Paul Thorne

Paul Thorne, director of ScotPlant exhibitor SCG Supplies, reminisces about his early days in the industry and explains why, even in the online era, there’s still a role for experts offering personal advice

I’M sitting in a lay-by in 33 degree heat just outside Swindon. The decision maker that I’ve had a meeting arranged with for over a week (and confirmed by text yesterday evening), stopped taking calls or answering texts a couple of hours earlier. His registered site address is a public park and I’ve been on the road since 4:30am.

I am browned off – officially.

This got me to thinking a bit (once I’d simmered down and found some other places to go so the trip wasn’t completely wasted).

I sold my first screen to a guy who ran a few lorries in a place I’d never heard of, never mind been to a couple of weeks earlier. The guy was John Binks and the machine sale didn’t keep me my job!

The place was Cramlington, by this time a desolate former mining town in the north east of England.

It was 1991 and it marked the very start of the waste recycling industry led by guys like John, all over the country, who wanted to separate some soil from rubble and reuse both fractions.

Some of these guys (and gals) were demolition contractors or scrap yards, some were road hauliers and some were muck shifters. Some were even agricultural contractors but none were waste recycling companies.

The machine that didn’t keep me my job, by the way, was a MK II Powerscreen and the reason it wasn’t a career saver was that it was a used machine. As anyone knows in the capital equipment business, it’s the constant turnover of new stuff that pays the bills. Trade-ins are just a necessary evil, a by-product of the main business activity.

Things soon took a turn for the better. A week later my boss at the time, Pat McGeary, could be heard breathing a huge sigh of relief at not having to look for yet another salesman for the north east when I told him that Ken Todd from Thirsk (who I had been virtually living with and pestering the life out of) had agreed to buy a Powerscreen Chieftain. A brand new one at that.

Fair play Pat and Ken for their patience with a very green and persistent young eejit!

Ken’s company was a haulage and farm contractor so again the word recycling didn’t feature in the sales process. All they wanted to do was separate soil from rubble for re-use.

You have to bear in mind that all the early recyclers had was sand and gravel/coal/quarrying equipment to choose from so it was a really bold step to go from running lorries or harvesting sugar beat, to leading the way in helping start a waste collection and recycling industry worth in excess of £20 billion annually 30 years later.

The reason the guy in Swindon stopped answering his phone is because he is catered for by another huge industry that didn’t exist 30 years ago – waste recycling equipment manufacturing.

Unlike John, Ken and so many of the other early waste entrepreneurs, new and inexperienced customers now have a huge menu to choose from. A constant menu, fed to them through various online media at their fingertips, with each manufacturer or dealer claiming to outperform, outclass or be of better quality than all others in the sector.

So as the tragic events of the last few months have highlighted, there may no longer be a requirement for personal advice when you can learn everything to inform your purchasing decision by watching stuff online.

Like so many before him, Swindon man just wants to separate soil from rubble. He’s starting out and just wants to make a go of it, like any of us in business. He doesn’t need an industry professional, just a smart phone.

Now don’t get me wrong, please. I’ve spent a lot of time recently asking for advice on how to better my own company’s online activity and visibility so I’m not yearning for a golden age when Fred Dibnah showed us how to climb a chimney without the aid of a safety net! Nor do I think social media should be replaced by a chat in the butchers shop on a Saturday morning.

I do the web thing myself, in fact. The central heating boiler in the house broke down a while back and instead of lifting the phone and dialling the local plumber, I searched online and got instructions on what I needed to do. Happy days, but I’m still not sure whether it’s 100% right, efficient or compliant.

For example, would an experienced heating engineer have condemned the boiler, or recommended any servicing that might have been saving me money ever since? Maybe the new boiler would have saved its own value in fuel by now. I’ll never know because I didn’t ask.

When I’m asked what the best thing about my machine is, I mostly reply ‘the people’. Some look at you as if you are crazy and others get what you mean, but all ask ‘how’d you mean?’

I suppose what I mean is: you can’t tell the moisture content or organic content of a material from a video. It’s hard to see the actual quality of welding from a social media post, just as hard as it is to estimate earnings and savings derived from the purchase of the right bit of kit as opposed to the one that looks the same and costs a bit less.

One of the statements that is used by us all in the plant industry to justify buying whatever we want is ‘there’s no such thing as a bad machine any more’.

This is probably not completely wrong or right. Clearly, in an innovative market like recycling where the legislation, regulation and material streams are ever changing and the offerings from manufacturers are evolving or being repurposed to suit the latest trend, there will be some failures at the leading edge of technology. Equally, the basic designs and components of many machines are confusingly similar and this is where mistakes can be avoided and earnings maximised with the correct advice from the beginning.

If you are dealing with a sales rep, you may be assuming that he or she is under pressure to deliver results and you’d be right, but that doesn’t necessarily make them useless to you. They may be backed up by excellent technical staff or have seen working practices that you haven’t.

Looking online is not the same as seeing in the flesh and if you have the opportunity to access knowledge about other applications like yours, why not take it?

There’s a new breed of contact out there now. They are consulting as much as selling. Some are young and well educated and others, like me, have grown up with this young industry from the beginning. Both are fine as long as they are not solely interested in their own earnings at the expense of yours.

If someone comes to see you about a recycling application and knows the answer to every question, you are on dangerous ground because nobody does. If they know nothing apart from the spec sheet of all the products and prices, they are even more threatening. If, on the other hand, you meet a consistent blend of network and knowledge you may have a useful resource on your hands.

Sure, you still have to play the game and be a shrewd buyer but give everyone a short window to give you their thoughts and then either bring them into your network or let them go.

I genuinely hope Swindon man is okay and has bought something that he is happy with. When he needs something a bit more technical than separating soil from rubble, we will all be waiting to help – whether we are sales reps or consultants!