Meet the bin man who's cleaning up

Jonathan Straight runs Europe’s leading supplier of recycling containers.

By Candice Krieger, July 8, 2010
Own a composter? With an annual turnover of £30m, Jonathan Straight’s company probably made it

Own a composter? With an annual turnover of £30m, Jonathan Straight’s company probably made it

Jonathan Straight is unforgettable. The 45-year-old entrepreneur, who sports a waxed moustache and owns more than 200 pairs of spectacles, made the front page of the Sun in the 1980s when he changed his name from Gay to Straight. He also happens to be behind one of Leeds's most successful business stories.

Mr Straight, who lives in Alwoodley and is a member of the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue, is the founder and majority shareholder of Straight plc, the UK's leading supplier of kerb-side recycling containers.

Initially one man, a desk and a borrowed fax machine, Straight has supplied more than 12 million recycling boxes to local authorities across the country and the business is expected to turn over £30m this year.

By Mr Straight's own admission, the recycling industry is a "very strange industry for a Jewish boy to be involved in", especially one who was set on a career in the music industry. So why recycling? "I didn't really want to be in business and I didn't just want any job. I wanted a job that would give something back." And so, when the former marketing professional found himself out of work in the late 1980s, he turned to the green agenda and had what he describes as a "eureka" moment.

"I bought a book called The Green Directory, and there was a paragraph about recycling which said we pay to bury our waste in the ground and that the material we bury has a value. This was the eureka moment. I thought: 'Why on earth are we being so stupid and so wasteful? There is a real opportunity here so I'm going to pursue it.'"

Recycling was just starting to happen and we were there with the products

He went on to work as a volunteer at environmental company Save Waste and Prosper, where he made contact with plastics container firm Paxton, and was appointed as a consultant to sell their kerb-side recycling boxes, including a bin with separate slots for litter and drinks cans.

In 1993 he decided to set up on his own, forming Straight from a "broom cupboard with a desk, a phone and a borrowed fax machine.

"The car parking space was more expensive to rent than the office itself. It was very humble beginnings."

But with the nation on the cusp of a green revolution, business grew and, by 2002, turnover was £5 million. In 2003, Mr Straight floated the company on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) for around £5.5 million. "Recycling was just starting to happen and we were there with the products people needed."

There was only one thing in his way - competition - and in 2004 he bought the firm's main rival, Blackwall, for £6.75m. In 2005, turnover reached around £24m. "We were flying high," says Mr Straight, a trustee of the Leeds Jewish Welfare Board, where he is chair of fundraising.

The following year, he was the national winner of Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year competition.

Business has continued to grow and today the company is Europe's leading supplier of recycling containers, including office waste bins, home composters and water butts. It works with local authorities, waste management firms and utilities companies; customers also include hospitals and educational facilities.

As he puts it, if you have a recycling box or compost bin, it's probably one of his. He is keen to continue expanding through a combination of organic growth and acquisitions. The firm recently bought part of Bradford-based Helesi to distribute a jointly-branded range of two-wheeled bins.

He says: "We are on track to have a much larger international group by 2014 with a significantly higher market value." Mr Straight, who says Israel is one of his favourite holiday destinations, is also keen to get his products into the Israeli market. "The recycling market in Israel is in its infancy but it's coming. We will do more and more in Israel."

Asked for the keys to his success, he cites persistence. And of course, image is important.

When Mr Straight first started the company he sent out a newsletter with a caricature of himself and his moustache on it. "It got noticed and people remembered and the business started happening. The moustache is a talking point - an ice-breaker. If we were in Bavaria it would be nothing unusual but in north Leeds, it's the only one I'm aware of."

He continues: "The image is a tool. The key is to be memorable. It is important than when you meet people, they remember you."

The father-of-two made a particular impact in the last 1980s when he decided to change his surname by deed poll from Gay to Straight.

"It was something I had spoken about doing a lot and a friend of mine had this great idea to change it to Straight, and when the Sun said they would pay me for the story, I thought, why not?"

Last updated: 10:33am, July 8 2010