A Virtual Sit-Down With Paul Griffiths, Non-Executive Board Member of Romco
We had a fire-side (zoom) chat with one of Romco’s Board Members, Paul Griffiths, to gain an insight into what motivates him personally, and where he thinks Romco will go moving forward.
Paul has worked on the Boards of Easyjet, lastminute.com, and a host of other innovative start-ups that have become great successes. Paul’s work with Romco has been invaluable, so we decided to record an interview to learn about the inner workings and strategies behind his endeavours with us:
Interviewer: Hi Paul, let’s start with where you are from…
Paul Griffiths: I’m from the London area. So I was born in Essex. I grew up in Walthamstow, and then spent some time living on the south coast in Margate, and now live in Surrey.
And what’s your current role at Romco?
I’m a non-executive director of Romco. I’m also the Chief Operating and Finance Officer for a venture capital firm.
Fantastic. Tell us a bit about your career background, what got you to this point?
So I started my working life doing finance. I’m good with numbers, so it seemed like a good idea. I worked for big companies, insurance companies and didn’t really like it.
My parents are entrepreneurs, although they wouldn’t call themselves that because I think the word didn’t exist back then. It wasn’t really used as such. But yeah, they’ve always had their own businesses. So it’s kind of how I grew up. So I started working with smaller businesses.
Back probably 10 years ago, I got a job as Head of Finance, working for a company called Easy Group, owned by Stelios Haji-Ioannou, who’s the EasyJet founder.
Three days after I started, the Managing Director resigned and he gave me a chance to get involved in more than just finance. The company is the owner of the brand, so owns the Easy brand, which has about 1000 trademarks, 2500 URL’s, including EasyJet.
It was a last-minute decision, Stelios made posters around the time of the IPO, a very last minute thing to copy Richard Branson’s model, to keep the brand separate from the trading business, which has worked very well. The brand license, which was signed while I was there, is a quarter of 1% of turnover, which on a non-COVID year is about £5billion. So it’s about £15/20million a year for using the EasyJet brand. So it’s quite a lucrative business. And we licensed the brand to them amongst others, but also to other start-up companies. It was really managing the brand and the business and the relationship.
We had a company called EasyCar which has been around for some years, it went through various life cycles. And we met Brent Hoberman, who is the lastminute.com co-founder, and he was interested in starting a peer-to-peer car rental company. And he felt that using a brand would be a good way of doing it. So we did a joint venture with Brent. And I ended up on the board as a non-exec director as my first kind of job along those lines and relaunched a peer-to-peer car-sharing platform. I love peer-to-peer businesses.
I’m not entirely sold on the fact that Uber’s quite a peer-to-peer business. I won’t argue it, but I love the philosophy and the ideology behind peer-to-peer businesses; individuals acting as essentially micro-entrepreneurs working together to benefit each other. A phrase we use a lot is “you don’t need a drill, you need a hole in the wall”. If you take that approach with life, ownership becomes a little bit less important. It’s more about getting what you need and supporting each other.
The company did very well. A couple of years ago, they sold it to a larger American company. That’s one of those oddly British things. We hold our cars in far higher esteem than most other countries. So the idea of a stranger taking our car and driving it terrifies us. But we started to get to that point, and we actually had people who were running their own buy-to-let businesses using cars rather than property. So, particularly in London, people would have two or three cars and rent them out rather than the more traditional property thing. And Brent was very proud of his Mondeo, which we bought for about £6000 in the course of 18 months, we made £7500 from it. So it proved the model and showed that it worked. I really think it’s the way forward, genuinely.
After about six years, I realised that Stelios is a larger than life character. I’d spent all my time travelling to and from Monaco and St. Barth’s and places like that. It was time to go off and do something on my own. I was always going to be in his shadow. People think him and Branson and the like do everything themselves and nobody does anything. And of course they don’t, there’s a big team behind them that make it all happen. I know that with EasyJet, there was a big team that made that company happen, but he’s the one that gets the credit.
