Sunday 25 February 2018

Crushing the competition

Tommy Griffith tells Sean Gallagher how spotting a gap in tackling waste motivated him to set up on his own

Tommy Griffith and Sean Gallagher at the PEL headquarters in Balla, Co Mayo. Photo: Keith Heneghan
Tommy Griffith and Sean Gallagher at the PEL headquarters in Balla, Co Mayo. Photo: Keith Heneghan
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Managing waste has become an ongoing challenge for most businesses today, partic- ularly those in the food, retail and hospitality sectors.

Each week, business owners have to dispose of waste from cardboard boxes, plastic wrapping, glass and so on. Not only is this waste expensive to store and dispose of, it takes up space that could be put to better commercial use.

Last week I met Tommy Griffith, whose company, PEL Waste Reduction Equipment, is leading the way in helping companies reduce their waste and associated costs.

Set up in 2005 and based outside Balla, Co Mayo, the company employs 23 staff.

"We specialise in designing and manufacturing innovative glass bottle crushers, bin compactors and cardboard and plastic baling equipment," says Tommy, as he shows me around his facility. "Our bullseye market is the hospitality sector where our equipment generates up to 80pc savings for our customers on waste disposal costs as well as offering valuable space-saving benefits."

Among the company's growing list of Irish customers are hotels and hotel groups (such as the Shelbourne and Dalata and Radisson Group); pubs and pub groups (the Porterhouse Group); retail supermarket stores (Tesco and SuperValu); fast-food groups (McDonald's and Supermac's); and forecourt stores (Topaz and Applegreen). In addition to the Irish market, the company is expanding its international base through offices in London and Ohio, as well as through a network of international distributors. To date, they have shipped products to France, Norway, Germany, Finland, Hong Kong, UAE and Australia as well as the UK and USA. 4

"Last week we had a stand at a global trade fair in Germany and signed up distribution deals that will soon see us ship products to Switzerland, Sweden and Romania," says Tommy.

On the factory floor I get to see the equipment being produced. Lifting a few empty bottles from a nearby bin, Tommy demonstrates their Jaws range of glass bottle crushers. He first shows me the Baby Jaws - a compact machine typically installed behind the counter in a bar or hotel where staff simply deposit their empties. Catering for an average of 90 bottles, this machine instantly and silently crushes each bottle into small pieces known as cullet. Collected in a small plastic collection tray at the bottom of the machine, this cullet is then sent for recycling to one of the country's glass bottle manufacturing plants.

"The days of returning glass bottles are well and truly over," says Tommy. "Bottles are now single-use only. The time and costs associated with collecting, sorting, de-labelling, sterilising and refilling them no longer make sense. Instead, manufacturers now use crushed bottles to help reduce production costs by up to 40pc."

We move on to the Mega Jaws - a much larger machine, usually located in the yard of the bar or hotel, into which larger volumes of bottles (up to 4,000 per hour) are fed at the end of a busy night.

"If you've ever walked through the yard of a large bar or hotel on a Saturday morning, you will likely have noticed the bins are overflowing and bottles are lying everywhere. Our equipment does away with all of this," says Tommy.

"One of our customers, who owns a chain of bars, told me that his staff used to spend hours after the bar closed sorting bottles into their respective cases for return. That doesn't happen any more."

The company also manufactures a range of bin compaction systems. This is the Big Foot range, and it is used by industrial food and retail customers with larger scale.

Finding solutions to problems is something Tommy Griffith has always been good at. Growing up on his family's dairy farm just outside Balla, Co Mayo, he learned from an early age the value of hard work. Summers were spent making silage and fixing farm equipment, activities that enabled him to find solutions to every sort of problem he encountered. This would lay the foundation for his future career.

"Growing up, I always knew I was going to end up working for myself. It was only a matter of when and at what," he says.

After school, he studied mechanical engineering at GMIT before joining a local agricultural equipment company in the role of sales and service - skills that would again come in handy when working for himself.

"I then began looking for opportunities to start my own business. I looked at the agricultural machinery market but felt it was already well serviced. So I turned my attention to waste and recycling. I realised that it was a global issue and was only in its infancy," he says.

In 2005 he set up PEL and quickly began making and selling cardboard baling machines. However, it was while trying to sell one of these to a hotel owner in Letterkenny that he got the inspiration for his glass-crushing equipment.

"The hotel owner asked if I could come up with a solution to the thousands of empty glass bottles that lay strewn around his yard. The Jaws bottle crushers were born out of that," says Tommy. "Today it is satisfying to see that these are now installed in places from Dubai and Sydney to London and New York."

Business grew steadily, and soon he was receiving requests for machines from other pub and hotel owners. New sizes were added, and diversification into a range of other waste reduction equipment followed.

However, it was the challenges posed by the downturn in the economy that caused Tommy to change his business model - something that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Rather than selling his machines, he decided instead to lease them at a low weekly cost. The result was that his customers could start saving money immediately on their waste disposal costs without any up-front capital outlay.

"It was a difficult decision to make, but it was crucial in helping us bring in badly-needed cash flow at the time. If we had not taken that decision, we would have struggled to survive," says Tommy.

Not only did the move bring in the cash he needed, it helped widen his customer base and provide a much sought-after recurring revenue model - something that no doubt will in time increase the overall value of his business.

Committed to continuous innovation, he is particularly excited about the company's new range of solar-powered bottle-crushing and bin-compaction systems. Ideal for use in car parks and by local authorities, these stand-alone units are unique in that they do not require an electric power supply and have no ongoing energy costs. To keep pace with increasing demand for his products, Tommy is planning to build a new manufacturing facility nearby.

"While we hope to reach a turnover of €10m within the next three years, it's not about money," he says. "As a proud Mayo person, I want to help create high-value employment opportunities here in Co Mayo."

It's no wonder that, earlier this year, Tommy Griffith was awarded the Mayo Person of the Year Award. A well-deserved accolade.

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