My first million: From riches to rags and back again

Rubbish removal may not seem the most obvious place to make money, but public-school-educated ex-banker Jason Mohr knew he was on to something with his slick version of the rag-and-bone business. And he was proved right.

When Jason Mohr, 38, first pitched his idea for a slick, on-demand rubbish removal service to London's rag-and-bone men, "they thought I was the biggest joke in the whole wide world". But the public-school-educated, ex-banker, rubbish-man wannabe had spent years in the City analysing firms, and knew he was on to something.

He'd left his job with Rothschilds in 2003 and had spent the next 12 months searching for business ideas. "I was going to buy a business, gear it up and make lots of acquisitions, because that's where my skill base was," he says. But then he came across Vancouver-based junk clearance firm 1800-GOT-JUNK. With a strong brand and standardised truck sizes, it was easily scaleable and turned over £150m a year nothing like the man-and-van services found in back alleys and under railway arches across Britain.

"Historically, the rubbish business is [full of] guys turning up in greasy T-shirts looking very scary. If you're an old widower or you've got a nice carpet, you don't want a bruiser with big boots coming into your home." 1800-GOT-JUNK was different. Staff arrived on time, wore uniforms and swept up any mess they left behind them. Back in London, Mohr persuaded Wandsworth-based rubbish disposal firm Webbers to allow him to work out of their yard for nine months. He then sourced the US-style rubbish trucks he'd need. They came in at well over £20,000 each, and the cost of financing these HGV-style vehicles was "astronomical", as he wasn't prepared to secure the loan against his home. The white elephant he painted on the side of the vans suddenly seemed somewhat ominous, and he was beginning to regret turning his back on a £250,000 salary.

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But with £40,000 of his own money, as well as £100,000 from contacts, he knew he could subsidise a loss-making operation for several months until he began breaking even. In the end, with the help of some nifty marketing, he achieved that within a year but only because he didn't pay himself a salary. He would pester Knightsbridge estate agents for business and put large banners on roundabouts. Most memorably, he would drive the Any Junk? truck up the Kings Road in Chelsea with Henry Mancini's Baby Elephant Walk pounding from speakers on top. "I'm not a jazz geek at all, but it's one of those things that makes you want to go and get more jazz. People turn around smiling to see the truck. And they clock Any Junk and the elephant on the side. So it stuck a little bit."

By 2006, they'd won the Portman Award for best imported idea. "It wasn't a big thing at all, but for us it was." Newspapers suddenly had a reason to write about the firm, and the riches-to-rags' story of the ex-banker caught on. Business picked up and Mohr opened up units in Bristol and Birmingham.

Any Junk is now turning over £1m a year, with plans to move to Manchester this summer. With ten vehicles in London, Mohr believes there's scope for another 70 within the M25 alone. "There's scale here. We are the largest in a very small, fragmented area. And there are loads of legislative changes that will benefit us, so I think I've got value but it took me a good while to think like that."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.