Coop in focus: Bristol Wood Recycling Project

I’m Matt Tucker, I’m the Company Secretary and co-Director of Bristol Wood Recycling Project (BWRP). BWRP, founded in 2004, is a not-for-profit social enterprise that offers a waste wood collection service that is cheaper than a skip (clients are mostly house builders and manufacturers). Of the wood we collect, we de-nail and clean up around 25% of it and then sell it in our timber yard for reuse. The rest we send for recycling. We also now operate a joinery workshop where we make furniture to order from reclaimed wood. We offer around 750 days a year of supervised volunteering with structured support (and a free lunch). Our turnover has risen to around £180,000 a year and we employ 7 staff who work between 3 and 4 days a week.

What were your biggest challenges on day one?

I only joined the company in 2008, Ben Moss and Nicola Padden were the original Directors. They say their biggest challenges were:
finding a site that ticked all the boxes in terms of accessibility, location, rental, etc; building a reputation and customer base with a tiny budget for marketing and advertising; dealing with the administration and statutory requirements that come with being a legal business entity.

What or who was the biggest help?

Richard Mehmed, who later went on to create the National Community of Wood Recycling Projects (NCWRP) that we belong to, was crucial to the initial success of the project. He had already set up a WRP in Brighton, and he allowed BWRP to use all of the templates, models and experience he had gained from that. Bristol City Council were very supportive and facilitated us getting a temporary site for 2 years in a great location right in the centre of the city, for a peppercorn rent. 10 years later we’re still there! Also, we received expert help from Burgess Salmon solicitors on a pro-bono basis, that proved very valuable.

How did you go about getting funding?

We have deliberately structured the business so that the core of the business is self-financing: 60% of income comes from retail sales in the timber yard, 20% from charging for waste collections, and 20% from the workshop. So, the survival of the business is not dependant on external support, funding cycles etc. We realize we are lucky to have a model that allows this to be possible, but also have had to make sacrifices (staff wages are comparatively poor, and we sometimes have to prioritize expenditure and areas of expansion) to keep true to what has always been one of our stated objectives.

What problem is your business solving?

We have 4 stated ‘social objectives’ that we see as the purpose of the project, instead of the sole purpose of making profit.
– For the core of the business to be self-financing (see above)
– To save resources from waste (the wood waste collection service, 500 tonnes reused, 2000 tonnes recycled since project started)
– To enable social inclusion (volunteering opportunities to a wide range people, including those in recovery, long term unemployed, mental health problems. In 2011 we hired a volunteer manager to ensure volunteers got as good a deal as possible in return for their time and effort).
– To provide affordable timber to the community (our reclaimed stock is 25-50% cheaper than new, we sell cheap firewood and other products)

How did you find out that this problem exists?

The first Directors used the business model that had already been tried out by Richard Mehmed in Brighton, who had already carried out research into the problems and solutions that could be combined to create a successful project.

Why a coop, why not a regular business?

We only reconstituted as a cooperative when the ‘Founding Father’, Ben Moss, left the project in 2011 after shouldering the majority of the burden of running the project for the first 7 years. We realized we weren’t going to be able to find a replacement and so the responsibility would need to be shared out. A cooperative was the natural solution. Some of the staff had experience of coops in their social or political activities, and so we decided to engage the help of the Cooperative Development Agency (CDA) which we are very lucky to have in Bristol.

What type of cooperative are you?

We are a workers coop where all staff are encouraged to become Directors, but with the addition of a limited number of Supporter Directors, to allow current or ex-volunteers to have input into the Board, and being skills and experience the staff may be lacking.

What is your cooperative’s income sharing structure?

We have Articles forbidding dividends to staff, and an ‘asset lock’ so assets will be passed to another project if BWRP winds up. So, no money for us apart from wages.

What is your decision making process?

5 of the staff are managers of designated sections of the business (collections, workshop, volunteers, office, retail) and then 2 staff are non-managers (driver, workshop assistant) on a slightly lower wage. The 2 non-managers are supervised and the managers are peer reviewed by the other staff (including the 2 non-managers).

So, the managers make day-to-day decisions about their areas of operation, and then we have a weekly 2 hour ‘operations meeting’ to co-ordinate and make decisions on a general level.

Once a month we have a Board of Directors meeting (all staff plus Supporter Directors) where we discuss and decide on issues of development and direction, higher level or longer term problems. Managers make regular reports to the Board concerning progress on our Social Objectives. We also have sub-committees for issues such as HR, H&S, Compliance etc.

How quickly can you make decisions?

It depends on the level of decision being made. Operational decisions are made immediately by the manager concerned, or agreed in the weekly Operational Meeting. Higher level decisions are made at the monthly Board Meeting. As a ,matter of course we operate on a consensus basis, but have recourse to a majority vote which is binding.

How would you compare the individual level of autonomy as compared to a regular employment?

Massively more. As a manager you have a very high level of autonomy for your area, and a similarly very high level of responsibility for its success or failure.

What extra advice can you give to would be founders of coops?

Implement Peer Review as one of the mainstays of your project, and do all you can to foster a spirit of openness and bravery. The killer problem for coops are the creation of ‘elephants in the room’ – issues or problems that are ignored or shied away from (maybe because of the ‘soft power’ or personality of the person involved). The only benefit of a ‘traditional’ business model is that staff can pass the buck for these problems to a ‘boss’ to sort on their behalf, rather than taking the harder route of sorting it themselves. So, you need to work hard to create a substitute for this ‘boss’ role and honest and open Peer Review is the best method we have found.

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