Paul Van den Bergh was always determined to run his own business. "My dad was a businessman and I knew that I wanted to work for myself." After graduating in marketing, he spent a year collecting debts for an Irish pork company in Spain ("an interesting experience"). A year later he returned to Ireland to start a market research firm with two old university friends. "We did a bit of everything, and would take on any type of marketing work." It was 1993 and Ireland's economy was going gangbusters. By 1997 sales hit €500,000. Yet Van den Bergh's partners wanted to leave "to pursue individual projects". He knew he would be going it alone. Luckily, an opportunity dropped into his lap.
One of his clients had asked for a feasibility study into a business that cleaned up domestic oil spills. "In Ireland a lot of homes rely on oil-based central heating and every year there are around 1,000 spills. Fixing one is normally quite tricky because the oil seeps under the house and the inhabitants need to be evacuated while the problem is treated."
Van den Bergh was convinced of the opportunity. Better still, his client had "exclusive Irish distribution for some amazing Canadian clean-up products. They could treat spills without evacuating houses and that made things cheaper for insurers."
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So in 1998 he persuaded the client to take him on as a business partner and closed his marketing firm. "It was a bit of a gamble, but I really believed in the business." He also invested €10,000 in stock and promotional material for the new firm, SpillClean. Its strategy was to offer clean-up services direct to the home insurance firms who were liable in the event of a spill. After six months of meetings an insurer eventually agreed to give them a trial.
Impressed, more work came their way. By the end of the first full year sales hit €100,000. Gradually they won work from more insurers and by 2001 they had five employees and sales of €300,000. But as business boomed, the working relationship between the two partners disintegrated. "We had different ideas about the future of the business, so we decided to split." In 2003 Van den Bergh emerged with a new company, SpillGo. Fully in control, he put more emphasis on service. "Nowadays there is not such a difference between the products, so I tried to differentiate us by the way we handle cases." He also went after commercial oil-spill projects. Business continued to grow and sales passed €1m in 2004.
The recession hit in 2008, but "people still had insurance policies and weren't afraid to make claims". However, with the Irish economy flagging, Van den Bergh realised it was "time to diversify". In 2010 he changed the name of the company to Verde Environmental Group having decided to "get away from just being an oil-related firm". He now targeted work with local councils "investigating illegal landfill sites and monitoring noise pollution". The firm also offered environmental assessment reports for the public and private sector.
Last year, with 28 staff and sales of more than €3m, the firm became the largest residential oil-spill remediation firm in Ireland. Next stop? "Northern Ireland."
James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.
After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau.
James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report.
He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.
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