Before they turned 10, brothers James and Michael Coghill bought packets of seeds and turned a corner of their backyard into a mini greenhouse. “We flogged them off to Mum’s friends. The librarian at school would always buy a lot,” says Michael.
While at university, the brothers spotted another opportunity. Driving around Perth, they noticed perfectly good computers, microwaves and televisions were being left on the verge. Realising there was recoverable copper in many of those appliances, they started earning an easy couple of hundred dollars on the weekend. This side hustle turned into a business.
“What led to the business concept was the idea people were throwing money away,” says Michael. “It was ridiculous and turned our minds to looking at waste as an opportunity and a resource.”
Their company, Total Green Recycling (TGR), has grown from recycling old computers in their father’s garage in 2008 to a $3.2m operation with 47 staff. Throughout the decade, they have upsized six times, with their current 3300sq m facility in the Perth suburb of Kewdale now recovering 2637 tonnes of e-waste, diverting more than 500,000 items from WA landfills. They have also “recovered, wiped and refurbished” more than 50,000 electronic items through their asset management business unit.
Their first large customer was the City of Bunbury council, then Stirling Council. The customer base now includes manufacturers, service providers, IT leasing companies and retailers, government departments, schools, large corporations, police and the defence department. They also service telcos.
“We’ve been getting into mobile phone towers,” says James. “As they upgraded from 3G to 4G, and now 4G to 5G, they upgraded their infrastructure, which is full of electronic waste. We do a lot of work for the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme, so we service a majority of the co-regulatory arrangements.”
The team is spearheading a campaign to eliminate e-waste from WA landfill by 2020. “Regulation is not always the answer,” says James, “but done in the correct way and with good governance, it can work. That’s why it’s so important to open up lines of communication with the regulators to inform them of what is actually occurring on the ground.”
Challenges of a family business
“It has been a family business with just James, Dad and myself as directors. One of our limitations has been not having a more diverse board to balance opinions and mediate conversations.
The other has been capital. Now we’re looking to take on external investment and recognise how a more diverse board and looking for outside capital go hand-in-hand.”
“If we’ve ever had any disagreements, we’ve fallen back to data-driven decisions, which removes a lot of the bias. Usually we’ve differed over where we think a certain decision will lead.
But we can always agree once we bring data to the table.”
Getting TGR off the ground and keeping it there has not been without turbulence. In the early days, the brothers developed processes by painstakingly reducing each appliance to its component parts, counting each screw. Then, almost overnight, many of those processes had to be junked when cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions were replaced by flat-screen technology. They also expanded quickly, leaving them leaning heavily on the finances of their father to see them through periods of negative cash flow. They put it down to over-enthusiasm.
“After establishing the recycling business, we expanded into asset management and refurbishment too aggressively and prematurely,” says Michael. “We just went after it rather than testing and deciding whether it was prudent to commit further. Ultimately, it worked, but it was a risky and costly way to do it. We were lucky our father, Peter, was able to help financially.”
Peter helped with more than investment dollars. A mining executive, he instilled the importance of tracking critical data to provide transparency to customers as well as managing business performance. “When we committed to weekly and quarterly meetings, things ran well,” says James. “When we didn’t, things fell away. Regular meetings are critical, but can be hard to do in a small business with competing priorities.”
The brothers realise that leadership and governance have emerged as pinch points in their business. “Through the first seven years of the business we had no managers,” notes Michael.
“It was James and me with our frontline staff. In the past two to three years, we’ve started building out both the management and the leadership teams. There has been a lot of learning and that’s where all our improvements are coming from.”
Increasing TGR’s leadership capacity has shown that a clearly articulated structure, decision-making framework and strong communication is key to growing their business. “It allows our people to work autonomously, freeing us to focus on higher-level functions,” says Michael. “Getting more involved in governance is showing us how important that director role is, because the directors are assuming the most responsibility of anyone in the organisation.”
As TGR looks to expand its board beyond themselves and their father, they’re going back to the genesis of the business. “Total Green is a purpose-focused business and it’s important when we’re bringing on new directors and partners to ensure they understand, at a fundamental level, why we’re doing this,” says Michael. “If you can build a team of people and a board who are aligned to a common objective, it’s an incredibly powerful thing.”