During the course of 15 years, Mid UK Recycling came from nothing to being an established and thriving part of Lincolnshire’s waste management industry. But then, on 19 July 2013, employee Karlis Pavasars died a horrific death when he was drawn into a shredder.
Managing director Chris Mountain subsequently admitted two offences, was given a 20-week suspended prison sentence and fined £50,000. Another director, who has since left the company, received a similar penalty.
Five years on, Mountain is still at the helm of a growing family company, with a workforce that has grown to 450 across two main sites near Grantham. But every day, as he tells MRW, he thinks about that summer’s day.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing and, if I could wind the clock back, clearly I would do things very differently. Ultimately, I’ve got to live with the responsibility as managing director of an independent business. I cannot hide away from the fact that that is my duty.
“I’m not very proud of my criminal record and it is something I’m going to have to live with for the rest of my life.”
Mid UK has also had to deal with reputational damage: “Fatalities do happen in the industry, and what we have been trying to do is get across to our customers what we have done since and what systems we had in place – because we were not completely negligent,” says Mountain.
“We have spent a huge amount of time, effort and resources trying to instil and get the message across that we’ve all got a responsibility to each other in a business. And it’s not just from top down but from the bottom up as well.”
Tangible changes include the appointment of a health and safety director from outside the industry and the creation of a H&S team of five. Managers organise periodic ‘stand down days’ when everything stops for up to an hour for staff to share experiences, ‘near misses’ and accident rates.
“It is [designed] to get everybody to understand the emotional journey involved in a fatality in the business. The police interviews, the coroner’s hearing, the crown court. I want everyone to understand the traumatic circumstances because that is the only way that everyone involved will ever learn.”
Mountain is proud of being an independent family business because it “means we care about customers and we care about staff”.
Recycling as a business proposition was prompted by that bad debt. The Mountains were a farming family in the Sleaford area when, around 1998, a customer who could not pay his bills handed over three lorries and five skips in recompense. Mid UK now boasts around 70 vehicles.
The first facility to be developed at Caythorpe is on a brownfield site that used to be a foundry. It now processes about 150,000 tonnes a year through a MRF, a construction and demolition facility and a commercial and industrial line. Solid recovered fuel (SRF) is produced for cement customers, 70% of whom are within 70 miles. Up to 25,000 tonnes of biomass goes to combined heat and power-compliant plant in Sheffield.
The newer Barkston Heath site occupies 25 acres and was originally home to 12 aircraft hangers. It can operate 24/7, and includes a MRF, a plasterboard facility, workshops that manufacture components and an in-house engineering team. This site started from scratch and now has a lagoon of water large enough to deal with any fire on-site.
Mid UK takes household waste from Lincolnshire’s seven local collection authorities and partners Veolia and others to handle material from further afield. There is also a waste transfer station near Peterborough.
It is a real family concern. As well as Chris, brother Nick is transport director and another brother Simon is commercial director while their father Mowbray is chairman. Chris says their relationship is an interesting one: the families go on holiday together but the directors are very different people who complement each other.
“Anyone who has got brothers and sisters knows that, sometimes, those dynamics can be challenging. It’s a big enough business to ensure that we all have got work to do. We are a team.”
Sales manager Ruth Cullen appreciates this approach: ”Working in a family-run company creates a good atmosphere. Everyone feels they are a part of the bigger picture and knows the part they play in the overall business. Chris, Simon and Nick are all hands-on and open to listening to all of our ideas.”
Mid UK comprises three principal companies in one: transport, skip hire and recycling. For Chris, that means greater control: “It is important to have our own transport department, for example, because we can plan and manage movement of the fleet and respond to short notice changes and demands from our customers.”
A new business line was prompted by another setback for the Mountains: a major fire in July 2015, when piles of stacked materials combusted spontaneously at Barkston Heath. With grim timing, it happened only days before an inquest jury found that the death of Pavasars was accidental.
Mountain acknowledges that fire is a major risk for the waste industry. His company produces annually 250,000 tonnes of SRF which is designed to burn in cement factories, so it is a problematic product to manufacture. “The fire itself was a disaster. Personally, financially and physically, it was very challenging working through that fire and the consequences of it. We were already working towards a fire prevention plan to be fully compliant.”
They took advice to try to prevent a repeat but he said: “Quite a lot of the businesses out there don’t have any knowledge of the industry and the challenges and the risks that are associated with it. They offered generic fire protection products from elsewhere and assumed one-system-fits-all, but that’s not the case.
“Having that knowledge, we decided to set up our own business in partnership with others to tailor what we have learnt, with the right bits of kit at the right price for the right application.”
Developing new propositions is part of Mid UK’s DNA to maximise the value of its products rather than simply adding tonnages. When I visited Barkston Heath, we looked over the plasterboard facility, an eerie complex full of gypsum reminiscent of a lunar landscape.
“We have taken plasterboard from being an innocuous waste material and turned it into a range of products: curing agents, desiccants, industrial absorbency and cat litter products.”
But having spotted a decent market to exploit, it has not been plain sailing, with Mountain accusing some operators of playing loose with regulations and choking legitimate opportunity.
He complains: “We have found it particularly challenging in the past 12 months where we have been seriously undercut in terms of price. The people who are undercutting our business are not working to the same level playing field.
“Like any responsible company, we have a certain amount of compliance and overhead costs, fixed costs. When you are competing against people who do not have responsible outlets that are sustainable, we can’t compete. We have lost tonnage, and it is frustrating because we have customers who desperately want more gypsum but we can’t supply them.
“It undermines the credibility of the industry – the hard work that honest companies are putting in is being undermined by people who are here today, gone tomorrow. As an industry, we must pull together to stamp that out.”
China and the restrictions on secondary material imports, including a total ban on certain grades, is never far from most conversations in the sector these days. Not for the first time, I hear how being an early adopter of higher quality thresholds has delivered a business advantage.
“Our focus has been to add some value to [the materials] and look at more sustainable solutions on the doorstep, here in the UK and in Europe. The message is always that you’ve got to concentrate on the best quality material available.
“The hard work that honest companies are putting in is being undermined by people who are here today, gone tomorrow. As an industry, we must pull together to stamp that out.”
“So far, so good. But will it be viable in the future when the market is oversubscribed with everybody doing the same thing? I honestly don’t know.”
So, what of the future? “Like every business our intention is to grow but we are not looking to grow geographically. We want to grow in terms of what we can add value to with the materials we produce. Our focus is to do the job we already do but better.
“Our aim is for Mid UK to continue the journey to become a well-respected professional, sustainable solution for waste management for a combination of councils, local businesses and other waste management firms. That ability to be independent allows us to work alongside blue-chip plcs as well as small waste management companies. We like that relationship.”
An obvious query from me is that cash-rich, larger companies often look to take over successful middle-ranking regional operators, and the family would stand to gain considerably from selling. The response is short and sweet: “Not crossed our minds. Not on our radar. I enjoy the job.”