Inspiration for a new business can come from the unlikeliest of places. For Gwen Powell, it came from the apple cores, banana peels, teabags and coffee grounds thrown into the office rubbish bins. Just over three years ago, she left a legal career spanning 17 years to set up kompost, the on-site food waste recycling company, which today counts SEGRO HQ, Softcat, Henley Business School, Seacourt, the New Economics Foundation, GSK and Wolseley UK among its growing list of clients. On the cusp of taking the business to the next level, Powell – dubbed “the compost girl” – talked to Eleanor Harris about her dream to roll it out across the country, her love affair with worms, and why she considers herself more entrepreneur than eco-warrior.
Gwen Powell is founding director of kompost, based in Cippenham, Slough. She was born in 1974 in Pretoria, South Africa, and lived there until the age of 14, when her family moved to a farm near the village of Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga. After high school she did a course in office administration, and got her first job as a secretary in a law firm. Over the next 16 years she worked her way up to become a paralegal in conveyancing, and during that time immigrated to the UK. She founded kompost in August 2009, and it has two employees – Powell, and her partner Dennis Geertsen. The company achieved second place in SEGRO’s The Entrepreneur Competition 2013 and has been shortlisted for the Resource Revolution Awards 2013, in the category Beyond Zero Waste Achievement. Powell is a CIWM affiliate, a member of AfOR, FSB, 2degrees and NISP, and also a proud Rotarian. She lives in Cippenham with Geertsen and their rescued dog, Sam. Follow her blog at kompostgirl.blogspot.com
Why did you set up your own business?
I was brought up in a family that always owned their own businesses. My parents had a coach touring business, and when they got tired of the road they bought a farm house and turned it into a guest house. We were roped in to help and had to work for our pocket money. Through the way that my parents raised me, I became quite sure that I wanted to do my own thing one day but then I got stuck in a legal job. I really enjoyed the security of the income, but then the property market collapsed and the firm I was working for started to struggle, and I took voluntary redundancy. I secured a year’s maternity cover contract at Rank, but I came to the point where I thought to myself “do I really want to go back to pushing paper around on a desk?” It was crunch time. I realised I needed to do something with my life, that was a conscious thing, but the idea of the business happened completely by accident.
What attracted you to the world of food waste?
At home, our borough council had delivered compost bins to encourage residential composting – we had been spending lots of money on compost for the garden, so we took up the challenge and started composting. Back at Rank I saw all these teabags, coffee grounds, banana peels and apple cores being chucked into the rubbish bin which was going to landfill. There were recycling stations for paper and plastic, but not for food waste. I thought to myself “no way, I can make more compost at home”, so I put down some food waste caddies in the kitchens for the staff. Within three days, you won’t believe it, I was walking home with bags full of food scraps – it just took off. I put up six more compost bins in our garden, bought 20kg of composting worms and chucked them in. Three months later I had the most beautiful compost, it was just stunning, black, crumbly, and I fell in love with earthworms.
How did you turn that concept – and passion – into a business?
I did my research, figured out that you can do composting on-site at business premises. I put down compost bins, accelerated with composting worms, at Rank and a couple of other companies took us on to do the same for them. Already there was this movement towards getting food waste away from landfill. The fact that I could actually turn the concept into a business is something I was probably born with. I realised I needed something that could deal with proper catering waste: I found an in-vessel composter, made contact with the manufacturer, and rolled out the “komposter™”. I set up four trial sites, at no charge to the businesses, which we ran for 18 months, and really emerged myself into this new industry. The trial sites turned into paying clients, and I worked on marketing – I’ve done all of that myself because I didn’t have the funds, we were living from savings and credit cards – without the internet and social networking to do that, I don’t think this business would have been possible. I was very fortunate to be introduced to Norman Grundon, from Grundon Waste, in the early days of kompost and he said to me – and this has given me so much confidence and hope – “we’ve been sitting around the boardroom table for years knowing that this issue with food waste is coming, but we didn’t know how to deal with it” – waste operators have to use a separate fleet of trucks to collect it, and the UK is running out of capacity with anaerobic digesters – “you don’t know what you’ve discovered, you’ve spotted a gap in the market.” We’ve come along, we’re giving a broad client care where we train each business how to do it and we stay with them – and it all happens there, on-site.
