The Santander Small to Medium-Sized Business of the Year Finalist Focus: Bruce Bratley

Tell us about your business
First Mile provides easy recycling services to over 13,000 city centre businesses. We are customer-focused and technology-led, and this approach allowed us to take advantage of a gap in the market when we launched ten years ago. Since then we’ve grown to become London’s leading recycling company, making ten million collections a year and recycling over 75% of all the material we collect.

How did you fund your business?
It started with a small initial investment from myself and one other founding partner. We did some work as freelance consultants to fund growth and persuaded the bank to lend us money to buy our first collection and delivery vehicle. We also made sure to take advantage of any grants or funding that were available. We negotiated the best deals and ensured customers paid us on time by making the services easy to understand and buy. This revenue was ploughed back into the business to support further growth.

What is the biggest challenge SMEs are currently facing?
There is a skills and talent shortage in the UK. Recruiting good people, from drivers through to senior management, has always been a challenge. It is one of the hardest things to get right and worthy of significant time and energy regardless of your business size. One example for us was launching an industry first ‘Driver Academy’ with certified training – to promote better standards and give our operational staff some benchmarks to aspire to. It has had a positive impact on staff turnover and service.

Can you give any advice to others starting up businesses?
Start simple, and add complexity later on. Don’t start out with a complex proposition that customers and employees won’t understand. There are a few one-product businesses, but there are many multi-product businesses that started with one product and eventually expanded when they had mastered that initial idea.

How do you foster innovation throughout your business?
We believe that behind every product, app or piece of technology is the customer. Our customer-focused approach lends itself to innovation because it’s a relatively new idea to the industry. We also try and model ourselves on innovative companies; our marketing team strives to think like Google and Apple, not like other, larger waste companies.

How are you managing the challenges associated with fast growth?
We are consistently looking 6-18 months ahead to get capacity in and identify bottlenecks down the road. We also value and nurture our relationships with suppliers whose support is critical – the IT company who built our original cloud system are still with us today, as are our sack supplier. As we continue to grow, a solid relationship with our suppliers will be key to tackling challenges.