If you work in or near central London then chances are you’ve seen one of First Mile’s collection trucks, even if you’ve not realised it. Its fleet of 50 vehicles picks up recycling from 15,000 businesses in the capital, making millions of collections each year. Founded 10 years ago, today it’s one of London's largest private commercial recycling businesses, employs 100 people and is set to turn over at least £11m this year.
Its CEO and co-founder is Dr Bruce Bratley, who has a PhD in waste management and a name not dissimilar to the Incredible Hulk. He created the business in response to what he thought was poor quality and expensive service from local authorities who deal with recycling for small businesses in dense urban areas. He says small companies had difficulty getting their recycling done because a lot of larger providers wouldn't touch them and so councils didn't have to compete.
His solution was to launch First Mile, which relies heavily on technology to keep costs down and improve customer service. It has developed a proprietary computer system that connects managers with sales teams, collectors and customers. Data collected by the system can be analysed and used to make the routes more efficient - an edge that Bratley says was key to First Mile's success so far.
A First Mile truck near Carnaby Street, London
‘It’s a classic story of taking a grungy bit of the industry, adding some clever thoughts and some technology and turning it on its head,’ he tells MT. In a sense the business works like a reverse Ocado - managing collections and offering customers a slick and user friendly face to deal with whilst outsourcing the end product - the actual job of recycling - to other businesses.
Bratley is defiant about the possibility of new entrants challenging First Mile, pointing out that, while the startup costs of a waste management company may be low, as operations grow and compliance becomes a bigger issue, things get a lot more complicated.
‘They try to [compete with us] but I don’t think they realise how central our systems are and they’re not as smart as we are really,’ he says. ‘Quite a lot of people try to do what we do and fail, and those are the sort of businesses we’re picking up for nothing a couple of years later.’
Acquisitions are a key part of First Mile’s growth strategy. Bratley says they typically snap up a competitor every six to eight months - often distressed businesses that have lost their way and can be taken over for next to nothing. Combined with taking on more customers, this has helped the business' rapid expansion - in 2013 revenues grew 45% and this year have risen by around 30%.
And it’s not just sales that are soaring. First Mile is a very profitable business too – pre-tax profits more than doubled to £1.47m last year according to Companies House records. This has the added bonus of keeping the need to bring in investors at bay, helping Bratley and his co-founder Paul Ashworth retain a majority stake in the business. ‘We have no requirement for their expensive money at the moment,’ he says.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the business's market leadership is the prospect of bigger competitors like Veolia and Biffa developing systems that allow them to compete on the same terms as First Mile. But Bratley's not scared.
Bratley at First Mile's recent 10th Birthday party
'Even some of the big guys try and copy what we’re doing in city centres but they're just falling down as well, because you have to have very specific systems to deliver the level of services that our customers expect,' he says.
First Mile also has a base in Birmingham and has been rolling out into other cities through partnerships. Bratley says it could use its technology to operate on a franchise model to accelerate growth in the future. At the moment it's taking on customers at a rate of 15 per day and its 100-strong workforce only looks set to get bigger.
‘It’s a pretty significant set of achievements really, considering I started it out on my own 10 years ago with a van parked outside my house,' he says. Not exactly modest, but then again it takes a lot of ingenuity to turn trash into cash.