By Sandra Dick
Nearly 6400 miles and a massive cultural gulf separate Bathgate in Scotland’s central belt and the eight million people of Vietnam’s sprawling Ho Chi Minh city.
Perhaps the only thing that might possibly connect them, is something that unites communities the world over. How to deal with their waste. Nevertheless, when the phone rang at Scotwaste’s integrated skip hire and waste management business near Bathgate, issues in Vietnam were furthest from anyone’s mind. Before long though, CEO Stewart Melrose and managing director Brian Ramsay were sending staff off to rummage in cupboards for hi-vis jackets and hardhats.
Outside sat a bus full of curious Vietnamese government officials. Inside Scotwaste staff were trying to figure out how to break down an impossible language barrier, and show the top level delegation how one of Scotland’s leading waste management businesses organises its’ recycling. It was probably one of the most bizarre moments in the West Lothian family run business’s history.
“We got a phone call out of the blue from someone, asking if a government minister from Vietnam could come and visit,” recalled Stewart, whose father, Stewart Snr, laid down Scotwaste’s foundations four decades ago with his truck parts and export business.
“We thought there would be a couple of people turn up. Then a bus drew up and about 20 people got off. We struggled to find enough hard hats to go around.” No one knows why Scotwaste ended up on the Vietnamese radar as a business they simply had to visit. “It was a bit of a struggle with the language. Not many of us speak much Vietnamese here,” laughed Stewart.
He rummages through a massive pile of business cards, and finds the one he’s looking for. “He was the Vice Minister for Natural Resources and Environment, Tran Hong Ha,” he reads. “I’ve no idea why he came to us, but it was nice to have the attention.”
It might be because Scotwaste is one of many waste management business success stories to share a common theme: small family business evolves – almost accidentally – into the burgeoning area of waste management. There’s hard work, foresight and a smash through the barriers posed by bureaucracy and licensing requirements, to emerge with a formidable modern business that isn’t just doing its bit for the environment, but providing much needed jobs and doing it with a burgeoning turnover too.
The past six years have seen better than healthy growth. From turnover of £2m. and 25 staff in 2010, Scotwaste now ticks along with an £8m turnover, 80 staff, 30 vehicles and a 92 – 96% recycling success rate.Its’ 32 acre site sits slap between Edinburgh and Glasgow, with lots of elbow room for future development when they feel like it – they already have planning permission for an proposed anaerobic digestion plant.
The past 18 months have seen around £750,000 spent on new kit, including a custom built trommel created to Scotwaste’s spec by M&K of County Tyrone, new cleaning systems, magnets and automatic balers. This is kept extremely busy with 3000 tonnes of mixed waste coming over their weighbridge every month.
From time to time waste is delivered by Stewart’s 18-year-old son Sebastian. A Formula Ford driver whose racing inspiration comes from his godfather – his dad’s old school chum Scottish Indy 500 legend, Dario Franchitti.
MASSIVE LEAP FROM 1972
Negotiating the A roads around the Bathgate depot, is surely a million miles away from his recent Brands Hatch appearance at the wheel of his racing car, emblazoned with his sponsor’s names. Scotwaste, of course, is among them.
All of which is a massive leap from 1972, when Stewart’s father left the Merchant Navy with a business idea inspired by what he’d seen in the Far East.
“He had an idea that there was a market in the Far East for second hand truck engines,” Stewart continued. “So he started to buy engines and exported them.”
Stewart Melrose (Bathgate) Ltd went on to send vehicle parts to all corners of the world. By 2000 what the family business had been doing for years was being described by authorities as ‘recycling’. And that required new waste management licences.
“A lot of businesses in that position saw this as another licence to pay for, and interference at local government level,” recalled Stewart. “But we decided to work with the authorities and get the licence and it opened our eyes to what we could do.
“The pound wasn’t very stable at that time. We could be exporting one month, next month it was dire. So 28 years after the firm was first established, we got into the waste business.”
One lorry and five skips, soon become two lorries and 20 skips. The waste business soon overtook its’ vehicle parts export cousin and the rest is history.
When former head of Biffa in Scotland Brian Ramsay decided to sell the waste management business he’d set up in 2008, his expertise was snapped up. His impact as managing director has taken Scotwaste from half and half domestic skip hire and waste management, to 95 per cent waste management and five per cent domestic skip hire.
Today the business juggles commercial and local authority contracts with sub-contracting food waste pick ups – they work with Aberdeen-based Keenan Recycling for that – plus a book of construction and demolition contracts.
“We’re big on refuse collection, working with commercial offices, pubs, restaurants, multi-nationals,” says Brian. “We’re up for everything; and we’re experts in various fields.”
When nearby Edinburgh City Council decided to step away from collecting trade waste in July this year as part of budget saving moves, Scotwaste was ready to step in. That, says Stewart, is the edge a family run business has over a plc – instant decisions to move quickly on big jobs to reap the large rewards.
Right now it’s a case of doing what they can to ‘future-proof’ the business. Invest in equipment, manage growth, and continue to build the brand.
“We must be doing something right,” added Stewart. “We haven’t had to get massive extra investment to encourage growth, and we’ve not bought growth by buying other companies. It’s come from customer service, and we’ve done it ourselves.
“As long as we keep this up and keep investing in better equipment, then I think we’ll be fine.”
Scotwaste, Whitburn Road, Bathgate, West Lothian