Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How I Made It: Jonathan Short, founder of Eco Plastics

RECYCLING runs in Jonathan Short’s family. His grandparents gathered up abandoned rope from ships on the north bank of the Tyne and sold it for use in the paper industry. His father Danny Short started collecting scrap metal in the 1950s.

“I started working in the scrapyard during school holidays when I was 13. I loved it,” said Short, who joined the family business in 1980.

By then his father was focusing on waste management. A landfill tax introduced in 1996 helped. “We invested in equipment to recover materials from skips we hired out, predominantly brick, soil and wood,” said Short. “The rest was plastic, which I discovered could be processed into a saleable product.”

Short put £15,000 of his savings into setting up ECO Plastics, which now recycles 150,000 tons of mixed plastics a year at its plant in Hemswell Cliff, near Lincoln. The company employs 179 staff and has offices in Newcastle. In December 2012 it reported sales of £38m.

Short, 49, was born in North Shields and attended the King’s School, Tynemouth. His mother kept the family company’s books.

“I didn’t want to do A-levels,” he said. “But I was happy I did in the end. I studied business, which gave me a good grounding in profit-and-loss accounts and balance sheets.”

For almost 20 years father and son worked together, but in 1999 the business was forced to make way for a housing development on the Tyne quays. Two years later they sold the skip hire operation and Short set up Eco Plastics.

At first he paid big companies a small fee for their waste, which he would recycle and sell. “We were particularly successful in buying mixed plastics,” he said. “Councils had been collecting all through the 1990s but no one had invested in reprocessing the material properly.”

In 2003 Short began exporting to China, where the value of recycled waste was soaring. Then he opened an office in Hong Kong to tackle “spurious” quality claims by companies that presumed he would not fly over to dispute them. “Quality claims dropped and sales went up.”

By 2005 Short had bought equipment to sort plastics by colour and polymer. He spent £1.1m converting a Second World War hangar in Lincolnshire into a processing plant, which opened in April the following year. “Bits of kit failed to turn up on time or didn’t work. It was a nightmare.”

But teething troubles were the least of Short’s worries. In 2007 he began raising £11m to fund machines to process quality plastic for food containers — commonly milk, soft drink and water bottles — only to lose £2m when the financial crisis struck in 2008.

“We were still relying on the Chinese market, which collapsed. We shut the plant for six weeks, had sales contracts ripped up by customers and lost money on the materials we bought.”

Then, in August 2009, the plant burnt down after an extractor fan caught fire. “But the fire was a blessing in disguise. We had been squeezing 100,000 tons of plastic into an old building, having grown from 25,000 tons. Now we had three acres and nine months to design and build a logical plant.”

Eco Plastics teamed up with Coca-Cola in 2011 in a £15m joint venture to recycle all Coke bottles from the 2012 Olympics and re-use them for the Paralympics a month later. “It was tight, but we did it. Since then we’ve been stabilising before the next stages of development.”

Short lives in Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear, with his wife, Anne, a housewife, and sons Timothy and Nicholas.

He advises entrepreneurs to think about more than just making money. “Choose something you love to do. You’ll be good at it and, if you are determined, you’ll make money.”

Link to Sunday Times website

PDF – Jonathan Short of ECO Plastics


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