We'd save hospitals $300 million, maintenance pros say
Blurb: Cleaning companies like Service D'Entretien Distinction help businesses increase efficiency. Now they want to provide services to Quebec's medical system.

Claude Bigras is perplexed. Service D'Entretien Distinction's president manages a growing company whose 3,000 employees perform maintenance, window cleaning and related services.

The $600 million of work that Quebec cleaning companies do for the province's businesses,-- from banks to telecommunications firms,-- increases their efficiency, by enabling them to focus on their core strengths. This in turn enables them to be more competitive on world markets.

But Bigras can't figure out why the Quebec government won't allow his industry to help streamline the province's ailing healthcare system, which is plagued by long line-ups and inadequate infrastructure.

"Quebec's hospitals could save $300 million over five years if they outsourced their cleaning services," Bigras said. "That buys a lot of hospital equipment."

Bigras knows all about efficiency. Quebec's maintenance sector is highly competitive with a cadre of big players, who are constantly nipped at by hundreds of up-and-comers looking to carve a niche for themselves.

One of those up-and-comers, Jean-Louis Couturier, founded Service D'Entretien Distinction in the early 1960s. During the ensuing decades, Couturier led a meteoric expansion. By late 2004, Distinction employed about 2,000 workers and contractors either directly or indirectly through its franchisees.

Earlier this year Service D'Entretien Distinction merged with Service D'Entretien Moncalm, creating a behemoth with $80 million a year in sales, making it Quebec's largest cleaning company, and one of the five biggest in Canada. The company does work for some of the city's largest buildings including the Bell Center, the IBM-Marathon Building and Banque Nationale de Paris's Canadian head office. Couturier has recently stepped back and taken on the chairman's role and is gradually reducing his ownership stake in the business, leaving the presidency to Bigras.

But because of Distinction's increasing size, growth is becoming harder to come by. As a result, the company is looking outside of the province for contracts. But getting more public sector remains a high priority.

According to Jean-Yves Roy, president of L'Association des Entrepreneurs de Services D'Édifices Quebec, Bigras's goal is a worthy one.

According to Roy, recent changes by the Liberal government to article 45 of Quebec's labour code, --which opened the door to more outsourcing,-- are tailor made to provide a boost to the province's building maintenance firms.

"Building maintenance looks like nothing, but for many companies it is a very big expense," Roy said. "A small change in a big expenditure can add up to a lot of money." But according to Roy, the savings reaped by business that outsource, would be magnified even further if applied to Quebec's medical system.

"Hospitals and government workers are paid more, and are less flexible than those in the private sector," Roy said. "We can do a better job."

According to Roy, workers' salaries at the province's maintenance companies are set at $13.15 by an industry-wide parity committee. That's several dollars an hour less than the hourly rate paid by hospitals. But the biggest savings would come from increased flexibility.

One example: "private companies can move excess workers from one contract to the other based on needs," Roy said. "Hospitals don't have as much room to do that."

The outsourcing issue was studied during a review of the medical system by the Parti Québécois regime, but little or no action was taken, largely due to pressures from the province's powerful public sector labour unions. According to Roy, only one of the province's hospitals, Anna Laberge,-- currently outsources its cleaning services.

In the years following the Parti Québécois review, many hospitals decided to save money by lowering standards, rather than by turning to the private sector Roy said. As a result, many hospitals are now are in the challenging position of having to save money and increase cleanliness simultaneously.

In recent years, as Quebec's medical system has become increasingly squeezed, Philippe Couillard, the province's health minister will be facing increasing pressures to find innovative solutions. According to a spokesperson from Couillard's office, the Liberal government has a far more open attitude to private sector solutions than its predecessors, but any change has to be beneficial to all stakeholders, including workers and patients.

Roy concedes that any big move toward outsourcing would have to be undertaken gradually, that existing jobs would have to be protected and that savings would have to come from attrition.

Even Bigras admits that it would be better if a move toward increased use of the private sector were undertaken gradually. Depending on what's included in the definition, Quebec's hospitals are estimated to spend between $250 and $350 million on their cleaning services. Bigras admits this would represent a huge bonanza for the private sector.

"I don't want all of (those contracts)," Bigras said with a smile. "Just give me a bit. I'll be happy."



Fact Box:
Company Name: Service D'Entretien Distinction
Web-site: www.distinction.ca
Owner: Claude Bigras, Jean-Louis Couturier, Réal Paré
Products: Cleaning and maintenance services
Sales: $80 million
Employees: 3,000
Phone #: 514-368-1504





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