By Ben Wood at www.ciwm-journal.co.uk
Waste management isn’t glamorous, and liquid waste management perhaps even less so. But one company is putting itself firmly in the spotlight. Playing a starring role is CountyClean Environmental, and its founder and managing director, Mike Walker, explained that this is a company ready to take the next step
We should probably start by explaining the headline… why is CountyClean Environmental putting itself in the spotlight? Well, there aren’t many other liquid waste management companies that are set for a starring TV role on Sky in the coming months. And that’s on top of the attention it received from the BBC, which interviewed the company about the “fatberg” that was discovered in Oxford’s sewer system, went underground to see the state of the UK’s sewers for itself and reported on its uncovering of the biggest blockage ever found in a UK sewer – the 15-tonne fatberg in Kingston-upon-Thames.
But that’s the extraordinary side of CountyClean… the “glamour” of the world of television mixed with the daily routine of simply getting on with the job. The TV cameras are far from a daily occurrence, but working in liquid waste certainly gives the employees here a lot of variation in their job. Mike Walker, company founder, owner and managing director explained more, among many other things, when he spoke about the CountyClean story.
“When I founded CountyClean in 2007, it followed 20 years of experiencing everything that’s good and bad in servicing customers’ needs in the world of wet waste,” Mike explained. “I held an HGV licence, I went to an agency and they put me in a job driving a 2000-gallon septic tank emptying lorry… and, believe it or not, I enjoyed it!” He was meeting people every day, but importantly could see the potential in the sector.
Further roles followed for Mike, moving up to commercial and sales director positions within Lloyds Environmental, a business which was ultimately sold in 2006. Having invested in that business, Mike took the opportunity to enjoy the rewards of his hard work up until that point… but he found it hard to stay away.
As soon as the 12 months he was required to stay away from the industry under the terms of the sale had passed, he was back. “I got a job in the industry… and quit after one day. It was then that I decided to start my own business: me, my wife and one tanker.” CountyClean Environmental was born in 2007 and, with all of his background in the industry, Mike very much knew how he wanted the company to be. During our interview, we asked Mike if the company he now has is very much in his own image, he says it is. But more on the present day later…
“I had a clear vision that I could do things better,” he said. “In the beginning, I concentrated on getting our service right for our customers. From that first phone call through to completing the job, I wanted to make sure that our customers were happy with everything we did from customer service through to legal compliance and had confidence in everything we do. That drive to get things right for every single customer hasn’t changed.”
He admits there were challenges in the beginning – funding and finding the right people to work in the business – and “we all had to do a bit of everything”, but we’ve always put everything we’ve made from the business, back into the business,” he added. “We’re self sufficient and last year invested £2.5m in equipment. We’re not huge, but we have big plans,” Mike added, which involves building its own waste treatment facility, which will provide a completely closed loop recycling system, Mike explained. Instead of taking the collected waste to third party sites, we can keep it within the company operations. It will save money and reduce the company’s carbon footprint, giving it greater control and flexibility into the bargain.
This is the start of what the company sees as its next stage of growth. CountyClean has made a name for itself, with some high-profile customers, around London and the south east, but now is the time to expand.
A Time For Growth
“We want to attract new business,” he said, adding that as a company based near Eastbourne, in Sussex, CountyClean “has its back to the sea, but we want to start to move north”. A new waste treatment facility near to HQ for starters, and perhaps a new depot further north? Growth is clearly on the agenda, but Mike is quick to state that CountyClean values its business. It’s independent and Mike is keen to ensure it doesn’t lose its way, or sight of the customer and their needs as it grows.
But what exactly is CountyClean’s business? Liquid waste, yes, but what else? “It’s primarily liquid waste; we set out to be a waste collection business, but as we’ve grown we’ve branched out into hazardous waste collections, cleansing, CCTV… recently we launched a pump services division, so now we’ve got in-house engineers that can maintain and service pumps and pumping stations and service sewage treatment plants.”
It recognises that it is a “small fish in a big pond” at present, but “I like competition” Mike states. “It allows us to showcase our levels of service, which wins time and time again,” he added. And having stated that the company is ready for new business, Mike is keen to explain how it can earn that.
“We’re never closed, we’ve no restrictions, we’re 24/7, because we recognise that without the customer we don’t have a business. We’ve got customers who have been with us from day one, and it’s not all about price, it’s about service too, and we do a good job and care about what we do.” Until now CountyClean has grown naturally, steadily and logically, expanding into related areas. It’s ready to take on the (bigger) competition and the foundations laid over the last seven years have created a platform from which it can grow… hopefully northwards!
Because Mike is founder, owner (with his wife) and managing director of the company, it’s only natural that he sets the tone for the business. As stated, that tone seems to be one of determination. Determination to establish the company alongside bigger players, determination to grow and a determination to not let the barriers prevent that growth. Talking about problems with planning permissions and the amount of red tape that exists, Mike’s final comment stands out. “I won’t let it stop us; I won’t let us stand still. We’re ready for new business and we’ve invested in our business. We’re definitely ready!”
We ask about CountyClean’s customers and there’s a change in Mike’s response. Having spoken positively about the business, he spoke excitedly about the customers. The fact that they are diverse and that means the challenges you might face from day to day are varied, is clearly what motivates him. So in an industry that, to the outside world, is often not seen as exciting, why is it to this company?
“Be careful what you wish for,” Mike laughed. “I wished to sell a business, make some money and retire. And I hated it! The excitement is in developing people and watching them grow. We’re not ‘hirers and firers’, we develop people.” And as he said at the outset about his first job, he simply enjoys the industry. And it shows.
“You’ve got to enjoy it and want to do it every day. Growing a business is fun, but how do we make it ‘sexier’. It’s a dirty business,” Mike added. He leads with that attitude and the 40-strong staff in the business follow. He also leads by getting his hands dirty from time to time. “I’ll be pumping poo at Notting Hill, same as every year,” he added. Leading from the front.
But make no mistake, this is not a profile on Mike Walker, it’s about CountyClean Environmental. It’s built on family values, and Mike wants it to retain a family feeling as it grows… and grow it looks set to do. It may be a business in its founder’s image, but there’s more to it than that.
So, the final message from CountyClean is what I ask Mike to leave us with. “Our core customer is in the commercial and industrial world, blue chip organisations, but we’ve got domestic customers too. We’re looking for new business, no matter how big or small, wherever it may be… and we’re looking for talented people too,” he added. “Watch this space, we’re going places.”
But ultimately what they really want you to know is what they can do. Liquid waste management… “fatbergs”… cleansing… a closed loop recycling system… an open all hours business… 99 percent recycling capability… CCTV… water jetting… hazardous waste… pump services… The website can explain all the functional bits. We’ll give Mike the last word: “The building blocks are all in place; we’ve got a good reputation; and we’re ready for that new business… whatever and wherever it may be.”
“This article first appeared in the CIWM Journal. Visit www.ciwm-journal.co.uk”