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Cleaning machines – buy or rent?

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For any operation offering professional cleaning services, the management of its equipment can present numerous headaches – including downtime, maintenance and repair, compliance and replacement. The traditional route chosen by many service providers has been straightforward purchase. However a different option is becoming increasingly popular, which is long-term rental of cleaning machines. ECJ takes a closer look at what’s involved.

The permanent rental of professional cleaning machines is experiencing significant growth in the sector, where it’s now seen by many as a cost-effective and hassle-free alternative to purchasing and managing a fleet of equipment. One rental company taking a lead in the UK market is Reintec, previously HSS Outsource.

HSS is one of the UK’s top hire companies, renting everything from tools and skips to generators and powered access platforms. In 2010 it started hiring out professional cleaning machines for the first time. Paul Lewis is the man who got the business up and running, and he is still managing it today. “When we first started in the market, hiring of cleaning machines was perceived as expensive and there was something of a stigma attached to a cleaning company not buying its machines,” he explains.

In 2011 HSS Outsource was launched for the professional cleaning market, now called Reintec. The company offers a permanent hire solution on all types of cleaning machines – vacuum cleaners, carpet cleaners, scrubber dryers, single disk machines, sweepers and escalator cleaners. All equipment is branded under the Reintec name.

“From then to now, the market has shifted extensively,” explains Lewis. “Hiring is now an acceptable option, and actually it’s often the preferred route for many cleaning service companies. Competition within the hire sector has also increased significantly.”

The key difference with the Reintec model from traditional hire businesses when it was founded is that rental is designed to be permanent. Every six months, each machine is exchanged for planned maintenance. If it breaks down, it’s swapped for a working one within 24 hours. There’s just one telephone number to call with problems, none of the worries associated with owning cleaning equipment – says Reintec – and the rental option saves time and money Lewis
also claims.

Equipment is rented on a minimum contract term of 12 months. “The aim is to remove the risk of capital investment for our clients,” Lewis explains. “If a contract finishes, for example, and the number of sites decreases, we take the machines back with no penalty. Many cleaning companies have a ‘machine graveyard’, whereas with the rental solution this does not happen.”

All equipment is said to be fit for purpose and machines are exchanged every six months. “Contractors are effectively buying a service that allows them to clean floors,” is how Lewis describes it.

“Many think rental is expensive but this is about total cost of ‘ownership’,” he continues. “The market would have evolved that way I believe but we offered a new way of doing things.”

Conditions changing

He points out market conditions have changed in that clients of cleaning service companies want more in terms of service, but do not want to pay any more for it. “The risk of investment for large contractors is so high when they have to buy a fleet of machines for each new contract. This type of option allows them to focus on their core business.”

The customer profile of rental clients varies widely – from large service providers to contract cleaners, FMs, medium-sized businesses and in-house operations. “Everyone’s margins are being
squeezed and every business is looking for new solutions.”

There are three key advantages of renting cleaning equipment according to Lewis – savings in time, cost savings and guaranteed compliance. And compliance is a key issue to take into account Lewis points out. “Many businesses are worried about prosecution for non-compliance of machinery. We keep a list of all equipment, with its last testing dates and other relevant information.”

In 2013 Reintec acquired the machine servicing and repair company TecServ – this gave it the capability to service equipment from other manufacturers on-site. So now the company can look after cleaning machines from any producer. “Often our customers are loyal to certain brands so we offer them that flexibility,” explains Lewis. “Many have some machines on hire, some owned and some moved from other sites.”

Short-term hire is also possible and becoming increasingly popular. “We find businesses are now renting machines for tasks such as car park sweeping, deep cleaning and carpet cleaning because there is no need for them to own them. They are simply not in use for most of the time.”

Manufacturer partners

Reintec has five manufacturer partners in the cleaning machine business, however all machines are branded under its own name. “The brand of the machine has no relevance,” Lewis points out. “All that matters is each machine is fit for purpose, ticks all the boxes in terms of features and fulfils legislative requirements.

“And the reality of hire is that equipment is often not looked after particularly well on contracts.”
Machines are selected for their reliability, durability and simplicity. The selection is fairly small and there are no elaborate features on the machines. “The range is de-branded and consistent, and we carry out our own training and produce our own manuals,” explains Lewis. All machines have a unique tag so they can be monitored and tracked at all times.

The logistics operation behind a rental business like Reintec is extensive: there are dedicated locations, trucks and drivers throughout the country. And in order to do equipment exchanges in the timescale promised the organisation has to be both well planned and reactive.

As Lewis perceives it, there has been a real shift in buying versus hire in the cleaning sector. “We now see much more focus on end-to-end solutions. There is a need to differentiate your business in the market, to bring innovation and add value.” The fact machine manufacturers themselves have moved into the rental market in recent years also illustrates this change in how the market is operating.

Clients can transact however they like, most choose to operate on a monthly basis in terms of invoicing. There is a framework contract and a year tends to be the minimum. “We do offer flexibility in many areas and can usually offer an arrangement that best suits the client’s needs,” emphasises Lewis, stating operational flexibility and predictability as key advantages of rental.

“Ultimately rental is about trying to help customers manage their spend better, and even streamline it,” concludes Lewis.

One company that is convinced about the benefits of cleaning equipment rental is Carillion, a leading integrated support services company offering cleaning services as part of its portfolio. Stephanie Quinnin is head of cleaning. She explains that she combines rental of equipment from Reintec and purchase when it comes to managing the cleaning machine fleet. “We have been renting for around four years when Reintec first started offering the service.”

“I first got the idea when one of our team had decided to put a rental option into one of his contract bids,” she adds. “Maintenance and breakdowns can be very costly when you own a fleet of machines and by hiring them the headache was taken away.”

The key benefit of rental in Quinnin’s opinion is the reduction in downtime when equipment is out of action. “Machines are replaced within 24 hours with our rental solution. Compare that to having to wait for three or four days sometimes for an engineer to come out and the advantages are obvious.

Responsible disposal

“We also don’t have an issue with getting our rental equipment disposed of responsibly – parts are recycled as much as possible for example. And there is a rolling programme of replacement which means equipment is always up-to-date and, most importantly, always compliant with latest legislation because our rental company is responsible for all relevant testing.”

Carillion mostly hires tub vacuums, uprights and rotary machines, as well as scrubber dryers if necessary. The rental company is also responsible for getting the equipment on-site, training provision, etc. “Everything is taken care of for us. For me it really is the best solution,” Quinnin says.

Quinnin goes on to explain that when purchasing machines, there is less opportunity to adopt innovations and new technology because the cleaning service company is already committed to significant investment. “By hiring our machines we can take advantage of new developments as they enter the market.”

Why is rental not more widespread in the cleaning sector given that there are so many advantages? “As an industry it is very slow to change and I believe that is why rental is not the norm,” replies Quinnin.

Carillion will continue to increase the number of machines it rents rather than buying where it is appropriate and if owned machines are coming to the end of their life they will often be replaced with rented ones, Quinnin says.

She sums up the benefits of hiring equipment from her perspective. “If a machine rental company removes the stresses of running a machine fleet from a cleaning contractor – which are mainly service, maintenance and testing – it’s a huge headache taken away.”

http://www.europeancleaningjournal.com

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