Bruce Bratley: I make £4.2m a year from the recycle bin

When his employers wouldn’t listen to his expansion plans, Bruce Bratley realised that he needed to start his own firm. Bratley had spent three years as the commercial director of Valpak – a not-for-profit trader of recycled package permits. He wanted to turn it into a profit-making organisation, but its owners, a coalition of large retailers, weren’t keen. “They wanted to keep it as a cosy trade association,” remembers Bratley, now 42. In 2000 he decided to leave. “I wanted to be free to grow a business and concentrate on making money.”

Bratley wanted to set up a recycling business, but needed more time and money. He found a job as a recycling consultant while he worked on his business plan. “I realised the inner city waste market had potential. At the time private-sector refuse collectors were large firms concentrating on high-volume clients. They avoided smaller firms in congested areas.” For many businesses the only option was local councils, “who often charged a lot for a bad service”.

Bratley’s plan was to offer mixed recycling. “Instead of organising waste into different sections, they could put it together.” That was key, because it saved storage space. “If these firms are paying a premium for a central London location, they don’t want to waste space with five different bins.” He also planned to offer 24-hour collections. “I knew the efficiency of being able to pick up rubbish just after the cleaners left would appeal to many clients.” When Bratley mentioned the idea to Paul Ashworth, CEO of a firm he consulted for, Ashworth offered to come on board as a partner.

Not wanting to start from scratch, they lined up venture capital backing and searched for a business to buy. “We were looking for a business with around £1m in sales.” Eventually they found a suitable candidate, but then discovered one of the firm’s major contracts was to be cancelled. They called off the sale and started the new business themselves, each contributing £20,000 to set up First Mile.

To attract clients, they faxed an expensive advertisement alerting firms to the new service. “We sent it out to 20,000 companies and only got one response. And that told us to ‘sod off’.” Bratley decided that he would have more luck face to face, and set off on foot around central London. “One of the biggest challenges was educating people. They always assumed we would be more expensive than the council.” Soon Bratley had ten customers, including suit maker TM Lewin, and the pair hired a van driver. To save money, the partners drove the van themselves on the weekend and rented a serviced office. Rubbish sorting was outsourced to recycling plants.

By 2005 turnover had reached £350,000 and the pair set up their own office. “Once you reach a certain point, serviced offices get more expensive.” They invested heavily in a fancy IT system that handled orders automatically and passed them on to the drivers’ handheld computers. “It has saved us a lot of money because it means we need less staff.”

By 2011 First Mile had 60 employees and sales of £4.2m. The pair recently launched operations in Birmingham and plan to move to Britain’s ten-largest cities.