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The Big Interview: Neil Johnson

johnson

Starting with one man and a skip in 1977, the eponymous Mick George Ltd has now become one of the fastest growing waste companies in the coun­try. It currently has 360 trucks and employs 900 staff, with a turnover of about £100m.

Building much of its business on con­struction waste, the company has its sights set on the commercial market after launching its service in 2015. It has grown by delivering complementary services to the construction industry, such as concrete, to firms across the East Midlands and East Anglia. Other services include bagged aggregates, skips, demolition, mechanical and elec­trical engineering.

While George himself still remains heavily involved in the company, others have been employed to run day-to-day operations. Director of the technical and waste team is Neil Johnson, who has been with the company for 12 years after working for Shanks and originally training as a chemist.

“I know it sounds really good saying I did chemistry at Cambridge – but it was only a polytechnic university,” he jokes.

Johnson joined the firm as technical manager in 2004, where his main responsibilities were assessing waste and checking compliance, before being promoted to his current role three years later.

Under his guidance, the waste division still provides services mainly for the construction industry and has tar­geted marketing to reach this sector. One example of this is the company’s shirt sponsorship of local football league teams at Peterborough and Cambridge to grab the attention of the clubs’ fans who have jobs in construction.

The marketing team includes four members of staff and one external colleague, and Johnson says the large amount of resources put into this area has paid off.

“We do a lot of work pushing the brand and pushing the company out there. It’s something we’ve found has worked for us,” he explains. “We moni­tor how much email traffic we send out and what we get from it, and the amount of clicks we get.

“We do a lot of Google ad campaigns and all that sort of stuff. It’s a big mar­ket, and we’re trying to get to the 21st century. I think we’re ahead of a lot of the competition, if I’m honest.”

One market that other regional waste businesses have targeted in recent months is householders producing DIY or construction-type waste.

To balance the books, some waste authorities have started charging resi­dents for the disposal of soil, rubble and plasterboard. Waste firm Hippo responded to the introduction of such fees in Hampshire, for example, by informing residents of the changes directly and offering its collection ser­vice as an alternative.

“It doesn’t do any good to be enemies with your competitors. You’re better off helping each other, and I’m a believer in that. You’ve got to help each other, and you never know when they’re going to need you or vice versa.”

Johnson says that Mick George is also targeting householders through social media and offering prizes through its partnerships with football clubs: “You may find we pick up a little bit more waste because of [charges at HWRCs], but we’re already actively targeting that market.”

Now an established company, Mick George seems ready to move into many different areas, some of which are sur­prising. On its website, it has launched an Amazon-style catalogue of home and garden equipment. It hosts products made by a range of providers and links directly to their store pages.

One case that has caused some debate within the industry is the ongo­ing legal challenge raised by Durham firm Max Recycle. This revolves around councils not having to charge 20% VAT when bidding against private firms for commercial waste contracts. Johnson says Mick George has also been affected by this.

mike george

mike george

In his region, Cambridge City Coun­cil’s ability to offer lower prices has meant the company has not won certain contracts locally.

“I’m disgusted by it, actually,” he says. “Why should the councils get a 20% discount? We should be competing on the same level playing field. We’re about making money – it’s not about doing things for free. We have got to look at a job and make sure it is viable and, yes, we struggle with that. It’s hard to get your head around that they have got a 20% foot up, if you like.”

The company’s expansion into com­mercial waste has provided other chal­lenges, with the materials they collect not being as easy to recycle as construc­tion waste. It also struggles to bid for contracts with large, national firms, which often favour partnering with a large waste company rather than a different regional one for each of its outlets.

Mick George was one of the first companies to try to redress this situation as part of the National Resource Consortium, launched in May 2016. The group is owned by 12 founder members and shareholders, and was formed after an initial discussion in summer 2015. It aims to win national corporate accounts then distribute the work to local businesses that are unable to benefit from such geographical cov­erage.

