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Key to success is knowing your clients inside out

Passion, honesty, innovation and a customer-first approach are the common themes that tie together successful inde­pendent businesses. According to Catalyst Cor­porate Finance, although the waste and resources sector faces challenges, it is expected to grow – underpinned by rising gate fees as landfill capacity shrinks, as well as “technology and service model-driven innovation”.

London-based Bywaters, which has around 400 full-time employees, had a two-year com­pound annual growth rate of 13.6% and revenue of £38.8m, according to last year’s figures. Amanda Brown, deputy managing director, puts this down to “commitment, dedication, hard work and the best team ever”.

She explains that the company has an ability to “reinvent itself as the marketplace changes” and a total belief in its teams, products and goals. Its strategy is to focus on its clients’ best interests and the environment – working to educate their staff to boost recycling and better manage their waste. She adds that having “a deep understanding of your clients’ wishes” and “listening to and understanding their hopes and long term aspirations” is key.

Alongside this, the company is committed to investment, be this in technology for servicing its customers and demonstrating environmen­tal best practice or entering new geographies with experienced teams.

A key concern, particularly in light of Brexit, has been securing long-term disposal routes for its residual waste, in terms of the environment and cost. It therefore reached a seven-year agreement with Cory Riverside Energy, which started in April 2017, enabling Bywaters to transport its residual waste by barge to Cory’s Belvedere energy-from-waste plant. This has multiple benefits: reducing bulk vehicle move­ments by more than 85% and the associated pollution, supporting its clients’ carbon initia­tives and contributing to powering homes.

This sentiment is echoed by Anna Cawley, customer service director at Cawleys. The busi­ness has more than 200 employees based across three sites in Luton, Milton Keynes and Wellingborough and an annual turnover of £32m. She says: “The adverse impact on the exchange rate following the Brexit vote means that refuse-derived fuel exports to Europe have become more expensive; looking forward, there is price uncertainty. This underlines the need for increased infrastructure and capacity within the UK to offer an alternative.”

She adds that there are large numbers of European workers employed within the indus­try “and we would hope not to face the chal­lenge of losing them”.

But for Vikki Jackson-Smith, managing director of J&B Recycling in Hartlepool, Brexit is not something she would describe as a con­cern: “Of course, we are monitoring the situation, but we’re ignoring the over-hype that is being reported both ways. I do not envisage a collapse in UK recycling nor a return to landfill. The worldwide demand for recyclable raw materials is strong and here to stay.”

J&B, which employs around 170 people, is celebrating record financials for the year end­ing March 2017, reporting a turnover of £15.7m and EBITDA of £1.7m, which is up 87.2% from 2016. In 2014 the company secured a major investment from the Business Growth Fund which allowed it to invest further in infrastruc­ture and processing machinery, expanding its facilities to allow an increase in input material. It has also invested in more automation “to pro­duce the highest quality of recyclables”.

Alongside a continuous improvement plan, J&B has put in place a programme of process optimisation: “This ensures that our 24-hour operations run at their maximum capacity, which has given us an industry-leading down­time of less than 2%.”

It is constantly looking at ways to streamline processes and prioritises preventative mainte­nance to ensure that operations run smoothly.

Cawleys has also put heavy focus on effi­ciency and service success, enabled through investment in operational software and tech­nology for its vehicle fleet.

“This has helped us to focus on cost reduc­tion which is critical, but in addition to this it has given us greater visibility of our service levels, allowing us to communicate better and more proactively with our customers,” Cawley explains.

The business has taken on some major cli­ents in recent months and it takes the same approach with all: “We listen to what they want, where they want to get to and we help them build a pathway to get there.”

Jackson-Smith at J&B equally highlights the importance of customer relationships. It has a number of long-standing customers, which it attributes to effective communication, an ‘above and beyond’ approach, and tailored services.

Recent investment in the business has enabled it to “produce the highest quality materials, which means that our products are always in demand,” says Jackson-Smith. It works with its customers to help them reduce the levels of contamination in their recyclables.

