Jacqueline O’Donovan is the hands-on managing director of O’Donovan Waste Disposal, one of London’s leading waste disposal companies.
She took control of the company at the age of just 19 following the sudden death of her father Joe, who died of a heart attack aged 51.
Under her leadership, the family business has since grown year-on-year, creating a £16m turnover business in an industry worth £574m.
Her story is one of real determination. A ‘woman in a man’s industry’, she took over the business with no business experience at all - she had never even had a job interview.
“The company was started back in 1959 by my late father Joe who died in 1985 at the age of just 51 from a heart attack,” said Jacqueline, at that point I was 17. “I’m the youngest of four, two girls and two boys.
“I left school at 16, I ran out of there as quick as I could. I had secured a child-minding job at an RAF base in Germany alongside a school friend of mine. Then when my dad died, I was left at home for a few months looking after mum, it was a huge shock for us all.
“After my father’s passing it took a while for us to figure out what to do with the business. We decided that we would have to downsize as we got over the shock of what had happened. Myself and my three siblings came into the business and it evolved from there.
“As we started to get to work, different attributes of our characters were coming out during the process, I just naturally fell into the managing director role. I had no previous business experience, I had never even had a job interview!”
Running a business at the age of 19, especially one which employed a lot of people significantly older and experienced, could have been quite a daunting experience, but it never phased Jacqueline.
Over the first few years, the business started to regain momentum and grew steadily. However, like any great business story, it wasn’t all plain sailing. In the early 90’s, recession hit, and it was a real test to Jacqueline’s character.
“The first recession was obviously a massive shock for us as I hadn’t been through one before," she said. "I battened down the hatches. If you needed a new pen, you came to me to get your new pen. All stationary was cancelled. I’m going back what must be 30 years now. Everything was minimised, post went out 2nd class instead of 1st."
Making herself clearly aware of where every penny was being spent, the decision proved a shrewd one and the company came through the recession unscathed. She added: "Although these were all small little changes, they proved to be very financially rewarding. We made lots of savings and it helped us get through.”
As you can imagine, Jacqueline had to be pretty thick skinned when she took up her role and her resilience and determination carried her through: “My biggest challenge I suppose was not having done anything like this before, I had to go with my gut reaction. I had to go with how I felt about any scenario.
“Being a woman in a man’s industry has also been a challenge. It’s not one that has bothered me but it has been a challenge, especially when dealing with people in certain professions like banks and consultants, things like that. I think I’ve had to work harder to prove myself because I’m a woman in this industry. People naturally assume that ‘I’m the wife of’ as opposed to ‘I am the.’
“As I’m a woman captaining the ship however, I look at things completely different to a male’s perspective. I think I have the ability to look ahead because of my experiences since the age of 19. I’m always looking at the pit falls, what could potentially happen, and compiling a risk assessment in my head. It helps us plan for any eventuality.”
Since taking on the company Jacqueline has won the admiration of not only her staff but also fellow industry professionals due to her hands-on approach and forward thinking.
And there are very good reasons why she has made such a mark. For example, she doesn't even have her own office. Turn up at the company’s head office in Tottenham and you’ll most likely see her sat amongst the rest of their staff working away.
We were lucky that we were actually able to draw her away from the office for the interview! “I’ve actually had to come out of the office to talk to you as I sit amongst the plant and the transport team in our office," she joked.
“I think there’s better comradery amongst the teams because of this. As you can imagine, keeping the spirits of 160 people up is quite a task for one person. The fact that we all (the four siblings) sit in different offices and sit amongst our teams and the fact that we don’t have our own private offices, I think provides a major morale boost to our staff.
“I also think it enables us to be one step ahead. We’re basically on the ground speaking to the drivers and the workers every day, it keeps our feet on the ground. We’re not in an office with a closed door thinking ‘everything is rosy and hunky-dory out there.’ We hear if something is going on whether it’s something in the news or a topical conversation among the lads and we can react to it.”
O’Donovan’s is also a proud employer of the London Living Wage and has won a series of accolades over the past few years for its commitment to its staff. On top of this, the company has also scooped a series of awards for its sustainability, which is another aspect of the business Jaqueline is commited to driving forward.
Speaking about the changes she has made, she said: “We’ve introduced really simple yet effective changes to make us more sustainable as a business. I’m a firm believer in keeping things simple, why complicate things? For example, we have introduced a new anti-idling policy whereby our drivers are monitored on a daily basis as to how much their vehicles are idling. We noticed there was a lot of idling going on because of course they had no incentive to turn their vehicles off.
“We brought in a competition where our drivers received either a red, amber or green certificate with their wages at the end of the week. Of course, nobody wanted to get the red certificate and be deemed as the one who was failing. We cut our idling by 50% on the back of this, it worked wonders.”
Business at O’Donovan’s now appears to be better than ever and Jacqueline is confident about the future, despite the economic uncertainties surrounding the UK following Britain’s decision to leave the UK. She is the first to admit that the current situation isn’t ideal but as an entrepreneurial nation, she believes we have what it takes to battle through it.
“The result of the EU referendum has affected us," she added, "we were just talking about it today actually. The phones are quite quiet at the moment, I think there’s a real lack of confidence in Britain as a whole.
“I think the sooner Theresa May comes out and says what she is going to do and starts moving forward I think confidence will come back in. I have no doubt that Britain is great and we can stand on our own two feet. I think people just don’t like uncertainty, the sooner the plans are made clearer the better.”
As Jacqueline approaches the big 5-0 later this year, it also marks 30 years since she took control of O’Donovan’s and she has ambitious plans for the future. Having established the business in the South of England, she is now eyeing further growth across the UK.
She concluded: “We’re now one of London’s largest independent waste management companies. We do anything from skip hire to one off bins, demolition, we have a plant hire company, site clearance, tippers, basically we like to think we’re the one stop shop for construction sites in regards to loading and shipping waste out. We employ 160 members of staff and boast a turnover of over £19m.
“Looking forward however, I’m looking to expand the business into different areas of the country. We’re known throughout England now because of our accreditations and awards for safety, initiatives, and sustainability.
“Ideally I’d like to take our business model up north into a couple of the major cities such as Liverpool and Manchester, places like that. I would also like to see us diversify into new sectors.
“We predominantly work in the construction and demolition sectors but I think we can also tap into the food and retail sectors among others as we continue growing.”