“If someone like Whitbread, McDon­ald’s or Tesco wants a waste provider, they won’t go to a regional one. They are going to say: ‘I want one point of call. I want one person who can deal with all our waste in the whole of the UK so that, if I’ve got a problem, I can ring up and sort it out’.

“The Biffas, the Viridors, they can do that because they’re a national com­pany. We are missing out on about 30% of the work nationally, so a group of like-minded individuals such as ourselves and a few others got together and said: ‘We can do this, we can offer this. We’re better than Biffa, we’re better than Viridor, we’re better than all these com­panies, but we are regional. So what happens if we all joined hands?’ ”

But Johnson said the group has yet to claim any customers: “We’re out there knocking on doors but we haven’t won any work yet. It’s an offer we think people will take us up on sooner or later. What we need is a reference point. We need a job. We need our first one to get up and running to show that we can do it.”

But Mick George does collaborate with bigger firms on some contracts.

“They have national account work which they subcontract to us some­times. They trade with us and use our facilities. We’re quite happy to let them do this – we know them and we’ve got a relationship with them.

“It doesn’t do any good to be enemies with your competitors. You’re better off helping each other, and I’m a believer in that. You’ve got to help each other, and you never know when they’re going to need you or vice versa.”

Despite efforts to challenge the big boys for larger contracts, Johnson believes they will continue to dominate. This contrasts with the views expressed in an earlier MRW Big Interview by Neil Grundon, deputy chairman of Grundon Waste Management, who suggested that the move from landfill threatened larger firms’ presence.

Grundon had commented: “I think the days of national companies are over because now you have to have the infra­structure. Whereas before a national operator would have 10 strategic landfill sites, I can’t see how that is going to be possible with 10 strategic energy-from-waste (EfW) plants.”

Johnson disagrees, saying it is equally possible for the larger companies to keep ahead by switching from landfill to EfW sites: “The big boys are still going to dominate. They’ll do what they always do: acquire other people, and I can’t see any change there, really.”

But when asked if Mick George could be one of those companies swallowed up by a national operator, he is unequiv­ocal. “We’re not here to sell; we’re here to grow and get better, take on these boys head-on. Mick is 60, but you’ve got Michael George [Mick’s son] who is involved in the business and he’s in his early 30s. I’m 45.

“We’re young enough to be able to keep going another 10, 15 or 20 years.” And Johnson hopes that one of his three children, aged 6, 9 and 15, might be interested in working for Mick George.

“That for me would be ideal. It brings a bit of continuity through. I can teach them what I know and, hopefully, carry on the business.”

Football sponsorship

Mick George is the only business in the country to have its name on the shirt of two football league clubs: Peterborough United and Cambridge United. It also has smaller sponsorship deals, such as stands and match balls, at Northampton Town, Milton Keynes Dons and Boston United.

Explaining the company’s marketing strategy, technical director Neil Johnson said people who work in its main target industry of construction tend to be working class football fans.

“If you were a Peterborough or a Cambridge fan, and you had an option between Mick George as a service provider and someone else, you’d naturally go to us. And do you know what – it works,” he says.

In recent years, both teams have received mainstream TV coverage after being drawn against Premier League teams in the FA Cup.

It is in the company’s interest for its partner clubs to do well because this can lead to more exposure in national media.

Johnson adds that there was no concern about the company sponsoring rival teams apart from “a little bit of banter” between Cambridge and Peterborough fans.

football sponsorship

football sponsorship

Timeline

1977: Aged 21, Mick George bought his first lorry to start transporting sand and gravel for construction of the M11

1989: Landfill site at St Ives, Cambridgeshire, was purchased from ARC

1992: St Ives yard bought

1994: Mick’s first quarry purchased at Southorpe, near Peterborough

1999: Started trading as Cambridgeshire Aggregates, and MEG Skips was launched

2000: New site opened at Mepal, Cambridgeshire

2006: First transfer station opened at St Ives

2008: Neil Johnson appointed technical and waste director

2012: Mick George Demolition expands and goes nationwide

2015: Commercial waste service launched

2016: Boston, Lincolnshire, site opened

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