Vikki Jackson-Smith turns rubbish into profits as managing director of J&B Recycling. She tells Liz Hands why waste is a growth industry.
Vikki Jackson-Smith claims that she isn’t Wonder Woman. But I beg to differ. She’s been up since 5.30am to take her daughter to swimming practice, before dashing around on site visits at J&B Recycling, the family firm she heads up, and then sitting down to talk to me.
When she was a child, Jackson-Smith wanted to be a nursery school teacher, but it soon became obvious where she was meant to be. From being a Saturday girl, she now runs the family company, which – to use a cliché – turns “trash into cash”.
At the age of 13, she worked on the weighbridge in her father Alan Jackson’s coal business during school holidays. “I’ve always been surrounded by dirty industry and mucky wagons,” she says.
Her father’s firm, Jackson’s Fuel Company, in Hartlepool was one of the country’s biggest importers and exporters of solid fuel. He held contracts for major power stations in the North of England, bringing in tens of thousands of tonnes of coal every year for business and domestic markets.
There was a fleet of 30 tipper trucks making deliveries, and Jackson-Smith began to take an interest in logistics. While she was waiting for GCSE results, her father asked if she would help-out, and she began to seriously think about making a career for herself in the family business.
“When I was offered a full-time position with the company, I decided to prove myself; to show I wasn’t just there because I was the boss’ daughter, so I started looking at the qualifications needed to be able to give the drivers their instructions,” says Jackson-Smith. At 17, she gained a certificate of professional competence in road haulage. “I did an Open University course and didn’t tell anyone what I was doing until I finished. Dad was proud and I got my first company car. I’d been driving around in a classic Morris Minor that I bought myself from my wages. It cost me £500 and it got me noticed everywhere I went, particularly when I had to be pushed on Stockton High Street.”
With the right qualifications, Jackson-Smith became transport manager and the operator’s license was put into her name; a big responsibility at the age of 18. The business was thriving, but it changed overnight once Britain’s power stations were privatised.
“No contracts were being renewed because the power stations could import cheaper directly,” says Jackson-Smith. “We had to close one of our sites. We were still bringing in coal for the domestic market, but we went from having 60 employees to 20. Letting people go is one of the hardest things we ever had to do.
“Not only did we stop supplying the power stations, but we had competition with gas coming into the area, meaning we had to go further afield with our domestic deliveries. We were losing 20% in sales year-on-year. So, the evidence was there; we either closed the business or we had to diversify.”
In 1998, her father was getting to an age when he was thinking about retiring. “He asked if I would like to take it on,” she says. “We owned the site as a family and we had an infrastructure in terms of logistics, processing and moving tonnages around. So, it was a question of what we did with that.”
When Jackson-Smith was just 27, she took on the business that was to become J&B Recycling. In 2000, landfill tax was introduced, meaning companies were charged depending on how heavy their bins were, and she saw an opportunity.
“We did a lot of research and everything we were looking at needed a lot of investment,” she says. “While everything in the coal industry could be processed outside, everything in the waste industry needs to be inside. So, we had the site, the weighbridge and the skills, but we needed to invest a lot of money.”
It was at the point that local authorities were starting to recycle. However, because it was all very new to councils, they were nervous about dealing with firms without experience, so the biggest hurdle was to find a way to get experience without being awarded a contract.
“Landfill tax came in when alcopops became fashionable – Lemon Hooch and Bacardi Breezers – and all those bottles were non-returnable,” she explains. “They were all going into the waste bins, making bins heavier, and the bars were being charged higher disposal costs.”
With her in-laws running a pub in Hartlepool, Jackson-Smith asked them to collect their bottles so she could see the amount of glass she could potentially pick up from busy pubs and clubs in the town. From there, the service was rolled out across Hartlepool, with a free collection for mixed glass bottles.
“I’d just got married and had my son. I used to put him to bed and then phone all the pubs in the Yellow Pages to ask if they were interested in glass recycling and, because it was free, they pricked their ears up.
“That gave me something to talk about,” she says. “Now we had experience, we were collecting waste, we were a recycling company. I went to every recycling forum going that I knew local authorities would be at so I could push our services.”
The firm got its first kerbside contract in 2003 and was well established as a recycling business within three years. When Jackson-Smith first set up the recycling arm, it was to safeguard the jobs of the remaining 20 employees and the coal side of the business was still running. However, that stopped in 2005 when J&B got its first co-mingled recycling contract, where material came in together and needed to be sorted over picking lines. Investment was made in the vehicle fleet, changing from flatbed lorries to glass and skip vehicles.
