Clean up operation

Clean up operation

Meet the one-time bobby who’s got a new beat tackling the national youth unemployment crisis.

An ex-cop cleans up the streets. It’s the stuff of Hollywood; the well-worn path which keeps ageing action heroes like Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood in the green. But Peter Robinson is neither movie star nor scriptwriter’s muse. He is, however, a one-time law enforcer on a mission to rid the streets of society’s ills.

It was a chance meeting in Andorra, after handing in his police badge, which set him on his journey towards becoming the bane of youth unemployment, graffiti, crime and grime. After lengthy service for Her Majesty’s Constabulary, he jetted off to the tax and tourism haven for a life in landlocked paradise. But here he met a man from Denmark who started a chain of events that eventually led Robinson full circle back to the UK’s mean streets.

Nordic inset HEAD“When I first started graffiti was seen as a scourge. But now, with the likes of Banksy, many local authorities are choosing to allow graffiti to stay if it’s considered to be art rather than vandalism. In many places it is accepted and even encouraged,” says Robinson (pictured left).

Robinson’s new Scandinavian friend showed him why Britain was lagging far behind places like Norway and Sweden in terms of keeping its streets clean.

And so, in the mid-1990s, Robinson formed Nordic Pioneer to plug what he saw as a huge gap in the UK market. From its headquarters in the North East of England the company quickly grew into a national outfit, starting out selling environmentally-friendly graffiti cleaning and prevention products. But Robinson had bigger issues to take on, and he branched out into NVQ training courses, all of which are intrinsically linked to keeping local communities clean and safe.

Today Nordic works with over 30 local authorities across England and numerous heavyweight institutions in the wider UK – such as Keep Britain Tidy, Keep Scotland Beautiful and British Waterways. Before training was a significant part of the business its annual turnover hovered around the £1m mark for several years. Then more recently, things have taken off, with the firm growing into a £5m+ company and showing no signs of slowing its expansion. Robinson now heads up a 60-strong team and sits on numerous national boards related to graffiti, the environment and getting young people back into the workplace. London, the North West and Birmingham are key areas where further growth is planned, while Yorkshire [training] and Scotland [cleaning products] have proven to be particularly fruitful hunting grounds.

“A lot of the nation's youth are just disengaged – they have lost hope,” says Robinson. “They’re struggling to get even just an interview because they don’t have a decent CV. They don’t have any experience or qualifications and they’ve kind of given up a bit. What we’re offering is an opportunity to experience work in a proper partnership programme with local authorities. They are doing proper work, getting out of bed and getting to work on time.

“We’ve seen the difference our apprenticeships can make to these young people from when they come to us as raw individuals with no experience to young people going out the other end with a bit of confidence, morale and feeling more uplifted and we are really helping them into work.”

Nordic runs NVQ Level 2 courses in cleaning and support services, team leadership, local environmental services and offers the chance of employment either internally or with its external partners. Darlington-born 25-year-old Sion Netzler is a prime example of Nordic’s many young benefactors. This year he was nominated for a People’s Choice Award and has also won the Medal for Excellence – a prestigious industry award – for his achievements with the training firm. Previously, he admits, his life was in dire need of a turnaround moment.

Nordic inset 2Robinson says: “We don’t just teach the apprentices how to do tasks but also the life skills and work ethic, which are absolutely critical. Nobody teaches these things in school so it’s no good just teaching them how to go through a set of actions that will result in removing the graffiti or safely picking up litter or a needle, but also conducting themselves, having a better attitude and conflict management.

“We want to continue flying the flag for the cleaning industry and continue working to improve the quality of the local environment. The cleaning industry is a one million-strong employer and is always looking for people to get into it.”

Not content with maintaining his flourishing business, Robinson has this month co-launched a social enterprise aimed at helping young people living at distance from urban labour markets to find work. Robinson and fellow Community Impact Enterprise (CIE) founders decided to set up the organisation in response to the current conditions which, in the fourth quarter of 2011, left 1.2 million 16 – 19 year olds out of work, with unemployment as a whole rising to 8.3%.

Although CIE is in its early stages, it has already recruited its first 15 young apprentices in County Durham, with many more expected to follow in other parts of the country later this year. The organisation has a different remit from Nordic but the underlying aim is the same: “To help young people get started,” Robinson says.

Have you got a UK-based small business success story that deserves to be told? Email andrewm@room501.co.uk with details.