Bruce Bratley

When you have a problem, you either live with it, move on, or find the gift in it

HOF Entrepreneurs Bruce Bratley 1920X1080

Published: 21/05/2021

Bruce Bratley is the founder of waste services group The First Mile. He talks to us about the importance of originality and trying to find the gift in every problem.

Bruce Bratley was a recycling expert long before it was fashionable. The founder of waste services group The First Mile was writing a PhD on waste generation on Teesside in the 1990s, when no one else gave a second thought where their coffee cup went after it was thrown in the bin. He started in 2004 when city centre bins were overflowing and recycling non-existent.

It may have taken a while, but the world now cares about waste as much as he does. The First Mile has 30,000 customers, 150 staff and a growing presence across major cities in the UK. It is now teaming up with brands such as Dunelm and Lime to help them with their recycling.

Original thinking has been key to his success and he admits it has helped him much more as an entrepreneur than an academic: “I got into an enormous fight with my examiner on my thesis, because they wanted a piece of prose that was publishable. My internal examiner pointed out that while it wasn’t terribly well-written, it was really original. And that sums up my approach – I’m not really into the aesthetic and the beauty of things, I’m into originality and creativity.”

Bruce grew up on a farm. Many of his formative years were spent trying to escape, which meant selling what he could to the passing caravans to buy himself a motorbike. “It taught me that with a bit of tenacity and hard work, you can make money out of doing almost anything.” However, having decided that the social life looked better, he stumbled on an academic path, following his sister to the local grammar and then to university.

By that stage he’d started to build his interest in the environment. His first degree was geography (at Edinburgh) and he then went on to do a PhD in environmental Marxism. Although he was determined to finish his PhD, he found academic life a little plodding: too much reading and not enough action.

He took on his ‘first and only proper job’ (his wife’s words), where he discovered that he had a knack for building businesses. After a sabbatical surfing in Australia and a short stint of freelance work, he looked at buying a business. He found one, but the owner was asking too high a price, so he decided he would try to do it himself. This was 2004 and the start of The First Mile.

The need was clear: “It was evident to me that the waste management industry was servicing large businesses such as retail parks or industrial sites, but they weren’t serving city centre businesses because they needed daily collections and only had small amounts of material. That was tricky to service. The waste management industry was de-regulated and the council had become the collector of last resort. There was no recycling service, they were literally dumping it in landfill or burning it.”

He recognised there must be a better way to service these businesses, giving them a recycling service, with a regular collection. The tricky element was to make a profit. That meant building effective technology and systems. Seventeen years later, the company is the market leader and is even eating the lunch of its bigger peers. It’s got operations in London and Birmingham, with plans to move into the household market. It is also working with a number of big brands to help them improve their recycling.

We’re seeing some of the bigger brands starting to take responsibility for their products directly at the end of their life, rather leaving the problem with households or businesses. Businesses are finding greener, more circular way of managing materials and managing waste and we’re helping with that
Bruce Bratley

Recycling is now fashionable, which has helped with availability of capital. Bruce is seeing a difference from even a few years ago. He is planning another exit in three or four years and he believes the new interest in all things environmental will help him when the time comes: “There’s going to be a scarcity of quality green businesses that are on the market. There's lots of people who are saying they’ve got a product and have reverse-engineered it to be a green product, but there aren’t many businesses that are a pure play on this theme.”

He’s learnt a lot along the way. Managing chaos has been an important skill: “One part of our business is the customer bit – sales, marketing, customer excellence. This is relatively calm and we can plan. The other is the operational side of the business. We are operating 100 vehicles in central London – there are terroristm incidents, road closures, accidents, hour by hour, 24 hours, seven days a week. We need to be ready for anything. We've got pretty good at crisis management.”

A certain philosophy has seen him through: “When you have a problem, you either have to live with it and move on, or you have to find the gift in it. And an awful lot of the time there will be a gift in it.”