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The Big Interview: Vikki Jackson-Smith

Vikki Jackson-Smith is pretty excited about 2015. J&B Recycling, the company she has been running for more than a decade, ended last year with a multi-million pound boost from an independent fund.

In December, the Business Growth Fund backed the Teesside-based recycler with £7.5m in growth capital, which J&B will use to increase processing and sorting capacity at its sites in the north-east. For Jackson-Smith, the investment is recognition of what she has created since taking over the family business in 2000. 

“It was nice to know we had someone interested in us,” she says, “to see that I have built something that was attractive to outside investors.” Jackson-Smith has turned the business around with vision, but also a fair amount of luck, she admits.

She saved the coal supply and haulage firm established by her father which, around the turn of the millennium, ran into difficulties following the privatisation of the energy market and the increased availability of cheap coal. “Given the skills and experience of the workforce, such as in processing and transport, we decided to change the materials from coal to waste,” she says. “But I didn’t want my business to become just another waste management company.”

At the time the Landfill Directive was about to be implemented, as well as recycling targets for councils. So she decided that focusing on a ‘niche’ market such as recycling was the right direction to follow.

The first material J&B targeted was glass, in the wake of a boom in consumption of alcopops in pubs and clubs across the UK. “The bottles were non-returnable. Hospitality services were throwing them in their general waste bins, which then became heavier and more costly to dispose because of the landfill tax. So we got them to separate the bottles.

“It was an easy option and gave us a material with a market value.”

Building on this experience, the company then extended its services to local authorities, which were just starting to implement kerbside collections systems. Jackson-Smith says the company became the first to offer plastic bottle collections alongside paper, glass and cans in 2003.

“It has always been a big focus for us to try to get as much value out of materials as possible. Recycling has always been our main strategy.”  

On the back of the first commingled contract signed in 2005, Jackson-Smith decided to undertake her first major investment: a £5m upgrade of the site in Hartlepool to include an advanced MRF. “My dad was still a director and shareholder, and my husband is also involved in the company. The three of us sat around the kitchen table quite a few times to come up with plans. I was determined to go ahead.”

The agreement for the bank loan came to fruition in 2008, just before the start of the global financial crisis. “We were quite fortunate that the finance on the plant was agreed just before the bank crash. So a little bit of good timing there.”

The business has continued to thrive despite the economic downturn which followed. Its secret? Maintaining a good relationship with reprocessors and producing high-quality materials.

“We always have high standards,” she says. “If you produce quality material, people are going to want that material. We have built strong relationships with the reprocessors: we have never been a company that would just jump for the extra pound.”

Looking ahead, Jackson-Smith says the Business Growth Fund’s investment will enable the company to increase throughput, improve glass sorting and recover bottle tops.

As for policy drivers, which had been at the basis of the same creation of the recycling business, Jackson-Smith says she would welcome measures that ensure councils shared more risk in relation to material prices. For example, she recommends designing contracts that allow for prices to be linked to an index rather than being locked at fixed levels for long periods of time.

“Sharing the risk is the best way forward to get the best value for councils and businesses,” she adds. “However, there are still councils that want to put all the risk on the contractors.”

The new MRF code of practice has had some effect on the business.

“The code has increased our costs because we now have to pay a fee to the Environment Agency for testing that we already carried out, especially as we are not allowed to use the data from the reprocessors [that buy our materials].

“The number and frequency of audits has also increased. Before the code we did bigger samples, but we now have to do lots of smaller ones more often.”

The outcome of the general election in May and its possible implications for the waste and recycling industry are factors she does not worry about because they cannot be predicted.

But of one thing she is sure: “You can’t stand still. You need to be able to react quickly to changes in the market. For example, if I think something new could work, I would do a trial and see whether it can be added to the business.” She has a positive outlook for the future of the business and the industry, with a determined attitude and the belief that “every problem is an opportunity”.

Jackson-Smith saw this in practice when a major fire broke out at the Hartlepool site in 2008. A police investigation concluded the cause of the blaze was arson, but the perpetrators were never identified.

She says: “It was devastating. It was very difficult to understand why someone would do that. We managed to be up and running in 48 hours so we didn’t lose any customers. But it was really challenging to work under that pressure.

“It was quite a low point for me, but it was also quite a good point. When the fire happened, the commitment and loyalty that we had from the staff was unbelievable. A lot of people came through and shone out of that disaster scenario.”

The staff engagement might have come from Jackson-Smith’s own management style. She defines herself as a hands-on leader, often present at the site and seeking to get to know every staff member – although that is now becoming increasingly difficult as the workforce has reached 175.

Some of the workers have been with the company for more than 30 years and brought in partners and relatives, making J&B even more of a family business.

Jackson-Smith seems to have the wellbeing of her staff at heart because she knows that productivity declines when employees are unhappy. Staff do not work more than seven hours on the picking line which, at the Hartlepool site, is placed in a wide and heated room with music playing in the background.

Alongside the growth of the business, there is a personal achievement about which Jackson-Smith is particularly proud.

“Being able to stay married,” she says, laughing. “Working alongside my husband and bringing up my family. It has been a challenge to juggle the work-life balance. It is a big achievement to know that the children haven’t suffered and they have done very well.”

She has an eight-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son. The latter is already familiar with many of the acronyms of the industry, and knows what ‘commingled’ means, she assures.

It is too early to say whether he will join J&B. “He will need to prove himself,” she says. “If he wants a job, he has got to start from the bottom.”     

CV: Vikki Jackson-Smith

Vikki Jackson Smith 400

Jackson-Smith joined the family business, formerly a coal supply and haulage company, at 17.

She was interested in logistics and became transport manager after gaining a professional qualification.

Jackson-Smith was instrumental in turning the business into a recycling firm in 1998, and became managing director in 2000.  

Business Expansion

Illegal site cleared up

In December, J&B Recycling finished the clean-up of a neighbouring site where an illegal operation by a skip hire company had left a 28ft-high waste pile. The company won a contract with the council, which allowed it to acquire the land in exchange for its restoration.

Jackson-Smith said: “We recycled the waste. A lot of it was inert materials like soil and stones, wood, metals and plastics. It took a while to get through that – it was quite a mountain. But it was worth it because we wanted the site for our business expansion.”

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