Gritting firm muscles in on grounds maintenance

A major UK gritting firm has entered the grounds maintenance market in a move that it claims could be "disruptive" to the industry following a buyout of two grounds maintenance companies.

Gritit: winter risk management firm looking to break further into grounds maintenance after buying two outfits - image: Gritit
Gritit: winter risk management firm looking to break further into grounds maintenance after buying two outfits - image: Gritit

Gritit was founded in 2004 as a winter risk management company and now has a turnover of around £10m. It currently employs 400 staff in winter, including seasonal operatives, working out of seven depots across the UK.

The company aims to work in grounds maintenance on a similar national scale. It will continue primarily to work in facilities and property management, as well as with housing associations and direct-to-client businesses, where it already has strong relationships.

Gritit GM is currently undergoing a "soft launch" and has agreed national contracts, including a national retailer and some "seriously big names in facilities and property management", said managing director Nikki Singh-Barmi.

When he took the reins three years ago the company had a goal of better leveraging its assets, both people and technology, because it was only operating in winter. "We looked at a diversification model and it was natural to move into grounds maintenance. It complements what we do with the counter-cyclical timing of activity."

Gritting is an extremely responsive industry and the company has developed its own technology platforms to make its contracts as efficient as possible, he said. "Our technology enables us to get weather reports at lunchtime so we could be delivering on zero or hundreds of thousands of jobs within a few hours. We are military in the way we deliver services and mobilise contracts."

Bringing its in-house technology into the grounds maintenance sector means Gritit will challenge much of its competition, Singh-Barmi believes. "People use trackers etc, but we have taken that to such a high degree because of the pressures and environment we have to work on in winter. We can do much more than other people, whether routing or resourcing."

Gritit's technology will "change the way people think about grounds maintenance", he argued, bringing customers a level of control and trust in their contractor that he thinks the sector does not provide now. "There's often a lack of communication - not enough, say, for a site manager to be able to understand fully what's happening on their portfolio of sites if they're not in attendance."

The move was not taken lightly, he pointed out. "It's been two years in the planning and we have had the infrastructure in place for some time to be able to deliver. We've been watching the grounds maintenance industry very carefully over time and the danger is it can devolve into very basic minimum-wage-level efficiencies, just cutting the grass 15 times a year. It has suffered from a lack of innovation - it's doing the same thing this year as last year, chasing the lowest common denominator.

"There's so much more that can be done that people don't exploit. For example, people talk about wild flowers and wildlife gardens as having value but they've not got the luxury of time or the appetite to devote to it."

He added: "We should be thinking about green spaces in the same way as buildings. They should be approached as a lifetime asset-value proposition."

To help turn the business into a horticultural outfit, Gritit has acquired two established grounds maintenance companies - Greenspace Solutions in Leeds and Edinburgh company Mactus, including bringing on board their staff, who number about 40.

Mactus has been in operation since 2007, with a head office in Edinburgh and an extensive team servicing private and public grounds maintenance and landscape contracts throughout Scotland. Founder Gareth Ihmig is now landscape director at Gritit GM. Greenspace Solutions was also established in 2007, providing grounds maintenance and soft landscape services throughout the north of England and the Midlands. Greenspace's Adam Ralph is also now landscape director at Gritit GM.

Gritit staff take great pride in their work, with seasonal staff having an 86 per cent retention rate, and the two companies Gritit acquired fit that culture well, said Singh-Barmi. "The key reason for integrating the businesses we did was not about picking up 40 staff, it was about getting the craft of horticulture. We want gardeners, not just operators," he explained.

"They believe in it, they're highly qualified, they understand technically what can be done. They have an appetite to be innovative as opposed to churning through work."

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