This focus on quality is at the heart of wood recycling firm Hadfield. Vicki Hughes, group business development director, explains: “We see ourselves as a manufacturer and not as a reprocessor, and the difference is that we make to specification.”

Incoming wood is a raw material, so Had­field operates to tight specifications on grades and contamination, and each incoming load is inspected. To maintain this, it spends a lot of time training, and its ‘front end team’ will talk to customers who have not brought in the cor­rect grade to try to help them add some value, for example, by pre-segregating mixed loads.

Hughes says this approach is why the busi­ness has “a lot of customers who have been withus an awful long time and contracts that renew…because our service levels are very high, because we understand our customers – and we don’t do anything else but wood”.

Hadfield employs 155 and has three sites (Manchester, Tilbury and Middlesbrough) plus a sales and marketing office, with turnover of around £18m. Hughes and finance director Paul Harrison were brought in by owner Geoff Hadfield when he realised that, to grow the business, he would need key people with differ­ent skill sets, and they each now have a 10% stake in the business.

The company makes a range of wood products to sell into a range of markets: power plants and the panelboard sector in both the UK and abroad, and the UK animal bedding sector. This ensures it can balance its inbound and outbound flow of material.

In recent years the regulatory environment has been challenging for the company, with the developments around fire prevention plans (FPPs) and waste guidance. Hughes empha­sises that the new guidance is “absolutely right and proper”, but adds that it is difficult to scale it up for an operation of its size. Its main gripe is stack sizes. The Environment Agency wants these limited to 4m while Hadfield wants taller stacks – and says if the wood is stacked in thecorrect format and in the correct shape then extra height is not an issue. The pair are cur­rently in discussions.

In recognition of the fact that the company needs more space to process the same tonnages in smaller stacks, it has just invested £4m in its sites on new concrete and infrastructure. Recent investment has also gone into more delivery vehicles, giving it more control over getting products to customers.

Hughes says there is “definite nervousness around” with regard to Brexit and, when renewing contracts or discussing the future of existing deals, there are always questions on whether rules and regulations may change.

“So it is quite frustrating because, obviously, we can’t say because we don’t know. For me, it is about what your relationships are like with your customers; how you ensure you are main­taining those contacts so that, if something changes, we can respond to it,” she says.

A “big chunk” of its business is currently export, and Hughes hopes it will continue to export because it is a “good sustainable market”.

Looking after its staff is also vital “because, at the end of the day, our staff are the heart of our business” she adds. It has a family business cul­ture where everybody knows everybody: “We go on-site with our customers and we know everybody on-site. People will comment and say ‘oh, that load inspector came over and had a chat’ – you don’t get that in a big company but that’s what makes us who we are.”

This personal touch is something that Bolton-based Emma Lavelle and her father Craig have built Lavelle Waste Services around. The commercial waste business was set up by the duo in September 2016 and, in doing so, they reignited the family waste business – Lavelle and Sons was set up by Craig’s father in 1976 and acquired by Viridor in 2001.

Both Emma and Craig worked for otherfirms in the sector, and Emma explains that her desire for “things to be done right” led to the pair setting up on their own. Putting the cus­tomer first lies at the heart of the offering, ask­ing ‘what does the customer want?’.

Their connections in the industry helped to open doors and the business has won clients including bakery group Greenhalgh’s and prop­erty company Emerson, in part due to the ser­vice received from their previous suppliers.

The business now has around nine staff and has projections of more than £1m in turnover in the next 12 months. But Lavelle’s ambition is to keep it local and remain a family business: “We don’t want to be too big because I think when you are too big you then lose control of what it’s about.”

Personal service is appealing for clients, and Lavelle says she gives out her number and tells customers they can call her any time: “They like that rather than just phoning an office and get­ting passed to different people. They like that one-to-one relationship.”

