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Democracy cleans up in the laundry

It’s often instructive to retrace one’s footsteps and ponder on why things changed.

Just before Christmas I did precisely that by visiting a company south of Perth called Linencare Australia, the new name for what was once a state-owned enterprise, The Hospital Laundry and Linen Service (HLLS).

The last time I was there was to report on a costly strike. Today, a decade or so on, my experience was vastly different.

Something one quickly notices is that Linencare’s managing director, and one of its owners, Simon Jessamine, is addressed by employees as Simon. This nice egalitarian touch makes one quickly feel welcomed.

Mr Jessamine and a business partner teamed up with a HLLS employee in late 1995, won the tender so borrowed from their bank and paid a hefty $8.75 million for the venture, minus the land it stands on, which stayed in government hands.

Although HLLS once had more than 400 workers, by the time the new owners took over, the government had scaled the workforce down to just over 200 as part of the lead up to selling off.

Linencare now has 256 full-time equivalent employees.

But the big difference isn’t just the fact that the boss is addressed by his given name.

Mr Jessamine said that four years on revenue was up 40 per cent and Linencare had markedly diversified its clientele.

The HLLS, under its legislative charter, could only service hospitals. Linencare continues doing that but has won contracts from the hotel and aged-care sectors.

“On taking over we moved into the free market,” Mr Jessamine said.

“Another benefit for government was that under the terms of our purchase we undertook to drop the price of work for current clients by 7.5 per cent.”

This significant saving to taxpayers therefore rippled right through WA’s hospital sector.

Although the new owner/ managers have upgraded some capital stock, and plan to continue doing so, Mr Jessamine doesn’t criticise what his predecessors installed.

“If anything they over-capitalised,” he said.

Well over 400 separate types of linen items are handled weekly.

Linencare is the eighth largest laundry in the world, the largest in the southern hemisphere, and the only laundry worldwide offering a certified product, meaning it’s rated at the highest ANZ quality standard, said Mr Jessamine.

The history of the privatising of the HLLS has not yet been written, and I’m certainly not the one to do it.

However, I know something about the early stages of this successful story that the Court/Cowan Government ought to be proud of.

Firstly, the sale was to WA investors.

Mr Jessamine migrated here as a lad, worked in the Pilbara, spent several years in his country of birth, England, in the pop music industry as a muso, and has an impressive management and marketing record.

Like many in business he felt he’d eventually become self-employed, and did so soon after his bank manager alerted him of the possibility of buying the HLLS.

My first visit to the HLLS was a depressing experience. There were pickets at the gate and the workers looked demoralised.

Soon after I heard whispers in Liberal circles that HLLS should be off. This was when they were in opposition, in the halcyon WA Inc days, before costly government business losses surfaced.

But the one thing I often heard some Libs say was that the HLLS could never be sold.

“No one will want to buy it,” was a common claim.

At about that time a group of Liberals, then in their 20s, seemed puzzled at the defeatist outlook and refused to give up.

Soon after some of them arranged for a privatisation expert, the head of the London-based Adam Smith Institute, Madsen Pirie, to visit Perth to give the Libs some in-depth lectures on how Maggie Thatcher was directing Great Britain away from the socialist straight jacket its Fabians had placed it in after 1945.

Scottish educated Pirie had a confident style and an excellent grasp of his subject. He also left one thinking only the backward opposed privatisation.

To privatise was to be modern, to be concerned about employees, and the community at large. It meant being efficient and progressive, the very opposite to the type of Britain Alf “Steptoe” Garnett portrayed.

I was convinced, but when I looked at some of the long baffled faces of the older Liberals – I’m referring especially to MPs – I thought it would take decades.

But things happened far more quickly than I believed was possible. Before we knew what had happened Labor was out and the markedly revived conservatives were back in.

And in 1996 the HLLS emerged as a privately-owned WA company and its management is now seriously considering even branching out overseas.

All this shows just how unpredictable and interesting democracy can be.

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