Adapt and Grow -

Tips for building a resilient business

Family business, Devon Contract Waste has grown to become the South West’s leading independent commercial waste handling company. Their 32-year success story is one of resilience, adaptation, and entrepreneurialism.

As a business owner, Simon Almond knows about adapting to difficult circumstances. He founded DCW in 1989 and like so many others, the company has endured, but - crucially - thrived through three recessions. That resilience is due, in part, to the nature of the industry.

Simon explains: “People always need their rubbish and recycling collected. Of course, when economic activity slows, so does business, so there are peaks and troughs. The key is predicting which lines of business will always be there and where gaps might emerge.”


Business tips: Starting a business in a recession

Thirty-two years ago, it was just Simon, a friend and a van moving things around for people on an informal basis. During the 1990 recession, some waste collection firms ceased trading and a gap in the market appeared. They began moving commercial waste for small businesses around Devon; things were picking up.

Simon took these lessons into the 2008 recession. He recalls: “During that time, construction pretty much stopped overnight – that had a big knock-on effect on waste collection. Many competitors went bust; it was an awful time. We had already decided to sit on a decent capital reserve and ended up acquiring a host of businesses that were struggling.

"There were, again, plenty of gaps to fill. It really is survival of the fittest and a hard-hitting reminder that as a business, building resilience means having a plan for when things change. You need a plan B and a plan C.”

Today, Devon Contract Waste has 130 employees making them the biggest independent waste management company in the South West. They cover all aspects of waste management, from data destruction to recycling and hazardous waste. The firm also offers a ‘zero landfill’ solution, helping businesses with sustainability.

Simon Almond Devon Contract Waste
Sustainable garden furniture

The pandemic: Tips for business resilience

The resilience that the business has built up over the years was severely tested by the outbreak of Covid-19.

Simon explains: “It was a frightening time. You want to reassure staff that it’s all OK. We had essential worker status which helped, but of course, no matter what sort of germs and bugs our teams were used to dealing with as part of the normal job, this was something very, very different.”

Despite almost all businesses closing, DCW still had work, but income fell by 60%.

“No one knew how long it was going to last, how bad Covid-19 was going to be. Initially, we furloughed 50 staff. We’ve got a fleet of eight trucks just for food and glass and they were stationary because hospitality shut.

"Crucially, we didn’t mothball the vehicles, we kept them roadworthy and ready to go for when things picked up again.”

Being prepared paid dividends. As soon as demand picked up, DCW were ready to deliver – or more accurately – collect, where others could not. Simon: “As it turned out, we only had one week without making a profit.”

Business success: Don’t waste an opportunity  

Simon’s entrepreneurial spirit has allowed him to take the business in yet another direction too.  

Because of the global shutdown, the price of crude oil dropped dramatically; oil being the base resource from which virgin plastic is made. Because of this price drop, the plastic polymers that DCW were creating from recycled waste could no longer be sold; demand was so low that it did not make business sense.  

Then, Simon had an idea:

“We were storing about 400 tonnes of recycled plastic that we couldn’t get rid of. We had previously acquired a specialist polymer business - another victim of the difficult economic circumstances. They were experts and were able to help us start exploring ways of manufacturing the recycled plastic ourselves.  

“There was a lot of experimentation, I won’t lie. It took us a lot of trial and error to get the right mix – but now we have launched a whole range of sustainable, hard-wearing garden furniture from recycled plastic. It is, quite literally, rubbish.”

They began selling the recycled plastic garden furniture in early June and sales have gone so well they have taken on two extra members of staff. Before the pandemic, DCW were selling the raw recycled polymers for manufacture by other businesses at around £450 per tonne, but through the manufacture of their own product,they have increased their margin to around £2,000 per tonne.”

But Simon is not done yet:

“There are so many uses for these materials. For example, you can use them for fencing around farms, they last so much longer than wood. It also works for decking, again reducing the need to replace every 5-10 years. With this venture, we’ve put our money where our mouth is, investing in something we believe in: the quality of our product.”

How to deal with change in business  

Simon has some very simple tips for dealing with a crisis: 

“Looking back – as a business we've had some massive curveballs, but it’s about how you adapt and that is risk management. It's not just the recessions, five years ago we lost our headquarters in a fire.  

“In a strange way, we had more control over that situation than Covid-19. With a pandemic, you just don’t know what to do. There are no rules, no blueprint. You remember your duty to your clients and your staff, and you just try to keep going, even through your darkest days.  

“You’ve also got to be prepared to seize opportunities, be nimble enough to react to demand, and have enough capital to explore new opportunities, products or services. I never thought back in 1989 that I would be making sustainable garden furniture 32 years later!  

“Moments like these are also a wake-up call. It gives you time to look back at your outgoings - are we spending too much on X? What is the point of doing Y? Can we improve that process?”  

For Simon, perhaps one of the most important aspects is morale:

“It is good for our staff to see our investment in research & development. They are on the journey with us and at a difficult time, it is exciting for them to see where we are trying to go as a business, that we are trying to grow and succeed. It is proof of our resilience and that is hugely important at times like these.”  

DCW also do a lot for charity, raising money by collecting types of plastic that is hard to recycle from Greene King pubs. Simon explains:

“Again, that’s something else derailed by Covid-19 but we’ve raised money for Mind and Dartmoor Zoo; it is important to give something back when we’ve done so well as a business.” 

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