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40 Years of Willshee’s

Back in the early Eighties, Keith Willshee was working as a haulier, driving long distances in his lorry – week in, week out – delivering building materials and spending many nights away from home. In 1982, he took a job closer to home, delivering skips for a local skip hire company. This gave Keith some insight into the sector and it was then that he and Maria decided to set up their own business – with one lorry and 10 skips. They were only in their twenties, but they were ambitious from the very beginning.

They started trading on Monday 12th March 1984, having secured a bank loan against their home. Maria had got her Certificate of Professional Competence and had given up her regular office job. It was a risk but there was a commitment right from the start that giving good customer service was paramount. It was essential that while Keith was out driving, customers would be answered in ‘two rings’.

They of course needed a logo and a company colour. “The obvious primary colours were all taken by competitors,” Maria explains, “so we went for bright green! Little did we know that was the best colour we could have chosen!”

The business did well and in 1984 they had the chance to buy 18 more skips and the customer base from a local rival that was ceasing to trade.

Dean was born in 1986. Followed by Craig in 1989 and Jenna in 1993.

By 1987, the company was getting busy. Keith and Maria had bought a second lorry and now needed to start employing people. They also acquired the first part of Depot 1 on Wetmore Road.

1988 saw the acquisition of another lorry and 20 more skips with a £5,000 bank loan.

It was in 1988 that waste now needed to be segregated which in those days was done by hand.

The Landfill Tax law was introduced in 1996 which meant stricter procedures as the sector got more professional and from there the environmental agenda started to evolve.

The Noughties saw the business accelerate with a number of successes, breakthroughs and investments.

In 2004, Willshee’s won their first major council contract. 2006 saw the introduction of a service to bale and export cardboard and in 2007 the company started to handle commercial waste delivering and collecting wheelie bins with a bespoke lorry.

The first picking station was purchased in 2009, putting an end to the gruelling task of hand-picking refuse.

In 2011, waste started to be exported for refuse derived fuel (RDF) – which was becoming recognised as better for the environment than fossil fuels. This was also the year that Depot 2 was acquired to accommodate the increase in demand and opportunities for baling cardboard and plastic film alongside wood waste recycling.

In September 2016, Keith sadly passed away. The family was devastated. He did, however, leave a wonderful legacy and it is very fitting that when Depot 3 was commissioned in 2020, officially opening in 2021, the road was named Keith Willshee Way.

Depot 3 really was a game changer. Materials recycling facilities (MRFs) have taken over at the forefront of the industry and hence the company invested over £10million in this state-of-the-art operation.

This equipment produces over a third more material that can be reused versus other plant – extracting wood, soil, plastic, metal and rubble from general waste. With a process involving three stages of shredding and a sophisticated system of shredding, screening, air separation, magnets and near-infrared technology, Willshee’s is able to extract every last piece of recyclable material. What is left, is made into Solid Recovered Fuel (SRF) which is then used by manufacturers.

Other than the opening of Depot 3, business highlights include being listed by the London Stock Exchange as one of the top 1000 companies to inspire Britain; receiving recognition as a Top 200 UK women-powered business by global private bank J. P. Morgan and being named the 2023 Business of the Year at the Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce business awards.

Family pride

Maria is incredibly proud of what the family has achieved: “It really is amazing how the business has grown from a two-person start-up in 1984. I am incredibly grateful to all the staff who have helped us grow – I know that Keith would be delighted, proud and excited if he could see the business today. And, of course, I am really pleased that our three children are so committed to the business and passionate about taking it forward to reach new heights in the years to come.”

Dean has now been managing director for 10 years having joined the business straight from college. Along with his siblings, Dean has clearly inherited his parents’ strong work ethic and all three are passionate about driving the company forward.

With annual turnover now at £35million, handling 300,000 tonnes of waste per year, a fleet of over 50 vehicles and 150 staff, the focus is on growth. Dean says: “We want to continue with our trajectory of 20% year-on-year growth. While we are ambitious to grow organically we are also looking to gain increased market share. The recent launch of our national brokering service will play a key part in this as we expand our offer across the UK.

“There are also opportunities for us as a result of stricter legislation which means more organisations need a professional service – with compliant, transparent auditing.

And then there is also the rise in demand for refuse derived fuel and solid recovered fuel as an alternative to fossil fuels – and our Swadlincote site has a huge capacity for this.”

Jenna is also focused on the future: “I’m really looking forward to helping to develop the company further, with innovative solutions for waste and recycling management and partnering with more and more businesses to achieve zero waste to landfill, improve their carbon footprint and generally encouraging organisations to reduce, reuse, recycle and recover”.

Craig Willshee too is looking to introduce more innovation into the operation. He says: “In a world where waste is inevitable, innovation is not just an option, it’s our responsibility. Leading the charge in waste and recycling, we engineer solutions that transform today’s challenges into tomorrow’s resources”.


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