In under a decade, Sussex based waste management company, CountyClean Group, have grown from humble beginnings in Eastbourne to being a leader in effective liquid waste management solutions across London and the South East. Here, SBT’s Simon Skinner gets the full story from Mike Walker, Managing Director of CountyClean Group
Mike Walker: Having successfully worked in various roles within the liquid waste industry for upwards of 20 years as an employee, I had always thought about taking the plunge and setting up and running my own business. The thought of this was daunting, so I always put this on the back burner due to self-doubt. I also had a young family to think about.
My employer at the time decided to sell the business that I had helped build over the previous 15 years and, within a week of the business being sold, the new owners decided I was surplus to their requirements and made me redundant. This was my first taste of unemployment in almost 25 years.
This was a bitter experience for me and it did take a while to readjust. After applying for various roles within the industry, I settled for a middle management position.
I remember leaving my house at 4:30am to travel to Gloucestershire for a one week induction in the new job. Arriving around 8am, I walked into the office and introduced myself to my new colleagues and was astonished that no one had told them that I was arriving or that I was even employed by the company. After sitting in reception being ignored for most of the morning I decided to quit. Yes, I didn’t last the day!
I was in the car travelling home, knowing I had to break the news to my wife, Debbie. I made the call and I could sense her disappointment. She told me I should have stuck with it and given it more time, but I just knew it wasn’t for me and decided it was time to fulfil my ambition and take control of my own destiny. I told Debbie that I was going to put aside any fear and doubts and start our own business. That day, CountyClean Environmental was born, well at least in my head!
Debbie was so supportive, which was a great relief as she is always a levelling influence and actually, the sensible half or our relationship.
I was about to risk everything. We were about to start a business on a whim because I felt unemployable. So, the journey began and, boy, what a roller coaster…the highs and lows have been many but I wouldn’t change anything. Of course, looking back, I’ve made decisions on things that have ultimately bitten me on the behind but, ultimately, I believe that you learn by your mistakes and I pride myself on being able to adjust quickly to overcome these bumps in the road.
SS: Who made up the team at that time and what types of service were on offer?
MW: Initially, it was Debbie and me and I remember it like it was yesterday. On the 7th May 2007, we bought a five year old tanker and portable offices. We arrived to our new premises at around 6am awaiting the driver we had recently employed but he never turned up. We never heard from him, he just didn’t turn up, so immediately we were on the back foot. No work came in that day so we spent all day on the phone trying to attract business. We left the office after our first day and, at about 8:30pm that evening, the phone rang and it was a customer booking our very first job. I jumped in the tanker and off I went. We offered every service associated with liquid waste management. We started with emptying local sewage plants and cesspools and then moved on to more commercial industrial waste types.
What jobs we couldn’t fulfil, we contacted other companies that could and used their services. In our first month of trading, we turned over £12,000, which didn’t even cover our costs, so that meant beans on toast for many months to come.
Determined to succeed though, Debbie and I just got our heads down and worked tirelessly day and night and finally finished our first year with a modest profit. We both realised that the key to being successful was not just to employ people and buy more equipment but to make sure that we had the right people and quality equipment. This was a massive step financially for the company; however, we both knew we couldn’t continue on our own, so that’s how the growth started. More lorries + more people = more business.
SS: So the company has seen growth with incredible pace since 2007. What would you say have been the main drivers of that growth, Mike?
MW: It may sound a bit of a cliché but ambition and a desire to succeed is a key factor. Working in a service industry, you are only measured on two things: obviously cost, but also excellent delivery of service. Getting this right has been critical and key to our success over the years.
Attracting clients is expensive, so customer retention is crucial in any business. All profits from the get go have been reinvested in the company. The entry level to this business in cash terms is massive and finding and attracting the team we have around us has been a challenge. What you have to understand is that this industry is very small and quite specialist, so attracting the right people who all have come from other well paid jobs in bigger organisations, to come and join us was quite a task, and also very humbling at the same time. It’s taken a long time and a lot of energy to attract the right people.
From our modest beginnings to this moment in time, yes, the growth has been massive and CountyClean Group is evolving all the time.
SS: Has the growth of the business led to an expanded service offering?
MW: It has indeed and the majority of this growth has been driven by customer feedback and demand. We feel that a complete service offering is a huge benefit to our clients, as they have the peace of mind that they have one point of contact for all their liquid waste and drainage needs.
For example, our pump services division was created due to clients with sewage treatment plants and pump stations constantly asking us if we could repair and service their installations and not just empty them. For us, this was a logical step up in our service offering, but we needed to ensure that any new service we offered continued to deliver the same quality of customer experience we are known for and that our customers expected.
The success of this division has now led on to the launch of our groundworks and civil engineering division, again, due to customers asking us if we could install new systems and drainage.
The growth of our commercial division has now prompted us to invest in our own waste treatment and recycling facility in Surrey, which will allow us to treat certain waste streams we collect ourselves, enabling us to reduce our reliance on third parties.
This investment in our new treatment facility has led to us also launching a road sweeper division as this seemed to be a logical extension to not just this business but also our liquid waste business.
SS: In such a specialist sector, how does CountyClean Group field for new business? Government/council contracts and/or large developers, for example.
MW: We are very lucky to have a loyal customer base and referrals are a key part of new business for us. However, we do have an excellent account management team in place that canvasses for new business via networking and good old-fashioned cold calling. They also account manage the existing base, ensuring that, as our clients’ needs change, we are there to assist in any way possible.
Also, due to the accreditations we have in place, such as Safe Contractor, Achilles and FORS Gold, we can tender and successfully win contracts with large contractors and local authorities alike.
SS: Mike, give us an indication of the scale of the operation at CountyClean Group today.
MW: From a start of two staff with one tanker and a modest turnover in our first year, we are now a multi-million pound turnover business, rapidly approaching 40 staff over two locations and a growing fleet of almost 20 commercial vehicles.
We are now a major provider in London and the South East, and our ability to offer a fast and reactive, complete waste management solution, with an unparalleled level of service, is second to none.
MW: As mentioned before, attracting the right staff is key, as there is nowhere to hide in a small business and a lot of the time you are asked to perform tasks that are outside of your normal job description.
I am very lucky that we have a very low staff turnover and I work very hard to ensure that all staff, whatever their job role or function, are aware of the successes of the company and also the issues we face. This makes them feel part of the success and they, in turn, go that extra mile to ensure that our clients get the service we promise.
We like to develop and promote our staff from within and, as we have expanded, we have taken the staff with us. A recent example of this is two of our longest serving drivers being taken off the road and promoted into management positions.
Also key to our growth is making sure that, when we start a new division, we attract new staff with the extensive knowledge required to allow us to be successful.
SS: What’s next for CountyClean Group?
MW: What started as CountyClean Environmental Services Ltd is now the CountyClean Group. I have plans to grow the company extensively over the next five years and we are doing this by significant investment, expanding our portfolio of services whilst maintaining the level of commitment and service that our clients have come to expect from us.
We have recently launched our groundworks and civil engineering division, which is already proving quite popular and is growing in demand.
We have just purchased a fleet of state of the art road sweepers and, again, this department is already starting to attract new business, as well as existing customers wishing to use this alongside other services.
Our waste recycling depot is scheduled to be open by the 1st of July this year, to not only take our waste but also commercial wastes from other companies in our industry.
Our main aim is to become a significant player in the environmental support services sector, not only in London and the South-East but also nationwide.