Is there one project that stands out for you?
Henley Business School really stands out for me. They have been super-supportive throughout our journey. They have gone on to install two komposter units, and to bring the process full circle they are growing herbs that go back into the kitchen – it goes beyond zero waste. They were already doing food waste collections, but the food waste had to travel quite a distance, and they wanted to do something on-site to show continuous improvement on the ISO14001 standard they had just achieved. The sites are all so different: at Softcat, the office workers go through so many teabags, and they use kompost wormeries – they convert 78,000 teabags annually into one tonne of compost. The staff really buy into it, it’s recycling that happens right in front of their eyes, it’s like magic.
Is there a dream client you would love to get on board?
A Michelin-starred chef. If they could become our champion, it would just be fantastic. Raymond Blanc is the president of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, of which we are a supplying member, so he would be the ultimate one to get on board.
What are your ambitions for the business?
It’s taken three and a half years to get to this point but I feel we are now on the cusp, I can really put kompost out in the market and say we’ve had our trials and tribulations, but we’ve learned our lessons and we know what we’re doing. It’s an exciting time – we have 12 sites, and people are coming to us to provide food waste solutions. My ultimate dream is to turn kompost into a franchise, where licensees across the country can do it as well. I want to get us out there but also enable other like-minded people to set up their own microbusinesses. What we really need is for an investor to come along, and to take kompost to the next level. At the moment, it is a business with huge potential but it needs that injection and experience. We will need bigger premises, where we can distribute the komposter units and give training to our licensees. I went through a tough time with the redundancy, and there are other people who are facing that, and then there’s the problem with food waste – so if these two things can come together and we can actually roll this out across the country with other people having their own microbusinesses, then why not?
Do you see yourself more as an entrepreneur or eco-warrior?
Definitely an entrepreneur. It’s interesting, I was known as the ‘compost girl’ at Rank, and when people meet me they think I will be this activist, tying myself to the railway to stop the HS2 from coming – of course I care for the environment, but I’m too pragmatic as a business person to believe that that’s the way that things will work. We need to find a good balance between the two, and that’s what I’m hoping to achieve with this – it’s not to focus just on the environment or just on the business, it’s all about a sustainable balance. I’m a third generation entrepreneur and it’s very important to me to be continuing that tradition, it’s genetic, I do believe that. But I don’t see myself as a serial entrepreneur – I’m putting all my energy and emotions into this one thing.
You say that you are a “future philanthropist” – tell me more. And if you had a £10 million windfall, would you invest it in the company or give it away?
I once met someone and on her business card her title was “philanthropist” – it made such an impression on me. I’ve always been the kind of person who would bring home all the lame dogs and the ducks with broken wings, but to really put it into effect you do need a bit of money behind you. If I won the lottery, I’d go half and half – again, it’s that sustainable balance. I hope I will be able to make a difference, probably back in Africa, for animals and children, and I’d like to see kompost come to full fruition so I’d invest a big chunk and make sure that kompost goes where it needs to go. If it doesn’t work out, it will be sad, but I’ll start over again: that is another thing that makes you an entrepreneur, the fact that failure doesn’t scare you, you just say “I’ve tried this” and then try again. I’ve lost so much in my life already that this will not faze me. In 1997, my mum and my aunt each lost two children, I lost my two brothers and cousins. Life punches you around and then it’s a choice whether you are going to get up or not – we’ve chosen as a family to get back up.
What would you consider your greatest achievement?
Going through an experience, like redundancy, and looking the world in the eye again, and when the opportunity presented itself, quite by accident, grabbing it and shaking it and saying we’re going to do this – that’s what I feel proudest about, I didn’t go and lie down, I managed to turn it into something that I’m proud of, and something that’s got the full 100% – it makes me happy, my partner happy, our clients happy, and the environment happy at the end of the day, it’s really a full circle.
Gwen Powell – kompost