She explains the company is trying to be “as modern and as simple as possible”, using tech­nology to keep it paperless and to ensure it has “an answer for why something didn’t happen”. Drivers have PDAs, vehicles have tracking, Edoc is used, and client waste and recycling reports are produced.

Lavelle is also keen to be the first on board with new ideas. For example, as well as stand­ard offerings for general waste, card, mixed recycling, glass and food, it was the first pro­vider in the north-west to offer a coffee ground recycling service after approaching London-based Bio-bean, which turns it into a range of biofuels. It also teamed up with Simply Cups, the cup recycling scheme, becoming its first accredited collection partner and allowing the scheme to expand its reach.

In the same vein, Cawley says it is “always looking for new circular routes for waste” as a differentiator. It provided the first co-ordinated recycling of coffee cups and grounds in Londonin 2016 for the Canary Wharf Estate. Bywaters, meanwhile, has recently been piloting a cup recycling scheme with University College London in partnership with Sodexo and Tenon group.

On the challenges that lie ahead, Cawley flags up the shortage of skilled drivers and vehi­cle and plant technicians/fitters as one of the biggest facing its business. To address this it has designed a benefit and reward scheme, and training and development, to provide opportu­nity in the business and career longevity.

“We are working on developing new entrants into our industry and are investing in training staff through the new apprenticeship pro­grammes, as well as multi-skilling our drivers to drive across our fleet of vehicles, and actively pushing some of our loaders through their HGV training,” she adds.

The quality of materials and the dominance of China in the recyclate commodity markets is also something Cawley is mindful of: “It is important for us as a business to look at alter­native routes for our materials. We work hard to guarantee the quality of our recyclate to ensure that we can place product at the best rates achievable in the world markets.”

While Brown from Bywaters says there is “no certainty in the years ahead”, the business aims to “embrace the changes to come”: “Our prior­ities for the foreseeable future are to continue to learn and listen to our clients and to the city of London – they provide our inspiration, our faith and our innovation.”

A closer look at five of the sector’s director-level women

  • Amanda Brown

Amanda Brown is deputy managing director at Bywaters and started working at the company in 1985. She is one of five women on the board, having shadowed managing director John Glover, who bought the Bywaters business and started trading as Bywaters (Leyton) in 1965.

Brown says of the high number of women on Bywaters’ board: “While we haven’t actively recruited women for the positions within the senior teams, we have ensured we have the very best people in those positions to ensure our client partnerships are maximised fully.”

  • Anna Cawley

Anna Cawley is customer services director at Cawleys. She is the third generation of the family to work in the business and has done so for more than 10 years. Her background as a project manager and customer relationship manager put her in good stead to lead the customer services division.

When she joined the board in October 2017, she said she was “looking forward to bringing a different perspective to the board – I’m a lot younger than most, for a start!”

  • Emma Lavelle

Emma Lavelle set up Lavelle Waste Services with her father in 2016. She started working at a local waste management firm as a transport administrator at the age of 18 and worked her way up to transport manager in her eight years with the business, completing several work-related qualifications along the way.

Lavelle says she could not see herself in another industry, adding: “I want it to be that, when anybody thinks about waste, it is not just this male [environment]”.

  • Vicki Hughes

Vicki Hughes is group business develop-ment director at Hadfield Wood Recycling and has been there for 13 years. Formerly general manager at a rubber company, she set up her own business development agency after having her first son.

She initially went to work at Hadfield for six days as a consultant on a new product, and is now responsible for all the incoming wood and outgoing products, as well as HR. She is keen on internal staff development and fostering a culture of encouragement and sharing.

Of her role, she says: “It’s all the people stuff. So is that because I am a woman or is it because my key skill is communication?”

  • Vikki Jackson-Smith

Vikki Jackson-Smith is managing director at J&B Recycling. She joined the family business at the age of 17 – then a coal supply and haulage firm established by her father – and became transport manager after gaining a professional qualification. She played an instrumental part in turning the business around when it switched from coal to waste, with a focus on recycling in 1998. She became managing director in 2000.

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