Christine McAvoy, special to The Star
Case Studies

Recyclers require more staff to expand

Type of Company:
Recycling, debranding
Mission Statement:
Number of Employees:

The people behind Debrand Services just can’t work fast enough.

The Vancouver company, which recycles uniforms, marketing displays and other branded corporate waste, already has an impressive client list–Lululemon, Telus Corp. and the Vancouver Canucks all send their trash to their warehouse for recycling.

Profits jumped 300 per cent last year, and even though Debrand hasn’t expanded outside of B.C., demand just keeps growing. The founders, Wes Baker and Amelia Ufford, attribute this to the rise of eco-conscious consumers, who prefer to buy from companies that dispose of waste responsibly.

That means business is good. The problem is, there’s just too much of it, and the company has already had to turn away clients because the staff was simply maxed out. The founders won’t hire employees if they aren’t just the right fit, but landing the perfect talent takes time—and money. Still, Ufford and Baker know they have to expand, or risk losing the North American market to imitators.

The business is complex. Materials range from old uniforms to paper pamphlets to banners and metal riggings. They’re picked up by Debrand’s six staff in a hodgepodge fleet of vehicles—a mini cooper, small pickup, and a 16 foot delivery truck—and delivered to a 3500 square foot office/warehouse space.

Everything gets sorted by hand. Some junk is repurposed—old Vancouver Whitecaps banners are now in the hands of highschool sewing classes, B.C. Lottery Corp’s shutter stamps were donated and resold once their brand insert was removed—the rest is fed through industrial shredders and balers before it’s sent to recycling centres. The work is tedious, and last year the tiny company diverted a massive 40,000 kg of textile waste and 20,000 kg of product and display refuse from landfills.

That’s a lot of garbage for only six employees—so much so that the company has already started turning business away.

“[Sometimes] we may already be at our max,” says Ufford. “If we don’t feel we are able to provide all our clients with the most value, we would rather turn down the business,” she says.

It’s a risky situation for a new corporation, especially one that wants to tap other markets before imitators can steal their business model.

Tom Rand, a senior advisor at MaRS Cleantech Venture Group—a Toronto-based organization that funds green businesses—says Debrand faces a difficult balancing act. The company must “intelligently manage” their growth, he says, which means ensuring they have the right staff before bringing in new business. Otherwise, the quality of the work could suffer, damaging the company’s brand.

Ufford and Baker are doing everything they can to ensure that brand stays strong—including answering phones, developing sustainable campaigns, balancing the books and, when need be, jumping in alongside the warehouse workers.

But even with the 300 per cent spike in revenue, the company only made $300,000 last year. With rent, salaries and transportation costs, there isn’t a lot left over.

To better manage their cash flow, Rand says Debrand should be in talks to set up a line of credit for use against their accounts receivable. The company is looking for outside investment, but Rand says this isn’t a catch-all solution to their problems, and could be a mistake.

“If they are a labour intensive group with a small brand and small company, bringing in investment at this time means they’re going to give up control of that company,” he says.

But Debrand’s challenge goes beyond money.

“It’s not a matter of finding enough people,” says Ufford, “it’s a matter of finding the right people, at the right time.”

They need warehouse workers, salespeople to promote the company and maintain client relationships, and staff to manage and create sustainable marketing and waste-disposal campaigns. The perfect candidate is in the middle of a unique Venn diagram–affordable (meaning young, preferably a recent university grad), with business acumen, a passion for environmentalism, and a deep understanding of branding and its importance.

Rand says the company may be better off filling the positions that don’t require such a high degree of sophistication first. He says temporary warehouse workers could up capacity and fill the current gap, allowing management to concentrate on the big picture—things like strategy, growth, and marketing.

That, he says, will give Debrand more of a shot at meeting its full potential, because despite hiring challenges, the company launched at what seems like the perfect time. Demand for corporate environmental responsibility is at an all time high, and the practice is still very much in its infancy—meaning the business has few competitors in North America.

“We’re kind of in a unique spot right now,” says Ufford.

The trick will be taking advantage of that position before the company loses its uniqueness. Because if they don’t find the right staff soon, the businesses currently rattling their door may soon be able to start knocking elsewhere.


As Interviewed by:

Debrand is right on target with the eco-conscious market. The demand is there, but they can’t meet it, which is both a good and bad problem to have. The company only has three vehicles—they need to grow, but do so efficiently. Technology can play a large part in this. Not only can the right technology free up capital and show how they’re innovating, which will help attract investors, it also has tangible benefits on-the-ground. Fleet management systems can optimise their delivery routes and cut transportation costs, and tablets can be used to create paperless data forms that increase efficiency, improve tracking and reduce pickup and dropoff times. And, if the company wants help attracting those perfect candidates, they should consider letting employees bring their own devices to work. The people they’re looking for are attracted to innovative work environments where mobile applications are commonly used. Team sharing plans, which allow businesses to share data and voice usage among their team members, can help make this really affordable, and implementing a “bring your own device” policy can save a lot on investment in communications capital.

by Tisha Rattos

Debrand’s biggest challenge is managing growth. This could be a problem, or a huge opportunity, so they should start planning now. It’s a good idea to talk to potential recruits early, create a stable of people they can turn to, because growth can happen quickly and having those relationships already established can make the hiring process much smoother. To save cash, they can tier hiring—get high school students to help in the warehouse, then hire accountants or other skilled workers, or bring on managers to open new locations as needed. In the end, I don’t think there’s really a ‘right’ time when it comes to growth. But the owners can get some indication of hiring needs by looking at the company in terms of customer satisfaction and defect or error rates. If satisfaction goes down or error rates go up, they may be pushing themselves too hard, and it could be time to grow. The last thing you want is to overwhelm staff and jeopardize relationships with current clients.

by Mike Michell

Debrand have a very neat, timely concept, and their biggest problem is finding staff. But this should be fairly easy if they approach it correctly. There are many young university graduates that share these values, can’t find jobs and would love to be involved. The trick is to make them partners, instead of employees. You pay them minimum wage, and they work three days a week, but they get a percentage of any new accounts they bring in and a chance to have a piece of the action when the business expands. It’s a very local service, and scalability is very easy because there’s a great opportunity for franchising. You standardize the process, streamline the operation, then set up independently run outlets. With a good stable of entrepreneurial university students available, the process should be relatively easy. Their business concept is easy to copy, so they need to grow fast, bring young people on board and sign more business, because that’s the only way to corner the market and build a strong brand.

by Theo Peredis

Showing  2 comments
  • Peter June 21, 2012 at 11:33 pm

    When facing rapid growth & these other assorted dilemmas, it may be time to develop a Strategic Plan if they have not already done so. A SWOT analysis will help them to identify what their true strengths & weaknesses are as a company. The key is to then set realistic goals & objectives both short & longer term; develop strategies to achieve these goals; and develop an action plan with specific time-lines while taking into account financial repercussions.
    Finding the right people shouldn’t be that difficult in this market (consider boomers in their 50′s who likely have the experience & business acumen and are willing to contribute for less money than you might think) and if the owners aren’t HR specialists they may want to seek professional assistance. Once a few key employees are identified, the owners should then consider delegating authority, thus empowering employees to take on more responsibility while relieving some of the burden on themselves.
    All of their current challenges and goals can be carefully laid out in a Strategic Plan which provides a roadmap for the business.

  • Christabelle June 24, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    They should hire a Mentor and a Coach and outsource and delegate.