I then spent a while working with a Hong Kong-based sharing economy company. Their idea was to essentially make a kind of eBay for sharing. They’re still on that mission. I think it’s a great idea, and I think advances in ‘tokenomics’ could help in so much that at the moment you can go to Airbnb and rent a holiday home, you can go here and rent a car, why not do the whole thing in one package? Why not have one platform where you can pick this, this, this, this and get the whole thing together? Sharing is the way forward.
I spent some time with them and a couple of other companies. I started doing mentoring and that sort of thing. I was onboarded at Microsoft Accelerator in London, which is how I ended up with the other business that I’m involved in because a group of us working there realised that investment in small companies doesn’t have to come in the firm; in the guise of cash. It can come in the guise of people who know what they’re doing, who can help you. And of course, if you ever work with smaller companies, you work for ‘sweat equity’, and it’s a really hard way to earn a living. So we thought we’re tokenizing that and creating an environment where the group of startups put their equity into a pot, and then the people that can help them take a share out and investors buy and combine that share. It means that you’ve got liquidity, but it also means that those companies are getting the expertise they need when they need it, and they can grow faster.
And that pretty much brings me up to now.
What’s your highlight or greatest career achievement?
I don’t know if I’ve had it yet.
I think perhaps Walking into a shareholder meeting at EasyJet representing a third of the company was, at the time, quite entertaining. But also things like EasyCar where we actually proved that you can run a business like that — sharing the economy side of things. I love that, I think it’s a really good way forward. It’s the way to do things. But I’m not sold yet on the fact that I have hit by my career highlight, I’d like to think not.
We hope not! So, given some of those past successes, what do you think is the most important thing for a company to get right? Early on, particularly for a small business?
I think it’s the culture. It’s the team working together. You can move mountains when you have a team that believes in what you’re doing and all sold on it. It’s not about money. For most people, if you give them some job satisfaction, they’ll do so much more. I suppose it’s that old fable about the wind and the sun trying to get the guy to take his coat off. If you want your team to really pull them with you, you don’t need to pay them a load of money, you need to help… but make them believe what you’re doing, and make it a great place to work. Make it an exciting business that they believe in, and then you’re home and dry.
Do you think that’s the biggest indicator of success? The culture?
I think I would say a combination of culture and attitude. When we’re investing in companies, the first thing we speak to them about is what do they think they know? when you get people who think they know everything, there’s nothing we can do for them. It needs to be people who know they don’t know everything, and they need help, they need support. They know that they’re an individual. You get what they call the ‘hero-preneuers’ who think they can manage everything themselves and don’t think they need any advice from anybody. What can you do for them? Some of them will undoubtedly go on and succeed. But I think to create a great business you’ve got to do it around culture and the environment people work in.
Let’s segue to Romco with that — Why did you decide to work for Romco?
Firstly, meeting Ray (Raymond Onovwigun, Romco CEO). He’s a great guy. He’s been through an incredible journey. It’s not a word I use lightly. I mean, for him, particularly, it’s been a fantastic journey that he doesn’t play on enough. I’d say there’s things that he’s done and then there’s the business itself. It’s a genuinely good business idea. You just look at the difference in the carbon usage from digging metal out of the ground to recycling it, and people just ignore that fact! It’s the inconvenient truth that they’d rather go and buy new. I just think it’s stupid. And if you could set up a decent business, a profitable business that has ethics at the back of it, then it’s great.
I also decided to work for Romco because of how Romco is moving forward; like having education and support for the teams out in Nigeria and Ghana. I’ve got family in South Africa, I know what it’s like for people out there. I know that education is the way out of poverty. You can give people money, but they’ll only spend it, whereas if you teach them then they’ll know how to grow themselves. They’ll be able to find their own way out. And I think to have those sorts of long term goals is important. You’re giving back, you’re not just clearing up the old metal and making a quick buck and moving on. I think too many big companies do that. They look for the short term gain and then they’re out, rather than the long term work of making it a better place.
So what do you think is the most exciting thing about Romco?
I think it’s the fact that we can do it. We’ve proven it now. We’ve grown very fast in the last 18 months, despite COVID, despite traveling restrictions, despite all of that and we’ve carried on ploughing forward. We’ve proven that it can be done.
