A family affair: The inside story of Grundon Waste Management



Neil Grundon became the third generation to lead Grundon Waste Management in 2022, he speaks to Circular’s Peter Taylor-Whiffen about his history and what the future of the company looks like.

When Neil Grundon took over the reins of his family’s firm, he became the third generation to do so. The business has grown from humble beginnings to a place where it now competes with corporate juggernauts.

Neil admits waste management wasn’t his first career choice. “If I’m honest,” he confides, “I actually wanted to be David Bowie. But as I can’t sing, or play the saxophone or the guitar, or write lyrics, there wasn’t really much chance of that happening. So,” he adds with a broad grin, “waste beckoned instead.”

This career was always going to be the more likely path: Grundon is chairman of family firm Grundon Waste Management, after following his father into a business that his grandfather founded nearly a century ago. Over nine decades, these three generations have created the largest family-owned waste management company in the UK. Waste management is in Grundon’s DNA, it would seem. 

It sounds dreadful to say you grew up on landfill sites, but that was my childhood.

“It sounds dreadful to say you grew up on landfill sites, but that was my childhood,” he says. “When I was young, I loved fossil hunting and most of our landfills were on clay sites, with really good fossils if you went down deep enough. So I used to spend my summer holidays rooting through rubbish and jumping off these mounds into piles of cardboard.

“Today, you’d probably get arrested for letting a 12-year-old do that, but I was used to seeing all these mountains of waste. It did pique my interest – even then I thought that, as a society, we were throwing away a lot of stuff we could still use.”

By the age of 16, Grundon turned play into work, helping to sort cardboard under his father Norman’s watchful eye and formally went on the payroll in 1992.

In 2022, he marked his 30th year at the firm by succeeding his dad as chairman – and is keen to honour his family’s legacy. “Someone once told me,” he says, “that to continue a successful family business, you’ve got to try to get on the train with nothing and get off the train with nothing, but leave the train in better shape. I constantly carry that thought with me.”

Stephen Grundon
Stephen Grundon, founder.

The business has come a long way since its origins in 1929, when brothers Stephen (Neil’s grandad) and Les Grundon pooled their resources to buy a 1915 Pierce-Arrow R8 three-ton truck to extract aggregates. Over the next 40 years, Grundon Sand & Gravel expanded into excavation, demolition, haulage, earth-moving and, in the 1960s, waste collection.

“I think much of our success has been down to enquiring minds,” says Grundon. “Maybe it’s the mercurial nature of dad and me and my grandfather. I don’t like standing still; I get bored. If you can feed that culture within a business, you’re doing all right.”

The Grundon business certainly didn’t stand still, and has regularly been ahead of the curve in what the company calls its “fearless pursuit of improvement”. In the mid-1960s, it was the first company to use a JCB excavator in London, as it dug the foundations for Brunel University, and in 1979, it became the first waste company in Britain to use front-end loaders.

It was also one of the first companies to introduce landfill weighbridges to process waste by weight rather than volume; introduced balers to customers’ premises; advanced the then-niche market of collection and treatment of hazardous waste; teamed up with Viridor in 2010 for another UK first, the £160m Lakeside energy from waste (EfW) facility; and, most recently, created the world’s first aerosol recycling facility.

Grundon’s dad even introduced the world to the wheelie bin. “It was in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher introduced compulsory competitive tendering, so he bought a load of them with a view to picking up a local contract,” Grundon recalls. “He lost the bid, so started offering them in the commercial waste business. They caught on, and now we all have wheelie bins.”

Such innovative thinking is, believes Grundon, the key to his firm’s longevity. “We’ve always been very lucky to have had people able to grow the business in an intelligent way,” he says.

I think our secret is the ability to run with an idea before a market is made.

“I think our secret is the ability to run with an idea before a market is made. A lot of companies wait for a market to be established – wanting all the conditions to be right before investing. But that’s not really how capitalism works. It’s risk and reward, only everyone forgets about the risk bit.

“If you want the industry to attract bright young people, you have to keep them interested. Ours is a business of complex plants, computers, robots, AI [artificial intelligence], and that makes it an exciting industry for young people to enter.”

Waste will become an even more interesting industry, Grundon believes, as part of the ongoing narrative about climate change and the move towards net zero. “We do face challenges as a sector,” he says, “and we have a lot of communication to do as part of that conversation.”

What is the biggest challenge?