Always on the lookout for what J&B could do differently in the area, it also started recycling plastic, which wasn’t being done by anyone else at that time, building up contacts and contracts for all materials from Scotland down to North Yorkshire. Now, J&B has taken material from London and Ireland, with 21 vehicles, 195 full-time staff and 25 agency staff. It recycles 170,000 tonnes of material across its three sites in Hartlepool and Middlesbrough every year with turnover having increased by 41% in the past financial year to £13.5m.
In 2014, J&B received Business Growth Fund (BGF) cash, which allowed it to invest. At the Hartlepool site where we meet, Jackson-Smith estimates £7-8m has been ploughed into new machinery. The funding slightly changed the ownership, with the BGF coming in as a minority shareholder. But the firm is still very much a family affair. With Jackson-Smith at the helm, her husband, Stephen, heads up operations, while her father is still hands-on.
The firm has gone from hand sorting to using up-to-the-minute machines that can recognise plastic bottles and use jets to flick them off conveyor belts. Steel is sorted into ferrous and non-ferrous for different markets. Material comes in mixed, and J&B gets it to a point where it is a commodity.
Paper, for example, heads off to a mill in North Wales. Plastics are reprocessed, washed and flaked so they can be transformed into garden furniture, pipes, or back into packaging. In short, J&B finds an outlet for every type of material it brings in. Across the sites, myriad materials are reprocessed, including rigid plastics, scrap metal, wood, mattresses, rubble, waste electrical appliances and plasterboard. It also works with a partner to provide food waste handling.
Jackson-Smith isn’t stopping there. She has already gone through an 18-month efficiency programme, looking at processes, and monitoring downtime. That downtime – the time machinery isn’t operating – has reduced from 12% to less than 4% on average, although currently the firm is running at 2.5%. Clean downs are more efficient and more preventative maintenance is carried out.
The entrepreneur believes there is still more she could do with material without additional tonnages. “There are already projects we’ve identified within the business to add value to the materials we separate,” she says. “For example, we supply a mixed bottle grade of plastics to reprocessors but we could sort into different polymers, which would attract a higher value. With a little more investment, we could take that to the next level.”
She also has her eye on expansion on a wider scale. “There are things we can do here but we’re also looking to push out into other sites,” she explains. “We’ve got our model right, and we’re confident we’re at the optimum performance for processing, so it’s about duplicating and expanding.”
It’s no surprise talk turns to Brexit. But Jackson-Smith isn’t worried. “We’re not going to suddenly start putting everything back into the ground again,” she says. “The public is on board with recycling and companies want to be seen to be doing the right thing, and getting the cost benefits.
“Not everything we’ve done in the past 17 years had been enforced on us. We’ve been looking at opportunities and taking them. But there’s still more which could be done, like in Scotland, where there is a zero-waste plan.”
Now, the firm has turned full circle. While Jackson-Smith was once the one working there during the summer, her father is now the one with the summer job. “He’s retired but he loves to be here and the staff have huge respect for him,” she smiles. “He’s always told me that you can’t put your head in the sand, that you have to face things head-on, and that you must communicate well with people so they are on-board with what you’re trying to do.”
When Jackson-Smith has an idea, she runs with it. “I’ve been fortunate because, although I’ve never worked anywhere else, it’s never been boring. There’s been many a time I’ve come in and done a trial myself, sorting stuff out on the floor to see what can be done. And then it gets exciting because you can implement your plan. There’s nothing here I wouldn’t do myself, and people respect that.
“But I’m not Wonder Woman and I can’t do everything singlehandedly. I’ve got a really good team and a great management structure.” That team includes Stephen, who came on-board after a career in the Royal Navy when Jackson-Smith needed someone to run the operations side of the business while she concentrated on financials, networking, marketing and sales.
“Within three years, we met, were engaged, married, we had our first child and I was starting a business,” she says. “I’m an all-or-nothing type of person. I often think there must be more than 24 hours in every day for what I fit in.”
And, with that, she’s off, squeezing as much as possible into the working day, before walking the dog, standing freezing on the sidelines while her son plays rugby, then sweltering by the swimming pool with her daughter, all the time catching up on emails and reading about goings on in the waste industry and the business world.