There’s small things I’ve picked up on the way… The EasyJet model was that you would buy a brand new plane, and you use it until you don’t have a warranty, and then you sell it and let someone else carry that problem, because a brand new piece of equipment will always work better initially. And if there is a problem, it’s someone else’s job to fix it. Very much the same in this industry. You go to these places where they have old furnaces and the equipment is old, it’s exhausted, and it’s constantly breaking down. You’re losing production days.
Get new stuff, get brand new equipment — it’s greener, it’s cleaner, it’s more efficient, and then you use it and you find somebody else who wants to take it on after that period. Then they carry all the problems with it. You get to move on and it’s a great business model. These are the things that can be replicated anywhere. It’s common sense. You concentrate on setting up decently good equipment, good regulations, and health and safety. A phrase we use a lot — if you think health and safety is expensive, try having an accident. Africa is a great example of that, hence our approach.
People are starting to realise that you can run great businesses there [in Africa]. Like with EasyJet, we set up a Pan-African airline FastJet. The idea was to become the EasyJet of Africa. And so I learned a little bit about the economies of Africa and how there is a lack of desire to cross borders. What made it work in Europe was, ironically, the fact that you could fly from the UK to France and not have to pay massive taxes, and you could fly cheaply. So bit by bit, Africa is starting to get there. It will take time, but having businesses that cross over like ours is forward-thinking, as it will be figured out eventually.
What are the opportunities you see for Africa? Why do you think we’re suited to be in Africa?
I think there’s a lot of people there, they want to work, they need work, so there’s always an opportunity to grow. Unfortunately it has also become a bit of a dumping ground for the western world. So we’ve left our problems there. It’s perhaps time to deal with that. We’ve created massive landfills, areas where we killed all the animals and eco-systems. It’s time to give back — but in a way that’s sustainable and creates businesses, jobs for people, education, things that create sustainability. And that’s the way to do it. It’s been proven often enough that if you throw charity money at people it doesn’t solve the problem long term. By creating companies that work, that are sustainable and profitable, they can have pride in what they do and earn money. I think that solves the problem long term.
What role do you see Romco playing in that market? Where do you see us going?
Becoming a world leader. We are already proving we can in certain fields, like the non-ferrous metals, we’ve shown we can expand and grow quickly. There are other things [we can do] once we get to that stage. We’ve had discussions around perhaps working with providing a university grant to develop more efficient furnaces, maybe even harnessing solar power, that sort of thing. We’re trying to really innovate in these areas and not just stick to the tried and tested models. We want to go out and innovate. Different fields go out and invent new ways, establish ‘new normals’ to make it better. We don’t want to just rely on the old fashioned things. Of course, if you’re trying to be green, with the metal, why not do the furnaces as well? Why continue to burn fossil fuels? We’re on a continent that, if nothing else, has a lot of sun. So let’s try and harness some of these things. There’s companies that I know of working in batteries, the electric car industry is creating that. So you could have firing furnaces during the day, running off solar power, and charge the batteries at night-time. I think is that that side of things I’d like to see, and possibly expanding into other fields. Plastic springs to mind as being something that people are dabbling around the sides. But let’s find a real way that we can recycle plastic in a good efficient way, so that we stop making the damn stuff and start using the mountains of it that we’ve already got.
What does Romco need to do to stay ahead and grow?
Innovate. Simple as that. There’s plenty of companies that are doing similar things. But if you innovate you lead the field. People will then start copying. I think that’s the important thing. It’s sad, recycling has old fashioned business methods. Very simply, we must innovate, create new ways of doing things. Then we will lead the game.
What’s the next innovation you see For Romco?
I would like to see it around the way the furnaces works to try and move away from fossil fuels to power. Obviously, in the industry, you need to generate a lot of heat. But there’s other ways and more efficient ways of doing it.
It’s difficult in Africa, more than, say, Europe. They’ve got access to years of development on projects like hydropower for smelting. Infrastructurally, in Africa, they haven’t had the investment. We don’t have as many of these huge kinds of legacy operations.