So, what would he do if he suddenly found himself stuck in a lift with Thérèse Coffey? What would that conversation look like? “There’d be lots to talk about, such as the pros and cons of a Green New Deal vs Carbon Pricing. But five minutes in a lift isn’t a lot of time for that,” he smiles, “so I’d probably ask her about cigars.”

More seriously, he adds: “The biggest challenge is convincing the general public that net zero will cost more. It’s crazy; it’s the only government policy from any party that anyone’s ever agreed on but haven’t put a cost on it.

“If you put a penny on income tax, everyone knows where they are and gets their calculators out. If you say we need to spend a billion on schools, people say ‘OK, where’s that going to come from?’ But with net zero, everyone’s said ‘yes, let’s act, because otherwise we’re going to hell in a handcart’ – but it hasn’t been costed.

“Some of the loose numbers we’ve put around it are about £100 a year for every man, woman and child. That might not sound a lot – a couple of quid a week – but that’s just for our industry – the bit where everyone throws stuff away. The waste industry is looking after scope 3 emissions, but it’s not our fault someone’s decided to wrap something we don’t need on something that’s going to make us fat. 

It’s going to take a lot of education of the public.

“What about travel, food, clothing, other life essentials? If all these 100 quids then add up to £1,000, that’s a lot on people’s income. That’s a big message we have to get over – it’s going to cost, but everyone thinks it’s going to be done for nothing. 

“It’s going to take a lot of education of the public, and a lot of number crunching our end to come up with sensible figures. We want to avoid any sort of greenwashing – but it takes a lot of diplomacy to get people onside.”

Grundon is not so diplomatic about people who think the net-zero issue has a simplistic solution. “I really cannot bear profligate waste; it really sticks in my craw,” he says. “So, when it comes to net zero, I’m an idealist. But I’m not an evangelist. 

Three generations of Grundons.

“I think, sometimes, the environmentalists do themselves a disservice by being anti-everything, anti-consumerism. Of course, there’s an ethical point, and I don’t want my children to inherit a world that’s worse off than when they came into it, so I am determined and committed to doing my bit.

“But some campaigners just don’t understand the issues. One ideal is, for example, to electrify our fleet, but, in simple, terms that means buying new lorries at three times the price of our existing ones, and then having all the infrastructure to charge them. We are really keen to do this, but sheer practicalities mean it doesn’t happen overnight. 

“So, every time I see a protester from Extinction Rebellion shouting at one of our trucks, I just think ‘would it not be better to shout for better grid connections, or flag up how you think we solve all this, rather than just making all this noise?’ They’re like Luddites, coming in to smash up all the machinery. If we did what they ask, and stop all the vehicles immediately, the world would crash around our ears. 

“I genuinely foresee us retrofitting EfW plants with carbon capture and the environmentalists saying ‘Stop! We disagree with carbon capture because that means you keep doing what you’re doing’. I can actually see that happening. As an industry, we need to work together with the government to ease the pain and get the narrative and the language right.”

Grundon, 54, clearly sees Grundon Waste Management playing a key role in such conversations for many years to come. And when, many years in the future, he passes the baton to the next generation, he’s very hopeful it will be to at least one – if not more – of his five daughters. 

Being a family business gives you an authenticity that is hard to replicate for a multinational.

“They all have an interest in the business,” he says. “They have a great cross-section of skills – one already works here in field operations; one is in Primark’s environmental team; another is a linguist; another is a teacher; and my youngest, who is 16, wants to be an engineer. So I hope one or more of them will ultimately succeed me.

“Being a family business gives you an authenticity that is hard to replicate for a multinational. When we were starting to grow, being a family firm was a disadvantage, because a lot of customers felt we weren’t big enough to do the job. It was always a balancing act between appealing to a mass audience, which large companies do, and retaining that family feel, which is what people want to buy into. There were times in the 1990s when we pretended to be a lot bigger than we were!”

He doesn’t need to pretend now. Grundon Waste Management annually turns over £147m, employs 850 people and, last year, made a profit of £7.6m – and Grundon is confident the company, and the sector in general, can tackle the challenges it faces. 

“I’m pragmatic, but I’m always optimistic. We’re a creative, imaginative species, and I’m a great believer in mankind’s ability to innovate, solve and create a route out of problems.”

Grundon and his family seem to have come up with a lot of those solutions themselves. His favourite Bowie song, Word on a wing, from the album Station to station, includes the lyrics: “I’m ready to shape the scheme of things.” That sounds about right.

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