There’s no doubt that when entrepreneur James Capel puts his mind to something, he’s determined to do it. Having grown up in the hospitality industry, customer service excellence runs through his veins and he attributes his keenness to put customer service at the top of the agenda as one of the reasons for his success. In little more than seven years, he has turned the company he launched in 2005 into a multi-million turnover business and, in the past 18 months, has embarked on a punishing fitness campaign which has seen him lose an astonishing six stone in weight and join the fast-growing band of triathlon fans. Alison Dewar found out what makes him tick.
Although born in Oxford, Capel spent most of his childhood and teenage years living in Yorkshire, where his parents ran a large and successful pub between Leeds and York. A popular venue for weddings and functions, especially for the racing fraternity, Capel began working split shifts in the kitchen at just 13. It was, he says, hard graft and unsocial hours and the fact the pub was run by his parents meant he worked even harder to keep customers satisfied.
A family move saw him return to the Thames Valley and, while studying for his A Levels, a chance opportunity to earn some pocket money for the summer as a loader at a local waste management company, unwittingly set him on his future career. Having studied English, History and Law at Amersham and Wycombe College, he returned to the waste business post-graduation as a traffic controller.
From there, he rose up the ranks until, in 2005, together with two colleagues, he spotted an opportunity to do things differently and launched Simply Waste Solutions. Today the business, based in Langley near Slough, has a turnover of some £13 million and employs around 65 people. It handles over 20,000 waste collections every month nationwide, facilitating the processing of over 50,000 tonnes of waste and recycling material every year, and has clients throughout the whole of the UK.
You really did start at the bottom of the waste business and work your way up, what was your driving force?
There were a number of factors. Having grown up in a business owned by my parents, the entrepreneur in me wanted to run my own company. I had a very strong work ethic instilled in me from an early age and wasn’t afraid of hard work.
Being involved in waste management, at the time I felt that customer service wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of the industry, it wasn’t executed very well and there was room for improvement. I wanted to build long-term relationships with customers, to nurture their business and put a real emphasis on service, I felt I could make a difference.
How did you get started?
I had a small mortgage and, at the time, there was just my partner Natalie – now my wife – and myself. I knew that if we didn’t take that leap of faith then, before we had children, then it wouldn’t happen.
There were originally three of us that set up the business, although I’m now the sole owner, and we each put in £3,000 to start the company. Armed with a business plan, we went to Bank of Scotland and asked for a loan to buy two second-hand trucks, which we purchased for £40,000. From there we were able to generate enough cashflow to invest back into the business and, with the help of asset finance, we’ve always supported ourselves from that point on.
Now of course, we can afford to buy new trucks and last year invested over a £1 million in a new fleet of vehicles, with a number more already ordered for this year.
What was your first success?
We were fortunate in that we worked with Greenstar, a waste broker which handled big contracts and they were good at putting customers our way. At the time, the west and central areas of London weren’t particularly well served by local private waste contractors and, as that was who the brokers preferred to work with, we were in prime position. As time went on, we began to gain our own clients too and the business started to grow.
Was there a particular contract or client which made a big difference?
Winning Waitrose and John Lewis was a real step change for us. Just over a year after we started the business, Waitrose contacted us after finding us on the Internet. They were disappointed with the level of service they had from their original waste contractor and wanted to know if we could help. They gave us the opportunity of a trial, managing waste over the Christmas period for their stores in London. When we completed that contract successfully and proved we could do the job, they extended the programme.
Now we are the sole waste contractor for both Waitrose and John Lewis throughout the UK, which is pretty impressive, not least because they are one of the most reputable retailers in the UK and, as far as we are concerned, they are a fantastic company to do business with.
You’re clearly passionate about waste management and diverting waste from landfill. If you had five minutes to talk to the prime minister about waste management, what would you want to say?
I don’t think enough is being done to convince people to recycle. There is a fantastic opportunity to do more and I’d like to see that being driven by increased legislation to force companies to recycle far more than they do.
Landfill tax is beginning to lose its inertia as a driver for change and we could do well to look at what is happening in Scotland and Wales, where they are being more prescriptive in terms of legislation on waste.
For example, if an organisation produces over 50kg of food waste, then they should be made to have a separate food waste collection so it can go to energy or compost. Similarly with other recyclable material, companies have to recycle it.
In England, there seems to be a lack of desire to legislate and there’s too much red tape. We need to make waste management much clearer and easier to manage. Then we will get more involvement and buy-in from businesses and it will mean waste management companies would be able to invest more in the right facilities and services for customers.
What next for Simply Waste?
Our goal is to carry on doing what we do and make sure we maintain our reputation for good customer service, good environmental standards and good ethics – both in the way we conduct our business and the way we treat our staff.
I believe if you stick to your principles in business then you attract the right people and you become the type of business you want to be.
I’d like to see Simply Waste double in size in the next five years and I think we’re very well positioned to make that happen.
Who inspires you?
On a business level it would have to be self-made entrepreneurs such as Lord Sugar and Richard Branson, who came from virtually nothing to build their businesses. On a more personal level, I take inspiration from many unsung heroes, such as Tony Phoenix-Morrison who ran from John O’Groats to Lands End with a fridge on his back to raise money for cancer research.
I think you don’t have to look very far to find inspirational people in the community, whether that’s coaching local football teams or organising things for children. British people have a real tenacity for those sorts of things and I really admire them.
Football is something of a theme for Simply Waste isn’t it?
Yes, we sponsor a number of local football teams, both young adults and youngsters and through our charity days we also support Schools 4 Schools, which focuses on children in Gambia, West Africa, raising funds for schools and providing equipment.
At a company level, we were also thrilled when our very own Simply Waste football team recently won the Waste World Cup, a football tournament organised and supported by letsrecycle.com in which waste management companies from all over the UK compete for the champion title. So well done to everyone who took part.
Do you play to keep fit?
I’m a West Ham fan but I don’t play football myself. My daughter Maisie is two-years-old and my wife is expecting another baby in January, so I decided last year that I had to do something to get fit. I wanted to have enough energy to run around with them as well as juggle running the business.
I’m 35 and as you get older, you realise you’re not indestructible, so I’ve been working out and been on a strict diet. I’ve lost six stone in 18 months and ran my first triathlon a month ago, which was a great achievement.
I was also very proud to do the London to Brighton bicycle ride and raised £2,500 for Great Ormond Street Hospital and I’m now training for the London to Paris bicycle ride next April as well as the next Blenheim triathlon, so that’s the next big thing on my agenda.
Simply Waste Ltd website