I was in Mexico years ago, and I saw a desalination plant that was all sun-powered. And it was brilliant. I just cannot get my head around why governments don’t invest in those along the African coast. And then you just pump huge amounts of water inland through pipes. It solves so many problems, but it is the political atmosphere that people don’t necessarily have the people in control who want that to happen. I think it’s about getting to a place where that political shift can get a situation where that could happen. Once you start to get that, then companies like Romco can really start to excel in our innovation. I’m not sure that’s easy, but it would make me so happy to see something like that. It’s obvious, you’re surrounded by water, but you can’t touch it. So make it and I’m sure there’s a secondary market for taking water inland.
What do you know about Romco’s environmental credentials?
I don’t know as much as I should know. We have high ambitions. I know using new machinery that’s made to higher standards than the older stuff that a lot of the competitors are using is way more efficient. It’s modern machinery. And it keeps us going 24/7 rather than breaking down every couple of days. By the time you go down, fix it, reheat it up, you’ve got a lot of wastage there. As opposed to just having new equipment continuing to run so you’re not having that problem.
How is Romco’s mission, ‘to reduce global dependence on mining by recycling our way to a sustainable future’, important to you?
I think it should be important to everybody. If you watch the David Attenborough programs and you see the problems that these things are causing. Huge mines in the ground are destroying the environment, destroying the plant life, the animal life, it’s just not sustainable. And there will come a point where there isn’t any left. There will come a point where you’ve done too much damage. It needs to stop. I think it’s important to me, but it should be important to everybody. Unfortunately, there’s always this overriding group that do things in the cheapest possible way to maximise profit, because they don’t care. And I hope that we’re moving away from that now. There’s still a global sense that more and more people are on board with the fact that if you’ve got a big pile of rubbish that’s made out of aluminium, why not melt it down and reuse it rather than dig this stuff up? It’s common sense. To me, it’s kind of almost a peer-to-peer philosophy. You’re reusing. You’re taking it and giving it a second life. Why not? It’s it just makes sense.
What do you think is the most important thing for people to know about Romco that they might not know?
That we have a mission, a genuine desire to do the right thing. We’ve proven that we can reuse aluminium and copper, and in turn, we can grow that marketplace. We have proven that we can make it sustainable, that it’s economically viable. It’s cost-effective, it’s green, we have created a business that does the right thing. And it’s profitable — we can make more money doing it this way than mining. And so as an investor, you haven’t got to invest and then go and hide your eyes and hope that no one knows what you’ve invested in. You can be proud of what you’ve invested in because it’s doing the right thing. And you’re making money on top of that! That to me is the way to make money. It’s also global, it’s a replicable model. We can continue to do it across Africa, across Asia, and beyond. It’s not just something that works in one site, it’s very easy to replicate. We’ve done a lot of background work that to make sure that you can replicate the business model. You can get a site in West Africa, or somewhere in Southeast Asia, drop it in and create a business doing exactly the same thing. So to me, it makes perfect sense. It’s a good business. Fantastic.
What’s in store for Romco over the next few years?
So initially, there’s growth within West Africa, which is where we are at the moment. We have a couple of potential sites earmarked, then we go to East Africa. Again, we’re a relatively small business, it makes sense to keep it within a couple of hours flying distance of each other. Then from there on, once we get those established, the world is our oyster to create multiple sites around the globe. Then we can make sure big companies, car companies, industrial giants, even mobile phone companies, that we can fulfil their quota by using recycled elements so they don’t have to go to these companies digging it out of the ground. So, bit by bit, we will become the de facto way of fulfilling your aluminium, and other metals, the quota of what you need to use. You won’t have to go and buy it new. It can just fully be recycled, reused, from laptops, phones, things that are getting trashed every day.
Okay Paul, finally, what’s next for you?
I’d like to go on holiday! It would be nice to go away and get out of the house. I think from a business perspective, I’d like to see Romco continue to grow. Once we come out of the COVID situation it will be great to see the development and growth potential. I think everybody’s feeling excited for the end of this rather distressing period that we’ve all globally had to go through. So it’s really just getting life back to normal and then accelerating out of it so that we can make up some of the lost ground, and just generally get on with life, enjoying life, and not fearing anymore.