Through training my drivers, I’ve managed to reduce my insurance by 20 per cent for three years on the trot. We teach drivers to drive safely and economically.

We have a wellbeing programme that teaches them breathing techniques to help them stay calm and to better assess situations. These have been invaluable. We put in more kilometres, have a bigger fleet, we’ve lowered our diesel use via an anti-idling campaign, and had fewer accidents and vehicle damage charges.

We ran a driver competition, where drivers got a green, amber or red certificate. No-one wanted to open their envelope and find a red one, so they all got on the bandwagon.

C: What do you say to encourage others in the industry to think the same way?

JO: For starters, we have won countless awards and accolades for the work we have put into development and training so, hopefully, the industry sees the time and investment really does reap the rewards not only in terms of skill and motivated staff but in safer, efficient and more cost-effective operations. Then, when I speak at conferences and events, I show people a results page that hopefully illustrates that it’s worth doing.

I’m also a true believer in keeping things simple. There’s no point in making things overcomplicated.

Before Brexit, through all the training and innovation we’ve implemented, we’ve seen growth of 20 per cent year on year on average, for a five-year period. I think that’s because people wanted to use us, because we had created the right environment with how we dealt with waste and how we treated our people. Knowing that our drivers are competent and well-trained releases them from feeling some of the responsibility. People want us on their site.

C: You still take a hands-on approach – is this appreciated from an MD?

JO: I think it pays to be involved. During the driver-training process, I became a qualified trainer myself. Now I teach the drivers’ CPC on Saturdays and I think people appreciate that. I also sit on lots of working groups, so when drivers ask what’s being done about cyclists – or why the ultra-low emissions zones are being brought in – I’m able to answer them. I can associate with the challenges and stresses they feel in work.

I also sit within the transport office, rather than my own office, so I hear what’s going on. There were only two of us in the office when I started, so I’ve done every job there and understand the challenges that people face. I think that assists sometimes.

C: Your business emphasises compliance and environmental performance – what are the main challenges in this area?

JO: Over the next few years, I think the main challenges will continue to be the same as they are now, which is that companies prioritise price over compliance. Price is still king – and, yet, we’re still one of the industries with the highest death rates. When you think about that, and then consider the clients who only think of price, that really disappoints me.

I can tell a client about our Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme Gold accreditation, or
that I sit on the Construction Logistics and Community Safety board, and can advise clients
on what’s coming next – and they’ll still sometimes go to someone who doesn’t match these standards because they are only charging £2.50. That really disappoints me. Until clients realise compliance, not price, should be king, I’ll continue my campaign.

Sometimes, the bigger companies have separate compliance and procurement departments. Until compliance and procurement are one, it will be hard to make progress. At the moment, we can tick every box on the form that we get from compliance, but that’s irrelevant if procurement isn’t interested and all they’re worried about is saving money.

If we’re taking waste from a site, we can ensure we’re responsible for it from cradle to grave, so to speak – but, still, some people don’t even ask you where it goes when you take it off the site.

Responsibility and compliance need to run from the client that owns the site, through the developer, through tier one and tier two subcontractors, down to the suppliers; it needs to go the full way or it doesn’t work. People still assume that, because they are stipulating certain environmental standards, they flow down through the chain.

C: Can new regulations help improve environmental compliance?

JO: It doesn’t always work. When the Environment Agency brought out the waste carrier’s licence to transport waste, everyone heard it was coming and, all of a sudden, people were registering for licences everywhere – it became a fee for nothing.

On the other hand, the introduction of the Wrap quality protocol on aggregates from inert waste got rid of many cowboys in the sector almost overnight. It impacted the industry positively. Unfortunately, much of the rest, when it comes to legislation, is just more paperwork to sit on people’s shelves.

We need to bring it back to the basics. Legislation is brought in for a reason, so let’s keep that in mind and focus on it through the process to see how we can get a quicker and better result

We need to bring it back to the basics. Legislation is brought in for a reason, so let’s keep that in mind and focus on it through the process to see how we can get a quicker and better result.

We are already so heavily regulated, and my worry is that the government will bring in new regulation that doesn’t add anything. Regulation needs to be looked at by professionals who understand the industry, not just white-collar people.

In my experience, our industry likes to keep things simple. Five to 10 pages of meaningful regulation are often better than something that is several inches thick.

If we can get people across the industry to join the conversation and help take charge, we’ll get things done sooner and the results will be more in line with what we all want.

Keeping it in the family

O’Donovan Waste Disposal was started, in its earliest form, in 1959 by Jacqueline O’Donovan’s father. She says: ‘I became the MD at 19, after my dad passed away suddenly. I had no business experience.
At that stage, I didn’t have a clue that it was a male-dominated industry and that women weren’t really involved in it. The fact that it was predominantly male didn’t even come into
my psyche. There was a job to do and I got on with it.

‘Back then, our turnover was around £175,000 and we had only around four or five vehicles. We now employ 165 people, run a fleet of 95 lorries, with a turnover of more than £21m. My three siblings and I have key roles in the business, and we continue to work together today.’

This interview was first published in the July/August issue of Circular.

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