A CONVERSATION WITH SIMON ALMOND (Founder & MD of Devon Contract Waste)
You established Devon Contract Waste in 1989 and now, nearly 30 years on, you’re at the helm of one of the UK’s leading independent waste companies. Was it always your ambition to run your own business?
I never set out to be an entrepreneur, but I’ve always been able to spot an opportunity. From a young age I would rescue unwanted bicycles from skips, repair them and sell them to my school friends. By the time I was 15, my parents wanted their garage back, so I rented a small lock-up at Exwick Mill. Bike repairs were never going to make me rich, but I did earn enough to buy my first car and it gave me a new motivation as suddenly I had a target to hit in order to pay my rent.
After leaving school, I started my first waste business from my parents’ house and called it Trash and Carry. I thought the name was cool, anyway. To start with it was just me and my £400 Toyota HiAce pick-up. I’d shovel the waste in, transport it to the recycling centre and shovel it back out again. It became apparent that my poor, supportive parents hadn’t considered what I would smell like when I finally hit the sofa each night so, after 18 months, I rented a unit at Stoke Canon and six months later bought the failing transport café next door.
I guess your parents have a new sofa these days! Juggling two businesses must have been incredibly hard work.
By the time I bought the café I’d renamed the company Devon Contract Waste and I had two drivers. I’d open the café at 6am, send the drivers out on their jobs, then take bookings while I was cooking breakfasts and lunches, and serving drinks. When the café closed at the end of the day, I’d take one of the vans myself to collect waste from commercial clients. Eventually, the café became profitable and selling it generated enough money to purchase our first skip lorry in 1994. That was a real turning point as it opened up bigger opportunities for Devon Contract Waste. Now we own more than 30 vehicles, we’re managing multiple sites in Exeter, servicing clients across Devon, Somerset and Cornwall, and have more than 70 staff. I’m proud to look back on how far we’ve come and the business we’ve built.
What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen during that time?
The waste sector is unrecognisable from how it was 30 years ago and the pace of change is still accelerating. One of the biggest differences has been the growth in public engagement with environmental issues which has put increasing pressure on businesses to clean up their act. What I’d like to see now is a stronger stance from government to force manufacturers to use more recycled materials and start closing the loop on resources. The advances in technology have also been astonishing and keeping on top of the latest tools has enabled us to remain leaders in our field. The use of on-board vehicle weighing systems has revolutionised the way we bill clients and the sensitivity of these systems means we can be accurate to the nearest kilo to produce transparent and precise invoices.
Do clients really want to know exactly how much rubbish was in their bin, or do they just want it emptied on the right day at the right time?
Clients really do care about the detail and sharing data is an essential part of our work to ensure we’re delivering best value and helping them to achieve their objectives. Our goal, when we introduced the first Zero to Landfill service to the south west in 2012, was to take responsibility for helping businesses to reduce their impact on our environment. Without the data and detail, we wouldn’t be able to track the materials we collect and the volumes processed, and deliver on our commitment.
And Zero to Landfill is an ethos that underpins all of Devon Contract Waste’s service?
Yes, and the concept is simple. We collect business waste and send as little as possible to landfill. Some clients can’t achieve 100% Zero to Landfill due to the types of waste they produce but we then work with them to look at recyclable alternatives that can also meet their needs. Historically, commercial recycling was very limited and most business waste was sent to landfill. But people were beginning to understand how harmful landfill sites are in terms of not just the land they use but the long lasting environmental harm caused by emissions and run-off. We could see a way to help businesses act more responsibly with our Zero to Landfill service which remains unique because of our commitment to recycling.
If you’re not sending any waste to landfill, doesn’t the fact that you’re recycling go without saying?
Not necessarily, no. Since we created our Zero to Landfill service, a number of other services have emerged that also promote landfill avoidance, but their waste is almost exclusively used as fuel to generate energy. Of course, this is better than burying it in the ground, but recycling materials actually saves more energy than you can release from them by burning. For example, a tonne of waste burned to generate energy will produce around 500kWh of electricity, but if we recycle a tonne of aluminium – instead of making it from raw materials – that saves 14,000kWh. Processing commercial waste for recycling is a more complex process but it delivers a greater environmental impact and that will always be our commitment.
Tell us more about your view of what it takes to build sustainability as a business.
We hear the term used a lot nowadays but it’s important to understand what is meant by ‘sustainability’ because it’s often used to mean ‘green’ or ‘environmentally friendly’. But sustainability runs much deeper than that. A lot of businesses are able to achieve quick ‘green’ wins by increasing their recycling or installing some solar panels, but genuine sustainability is a long game. A sustainable business is green, yes, but it’s also responsible in its actions, ethical and stable: it develops resilience by contributing to its economies, ecosystems and communities.
