Entrepreneur profile: Nick Oettinger, The Furniture Recycling Group

His recycling firm has grown from operating from a small yard six years ago, to a business with £3 million in turnover which employs 60 staff. Nick Oettinger now leads a team that recycles nearly a third of all mattresses in the UK. Here's how he did it.

Nick Oettinger is mapping out the future of used mattresses. Having seen landfill sites being populated with discarded eyesores, he decided to tackle the problem of recycling them. He soon got retail giants John Lewis on board as well as local authorities and hotel chains. He is now aiming to double his firms’ recycling capacity to 520,000 a year by mid 2018.

When was the company founded and what is its vision?

I founded The Furniture Recycling Group in 2012, with the aim of tackling the UK’s mattress landfill problem.

I first started out in business cleaning swimming pools. I moved up within the company to finally lead a management buyout of the UK’s largest swimming pool construction company.

After selling my shares in the business, I then made a move into the recycling industry working as an improvement consultant. There was a poignant moment at a landfill site when a mattress became wrapped around the drive shaft of a delivery vehicle on site, which got me thinking about how each component of a mattress could be broken down to ensure that as much of it was recycled and 100 per cent per cent diverted from landfill.

In December 2010, I launched EOL Recycling, and we started the process of perfecting a dismantling process that separates mattresses into 19 component parts. Meanwhile, the team was also working hard to identify and on-board a variety of suitable, sustainable outlets for all of the component materials generated.

Once we’d put all this in place we could launch our first operational recycling site in Preston, Lancashire.

In the first week of trading, just two mattresses were delivered. It was only a matter of time before the UK’s businesses, local authorities and hotel chains became aware of this new, forward-thinking approach, and mutually rewarding partnerships soon began to blossom. The company evolved into TRF Group and now, we recycle up to 7,000 a week and recycled 30 per cent of all mattresses in the UK last year.

The vision of TFR Group is to tackle the difficult waste streams and to generate a sustainable business, which achieves maximum recycling.

How much initial investment did the company need to start and where did it come from?

Once we had our first recycling process up and running, we turned our attention to research and development. TFR Group designed and prototyped a revolutionary system that will allow a standard 40ft trailer, that ordinarily carries 90 mattresses, to carry 600 mattresses, meaning a significant reduction in transportation costs, and vastly increasing the viability of mattress recycling throughout the country.

Last year, we also launched a patented automated pocket spring mattress recycling machine, which dismantles and separates the components in pocket springs within mattresses, reducing the process from taking over half a day per full pocket spring to just 2.5 minutes. The traditionally time-consuming process of breaking down mattresses is one of the main reasons why many recycling companies become overwhelmed by the task at hand, and resort to dumping mattresses instead.

We’re also working on creating an automated recycling system which will help to reduce the cost of recycling mattresses, and also increase our capacity to recycling 10,000 mattresses a week.

We’ve invested a significant amount into developing these processes, which means that we currently recycle 7,000 mattresses a week, but by mid-2018, we expect this capacity to grow to 20,000 mattresses a week as we continue to research and develop new and effective technologies.

What marketing did the company employ to maximise exposure?

We have worked closely with a trusted PR team to ensure that people across the UK know about the ground-breaking work we are doing at TFR Group.

Unfortunately, the problem of mattress recycling doesn’t get the national exposure it should, unlike some other waste issues such as plastics. While we welcome any efforts to reduce the impact of waste on our planet, we firmly believe that mattress recycling needs to be much higher on the manufacturers and the government’s agendas.

Our PR team have helped us to communicate this message to both consumers and the retail sector, who are a vital ally in our fight to ensure no mattresses end up in landfill.

How has the company grown since its foundation?

The company started off in a small yard five years ago and now operates from two sites around the UK – Blackburn and Riddings. We employ over 60 staff in total and have around a £3 million annual turnover. We also have three licensed operations in North Wales, Chester and Northern Ireland.

We moved the headquarters to larger premises in the Mill Hill area of Blackburn in July 2016, in order to facilitate the growth of the research and development arm of the business as well as the engineering department.

We’re committed to helping to create a circular economy and we reinvest a significant amount back into research and development to ensure we’re continually working towards this goal.

How important is an inspirational figurehead to a scale-up company?

I’m not sure I am qualified to call myself an inspirational figurehead, but having someone like that is important for any business. There are several keys to being an inspirational figurehead and a great leader: planning, empathy, compassion, hard work, having great people around you who are not “yes men” and crucially, being decisive.

A rule I also learnt early on in business is that everyone you do business with has to make money from dealing with you. If they don’t, you won’t be able to rely on them and having that honesty and trust in business relationships makes work easier for everybody concerned.

My role as managing director of TFR Group is to lead the direction of the company as it grows to ensure we’re a market leader in the industry. Most of my time is spent looking after our customers and developing the company to ensure we keep improving our efficiencies and processes, which allow us to grow sustainably. I do still strip the odd mattress, much to the amusement of the staff, so I think it’s good to also stay grounded.

In terms of getting the most out of my staff, I look for qualities such as hard graft and positivity as it’s such a physically demanding job. As the work at TFR Group is so labour intensive and vast, we need a large team of reliable and hardworking staff. This is why we work closely with the Job Centre and Probation Service, but these are just two routes we use to source workers who we know will be dependable and keen.

What advice would you give to scale-up companies looking to build their company to exit?

I think the rules of being successful are the same in whatever you do, and whatever your plan is for the future of the company. Work hard; look after people on the way and most importantly take the opportunities that are worth the risk. I’m a firm believer in there is no opportunity without the risk.

Further reading on Entreprenuers

Entrepreneur profile: Xavier Bernal, Findoc

Michael Somerville

Michael Somerville

Michael was senior reporter for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2018 to 2019.

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