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Wednesday, 13 August 2014 14:50

Haywood’s detergent war: Schools opt for EcoLab over local supplier

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fr johnsonA Haywood County businessman who has historically supplied dishwasher detergent and rinse agent for Haywood County school cafeterias lost his contract for the coming school year to a major national cleaning supply company.

Bruce Johnson, owner of Haywood-based Champion Supply, has questioned the methodology behind the decision. 

“If I get beat, I get beat. But I wasn’t beat on this bid,” Johnson said. “The financial analysis that was done was just not valid.”

Alison Francis, the director over school cafeterias in Haywood County, said her cafeteria kitchen staff likes EcoLab products better.

“They said their dishes are cleaner, they dry faster and they don’t have to use de-limer every week like they used to,” Francis said.

Johnson said that can be subjective.

“You like Coke, I like Pepsi. You like Joy, I like Dawn,” Johnson said.

As long as quality is comparable, price should prevail, Johnson said, especially when it comes to cash-strapped schools. Champion’s products are cheaper, according to the pricing listed in their bids. Francis claims EcoLab’s products are cheaper, however. But she also maintained that price wasn’t the deciding factor.

Johnson made a last-ditch appeal to the Haywood County School Board in recent weeks to critically analyze the bid process. The school board scheduled a meeting with Francis to explain why she wanted to buy from EcoLab instead of Champion, including fielding perceptive questions from board members Steven Kirkpatrick and Jim Francis. Johnson was not able to offer a rebuttal from the audience, however, and instead followed up with written counterpoints.

While Johnson believes his products are just as good and would save the schools money, the clock has run out to make his case.

The contract was put out to bid over the summer, leaving just a few weeks to analyze the bids, select a company and award the contract by the start of school. 

“The process was done pretty late and here we are with school starting next week,” Johnson said.

While Johnson could have filed a formal protest over the contract award and forced an outside review, he chose not to for fear it would be disruptive for cafeteria workers.

“I do not want for them to get hurt by this process.  They really care about their kids and would be upset if they had this get in their way,” Johnson said.

Johnson requested that the school system put the cleaning supply contract out for bid again next year, but allow ample time for vetting.

“I have given hundreds of hours to the Haywood County Schools Foundation,” said Johnson, who has a deep resume of civic involvement in the community. “I am simply asking for a couple hours of your time next spring to reanalyze this bid.”

When the bid came up for a vote at the school board meeting Monday, School board member Bob Morris questioned whether it would be rebid next year.

Francis said the contract includes a rollover clause for up to four years. Morris asked if the contract would come back to the school board next year, or whether the rollover clause would be enacted unilaterally by staff.

School Board Attorney Pat Smathers said it would come back to the board for review. But to be sure, Morris insisted on adding language to the bid vote that stipulated the cafeteria cleaning supply contract would be rebid next year and be contingent on school board approval.

Champion has been the supplier of dishwasher soap and dish drying agent for Haywood Schools for years, amounting to about $25,000 in sales a year.

Last school year, Francis switched to EcoLab mid-year following a trial of their dish soap and drying agent. Francis said she saved $4,000 with EcoLab over the previous year.

Johnson said the mid-year switch to EcoLab had too many variables to accurately conclude that EcoLab is cheaper, however. His leftover inventory in the schools continued to be used up over the course of the year, for example.

Another factor that could skew those numbers: Champion automatically restocked school kitchens, but with EcoLab, kitchen managers have to order new product as they run out, so there wasn’t as much on hand at the conclusion of the year. So the year started with more inventory, and ended with less, lowering the volume ordered from EcoLab compared to past years under Champion.

Three school cafeteria managers who work for Francis, the head school cafeteria director, spoke up at the school board meeting Monday in support of her decision. 

Sandy Watts, the cafeteria manager at North Canton Elementary, said despite having a great relationship with Champion over the years, her staff likes EcoLab’s dish soap and rinse aid better.

“Those elbow deep in the cleaning are going to speak up for whatever makes their job easier,” Watts said.

Sherrie Kilby, the cafeteria manager at Bethel Elementary School, said that Johnson should have bowed out after losing the contract rather than protest publicly, and said Johnson shouldn’t have questioned Francis’ decision or methodology.

Kilby called Johnson a bully for challenging the contract decision. Francis has also said she was offended. 

But Johnson said he saw the bid process as flawed and was compelled to advocate for his company and speak out on behalf of his employees.

“As a small business man, I am proud of my employees, I am proud of our products, I am proud of our service and I am proud of the value I give to our business partners,” Johnson told the school board.

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