Mike Walker is founder of CountyClean Environmental Services, a Sussex-based provider of waste cleanup and management with over 35 years combined experience in the industry. Mike launched the business in 2007.
Q: Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?
A: I’ve always been successful in everything I’ve done but I realised I’d never actually been in charge of my own destiny. So that was the real motivation for me and why I set up CountyClean Environmental Services. Also, I didn’t like having a boss and was fed up of making lots of money for other people.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for your business?
A: I got into the waste management business by accident. I was in the army and when I left the only thing I had was an HGV licence – no other qualifications as such. So I went to an agency that was looking for drivers and they got me a job with the local council emptying septic tanks. Strangely enough, I found I quite enjoyed the work.
Q: Has your commitment to be green helped your business grow?
A: Yes, definitely. A lot of the contracts we tender for include a requirement to demonstrate our green credentials. If we weren’t able to do that, there are some contracts we wouldn’t have won.
Q: What are the challenges of running a company with a strong commitment to environmental-friendliness?
A: Running our fleet of vehicles is at the heart of our business and we can’t avoid using diesel. However, what we do try to do is invest in vehicles that are state of the art and have engines that emit the lowest possible level of emissions. We also train our staff to drive with fuel efficiency in mind at all times – with vehicles that do an average of 7 miles to the gallon we monitor fuel use really closely. Planning routes carefully is also really important. Being committed to environmental friendliness also means we are constantly looking at new techniques to deliver our services without using chemicals – using high pressure water jets instead, for instance. We also question our suppliers to make sure they are ‘green’.
Q: What are three frustrations you experienced when setting up your company and how did you solve them?
1) Funding was the biggest frustration. I had to completely fund the business myself initially when I launched in 2007. It was a difficult time in terms of the economy and the banks were very unhelpful. No one would take my experience as a director of a previous company into account and they said they wouldn’t offer me any help until the company was established – so it was a real struggle. There were times when I’d spent up to the limit on all of my credit cards to keep the business afloat. Ironically, I now have several banks chasing me for my business!
2) It was frustrating at the beginning because I was working on my own and wearing lots of different hats – the MD, the accountant, the marketing manager and the sales person. I solved this by bringing people in to help me.
3) I realised I needed to find some key staff to support me and it was hard finding exactly the right people, but I used my industry contacts and gradually managed to build up a strong team around me.
Q: Do you enjoy being an entrepreneur?
A: I do get a kick out of being an entrepreneur. I live and die by my decisions and I’m only answerable to my colleagues, rather than a boss. I’m driven by success and it has been incredibly rewarding to see the business grow. I’ve also really enjoyed being able to provide work for local people – we now have a team of 26 – and create my own company culture. I wanted CountyClean to be a nice, happy place to work without the back-stabbing and politics we’ve all experienced in different places - and I truly believe that is just as rewarding as the monetary side of the business.
Q: What three pieces of advices would you give to entrepreneurs currently starting a business?
1) You need to have a great deal of enthusiasm and determination to succeed. I have a saying –“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” So the secret of success is to keep changing and trying to improve and learn from everything you do.
2) You will come across lots of brick walls and red tape, but there’s always a way to get around them. For instance, when the banks wouldn’t help me, I used all my credit cards to fund the business. It was risky and I didn’t have a choice, but I had belief in my business.
3) Have fun! There is no point starting a business if you are not going to enjoy it. Also, make sure you take regular time off, or you won’t be able to perform to your best ability.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: I want to carry on enjoying my work, but I’ve also set an ambitious target to double our turnover in the next 24 months – and we are on track to do that. At the end of last year I was approached to sell CountyClean. It was a good offer but I decided to hold off and grow the business more.
Q: Why do you think your company has become successful?
A: I think it’s because we are always honest and we value every single customer – whether it’s someone with a domestic septic tank that needs emptying or a contract worth thousands. We also always deliver on what we’ve agreed on schedule for a fair price. We’re seen as a ‘can do’ company – if ever there’s a challenging situation, we find a way to help and solve the problem.
Q: If you could repeat the process, how would you do things differently?
A: I would not stretch myself quite so much financially – I took a lot of risks to start with. Also, I was on my own for the first 12 months and, in hindsight, I would have brought people in to help sooner. This would have allowed me to spend a bit more time with my family who didn’t see much of me in those first 12 months.