Recycling company plans to turn Brexit into an opportunity

RiverRidge in Co Derry will use £10m business growth funding to expand into Republic

A hard post-Brexit border would be a rubbish prospect for businesses in the North but it would not be a deterrent to expanding into the Republic in the right circumstances, according to at least one managing director currently eyeing up possibilities.

Brett Ross is the man in the driving seat of RiverRidge Recycling, which he has helped grow from a small skip hire business with a landfill site to one of the North's largest waste management companies, processing more than 400,000 tonnes of waste every year.

Where most people see rubbish as something to throw away, Ross sees only opportunities or, to be precise, £10 million of new opportunities since last week.

Because that is exactly how much the UK's Business Growth Fund (BGF) has just agreed to invest in equity capital in RiverRidge, which is headquartered in the small Co Derry village of Garvagh but operates from a number of sites across Northern Ireland.


It is only the second investment in the North by the BGF, which is backed by five of the UK’s main banks and has up to £2.5 billion earmarked for long-term equity investments.

Stephen Welton, chief executive of BGF, says RiverRidge Recycling, which employs 200 people, exactly fits the profile of what they are looking for in the North, and he says they are looking for more businesses like RiverRidge to work with.

“We always look for a very talented and committed management team, and of course we look at if the sector is right. RiverRidge had the right combination: it is in a good sector, there is a huge amount of investment going into the waste sector, and the people running the business, Brett and his team, are very strong and committed.

“We’re looking for more businesses like these in Northern Ireland; we believe there are lots of entrepreneurial and family businesses with the potential to scale up and with the ambition to grow,” Welton says.

Right attitude

He believes successful businesses need to have the right attitude and a willingness to take a risk – something which Welton believes the post-Brexit business environment may encourage more firms to do.

“Now’s the time to be bold. Northern Ireland has an advantage because of the quality of its people and the goods and services it is producing, but it may have to look beyond Europe and access different markets – look to the USA and Asia more,” Welton warns.

If local firms need any inspiration then RiverRidge can provide it – in spades. It was willing to move away from the model of a traditional waste collection firm and take a risk by investing in state-of-the-art waste recycling facilities to deliberately reduce the need for landfill.

The company embraced the technology that enables it to extract more “valuable” materials from residual waste such as papers, plastics and metals which it in turn can then sell on to specialised recyclers, and it invested in developing other uses for residual waste such as refuse-derived fuel (RDF) which helps reduce the amount of waste that ultimately ends up in landfill sites.

RiverRidge currently exports its RDF to energy facilities across Europe and it is no surprise that this part of the business has keenly felt the depreciation of sterling following the UK’s EU referendum vote.

But from next year this will no longer be an issue for RiverRidge as it is part of a consortium that is developing the North's largest waste energy plant located near Bombardier's wing facility in Belfast.

The £107 million project, which will be able to generate enough power for 14,500 homes from 2017, will become the prime destination for RiverRidge’s RDF.

Just the beginning

But that is just the beginning of its plans for the future, according to Ross.

He says the BGF investment injection will be used to finance further hi-tech infrastructure projects over the next 12 months, and it also provides them with a “war chest” to realise some of their expansion ambitions.

"We've had lots of support from our banks – Bank of Ireland and Danske over the last five years – but we decided to go down the equity route because it doesn't place as much pressure on our balance sheet as senior/bank debt would," says Ross. "We're in a good a position because we are conservatively geared, and this allows us to push on with our growth aspirations. There are lots of possibilities."

Some are closer to home than others, but Brexit could potentially complicate the issue.

Ross, who was born in Zimbabwe and commutes between Portmarnock in Co Dublin – where his wife is a GP – and Garvagh every week, only sees the business opportunities, not the politics.

"Whether there is a hard or soft border, the reality is places like Co Donegal, Monaghan or Cavan are just on our doorstep," he says.