Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How I Made It: Emma Elston, co-founder of UK Container Maintenance

WHEN Emma Elston was growing up she didn’t know what an entrepreneur did — but she knew she wanted to be one. “I just liked Sir Richard Branson and the idea of owning an island,” she said.

Her venture turned out to be quite down to earth. In 1998 her boyfriend, who became her husband, was earning a living replacing damaged waste bins on the streets of Manchester.

“Julian came home from work one day saying it was daft to chuck out the old bins,” said Elston. “We agreed it would make much more sense, and earn us a good living, if he repaired them instead.”

In August that year the couple founded UK Container Maintenance, repairing and refurbishing waste and recycling containers for councils and waste disposal companies. Based in Northwich, Cheshire, the business now employs 100 staff and reported sales of £5.1m last year. It expects to report revenues in excess of £5.5m when accounts are filed in December.

The company’s clients include Sita UK, Biffa Waste Management and Veolia Environment Services. Julian and Emma Elston are currently looking to expand the business on to the Continent.

“We take risks but they’re always calculated,” said Elston, who copied out their original business plan from a library book. “When you come into a business with absolutely nothing it becomes very precious and you protect it fiercely.”

When her business plan failed to secure a loan with Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), the pair borrowed £30,000 on their NatWest credit cards (the bank is part of RBS) to set up UK Container Maintenance. Almost half was spent on buying a Transit van at auction, which broke down on its first trip. “We had to have a new engine — yet more money,” she said.

The couple lived in his grandmother’s house in Stretford, southwest Manchester. While he was repairing the bins Elston was striking deals from their bedroom. Within a month she had secured their first client, Trafford borough council, helping UK Container Maintenance to turn over £15,000 in its first year.

The couple married in 1999, and she became pregnant. “I wasn’t able to take maternity leave so I was still ringing around doing the sales, the accounts, and VAT returns,” she said. “It was hard work and I’d feel guilty, as a mum.”

They moved to rented accommodation but, unable to meet payments, were evicted. “Luckily one of our jobs in the early days of business was cutting up old caravans,” said Elston. “One of them was in pretty good nick so we asked mum if we could pitch up in her garden.”

They lived in the backyard for 18 months while the business grew before buying their own house in 2001. Working together has been successful. Elston’s husband, 45, is still involved with the engineering and maintenance side of the business.

“I couldn’t do what he does and he leaves the finance to me so it works, hand in glove,” she said. “Not everybody can do everything.”

In 2003 the Elstons moved their equipment to a small shed on a pig farm in Knutsford, keeping the office at their home nearby. Three years later they moved to their present 20,000 sq ft site.

Elston said: “We stood in the yard thinking, ‘Are we ever going to be able to fill this space?’ Now it’s absolutely jampacked, like a sweetie shop of bins.”

Household wheelie bins, skips and shipping containers are all serviced onsite with shot blasters and spray booths. There is a fabrication workshop and spare parts division. The company also buys redundant stock from local authorities, and refurbishes and modifies it. They recently bought and adapted a 40-year-old bottle bank for electrical recycling.

“Most of the UK’s bins are steel and can be refurbished, strengthened and modified,” said Elston. “It’s all about the re-use, doing the best we can with what we have .”

Elston grew up in Altrincham, Greater Manchester. Her parents split when she was a teenager and she and her three younger siblings lived with their mother, who owned a hairdressing salon.

“We’d lost the house we lived in and were struggling for money,” she said. “Mum is my biggest inspiration; she was out working all the time to keep us going.”

When Elston left Culcheth Hall School in Altrincham, aged 16, she worked in sales and administration for companies in the records and waste industries. She met Julian on a blind date in 1995. The couple have two children.

Elston’s three siblings are also involved with UK Container Maintenance. Lydia, 36, is head of marketing; Lizzy, 32, runs finance; while Ben, 30, is depot manager. “It’s a real family business,” said Elston. “When I’m not here, they’re my eyes, ears and heart.”

Elston, 38, was named the most inspirational businesswoman at the 2010 NatWest Everywoman awards. Her advice to entrepreneurs is: “Remember cash flow is king; every single day is a survival of the fittest, so you’ll need passion, a belief in what you do and hard work to achieve it.”

Link to article in the Sunday Times

PDF – Emma Elston of UK Container Maintenance

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