In our case, Devon Contract Waste has a responsibility to minimise its impact on the environment by investing in new, cleaner vehicles, to develop more environmentally friendly waste management practices to help businesses recover more materials, and to make sure our collected waste is processed ethically and doesn’t end up in illegal dumps, for example. We have a responsibility to our employees to provide stable employment and a commitment to our suppliers to be reliable business partners. It’s an ongoing process and by continually developing our own sustainability, we can support our customers in their own journeys to become not just green, but ethical and cost-effective.
It hasn’t all be plain sailing in recent years and we’d like to refer to the fire that destroyed your main operating site last year. That must have been a test of Devon Contract Waste’s resilience?
I can’t deny that the months that followed the fire in March last year were the toughest I’ve faced in my career. After the initial shock of the fire, there were months of paperwork that seemed never ending at times. But the incredible response from our customers, our own team, and Exeter’s business community was simply overwhelming and made us all – myself and my family – quite emotional at times. We knew that the foundations we had in place with a strong business model, engaged team, and loyal customers would carry us through the crisis and the business has now moved forward but we’ll always look back with gratitude for the wonderful way Exeter rallied round us.
Devon Contract Waste is known for being active in community projects close to home and as far away as Africa. Can you tell us a bit about the causes you’re supporting at the moment?
It’s hard to know where to start, to be honest! Within Devon, we support a number of local causes including children’s sports clubs, local football sides and we recently became a sponsor for Exeter Chiefs. We sponsor a range of local events including the annual Rotary fireworks at Westpoint which we’ve backed for many years, the Royal Marines Commando Challenge and the Devon Air Ambulance Summer Ball. For the first time this year, we’ll be sponsoring the Children’s Hospice South West Rainbow Run. I’m also a trustee of Dartmoor Zoo which is a registered charity with an inspiring team who are passionate about educating the public about conservation issues.
As a company, we also do a great deal of work in Africa. In Uganda, we’ve worked with an organisation called Child Hope Ministries for many years. We’ve helped to build a classroom for their orphanage, bought a roof for an expanded children’s home and we now pay the rent on the home each month to ease pressure on their own resources. Our sales team member, Donna, visited the home and kindergarten earlier this year and it was wonderful to hear how well the children are doing. We also work with charity, Plan, in Mali to improve education for children in Sanankoroba village. We supported the construction of three classrooms, tree planting to provide shade and training for the school management committee.
But the project that I’m probably most proud of is our work in the Kibera slum, just outside Nairobi, where we’re partnered with a local charity called Riziki. Kibera has a horrifying child mortality rate as a result of poor sanitation so we’ve worked with Riziki to establish a community waste collection service for general waste, food waste and recycling. We appointed a local manager who already had a commercial waste round but we replaced his hand cart with a 12-tonne truck – quite a change! The materials collected through the scheme are traded, and the manager has been able to expand his own commercial rounds in Nairobi to subsidise the community scheme for people who can’t pay. The community has an effective way to manage its waste, a source of employment and crucially – because it now funds itself – it’s sustainable.
It must be rewarding to be in a position to give back.
Absolutely, and it’s an attitude that’s shared across the whole team at Devon Contract Waste. We’re an extended family really and I’m incredibly proud to lead such a committed bunch that goes the extra mile.
You must need some down time occasionally. What do you do to take time for yourself?
I love going to the gym and try to go as much as I can to the Unit 7 gym on Marsh Barton. I’ll probably never run a marathon, but exercise is an essential part of my routine to zone out, work off the stress of the day and restore myself ready for the next challenge.
So, it’s about mental health for you?
Completely. We all have mental health, just like we have physical health, and it’s equally important to take care of it. There are studies that demonstrate the dreadful negative impact of stress on the body and the team at Unit 7 are totally tuned in to wellbeing issues. Even after the longest days an hour in the gym makes a huge difference and I’d encourage everyone to fit more exercise into their lives.
And, finally, besides getting more exercise, what final words of wisdom would you offer to Exeter’s business leaders of the future?
Nurture your relationships. No man is an island, so the saying goes, and people are the essence of any business. Establish and cherish relationships with the people around you at every level of your own business, with your suppliers, with people you meet at events, and don’t forget your own family and friends. You might have passion, and you might have vision, but the support of the people around you at work and at home is key to unlocking it.