Everything’s gone green

Commercial Group has a reputation for tough environmental standards and investment in areas of the company requiring most improvement. Co-founder Simone Mann tells Tom Idle how the targets are met and how the company has grown

Established in the early nineties by brother and sister team, Simone Mann and Arthur Hindmarch, along with their university friend Alastair Adams, Commercial Group is now one of the UK’s leading office supplies and IT services companies, winning big contracts thanks in no small part to its tough environmental commitments. The company is the largest independently owned business of its kind in the UK with a turnover of £28M.

But Commercial’s sustainability story didn’t start until 2006 when Mann was invited by her biggest client, BSkyB, to attend a lecture by Al Gore and a screening of his infamous documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

It was “a bit of an epiphany moment”, and she came back to the business invigorated and convinced that tackling the environment was something her company had to do. “I felt good about the way we ran our business – high staff retention, looking after our staff and customers – and felt we were not doing our bit on the environment,” she admits.

Gore had instilled confidence in his audience; Mann felt a responsibility to do the right thing, but she also recognised that if Commercial could put the environment at the heart of the business, the business would grow. “There are two key drivers for buyers right now: the first is about cost. And the second is about environmental impact. If you can do those things really well – and really understand the environment – you will be successful.”

Commercial set about its sustainability objectives by opening up a new position of environment strategist – almost unheard of for a company employing just 130 people. Then 200 of its top clients were invited to a summit at which Gore’s film was screened once more.

“It’s only by sharing the reality with each other that we can all be aware of the global problem we face.”

Three years ago the company committed to reduce its carbon emissions by 75%, a target the firm is on course to hit.

So, how does an SME go about becoming a green business? Commercial’s activity has involved a fair amount of investment.

For example, the company’s entire fleet of vehicles have been switched to biodiesel, and a new fuel tank has even been commissioned and installed on the forecourt of its head office in Cheltenham.

“There is an investment to be made, without any shadow of a doubt. But there are benefits which aren’t just about reducing your impact on the environment.

“Our transport was 88% of our carbon emissions, so putting investment into that area means we are solving a big part of the problem.”

The fuel tank, which is a first in terms of the technology it uses, is geared so that a fob can be swiped at the pump by the vehicle owner. The tank then calculates the bio-diesel blend, records the amount of fuel dispensed and, if the car is privately owned, the value is deducted from the individual’s salary at the beginning of each month.

As well as the 75% carbon reduction target, the company has recently announced a new goal to send zero waste to landfill by the end of 2011. Again, it’s a target that will require investment in a number of areas, including a biomass boiler and in-sink-orator.

Composting could also be an option too, along with other partnering initiatives with neighbouring businesses.

Not content with just doing its bit for the planet, Mann and her team have ensured that the investments made in reducing impacts are matched by winning new business from clients that get the sustainability agenda, such as Eurostar and RSPCA, with whom Commercial has recently won contracts.

“You’ve still got to be competitive. And there is a big difference between saying, ‘this is what we do, we have ISO, etc’ and saying we are going to educate our staff so that they are part of the process of minimising impacts,” she says.

Commercial’s focus on green issues has encouraged the company to look at its whole operations and processes again.

Compared with its competitors, many of which are larger in size, “we are in a much stronger financial position,” adds Mann.

“You start to re-think the way you run your business and you have a much more harmonious team. You are very much still sales focused, but the different teams come together and make sense. You stop people battling.”

Next up for Commercial? Well, they have just been handed the largest government buying solutions framework agreement – a tough ask given the inevitable cuts that are likely to hit the public sector hard.

“We are going to focus on helping people spend less and help them to buy things which are the least destructive to the environment as possible,” says Mann.

Commercial has a few other initiatives up its sleeve for the coming year (including trying to help its customers match its own zero waste to landfill goals), but in the meantime Mann is happy to be leading an SME that is not only holding its own in the marketplace, but is doing so with the environment at its heart.

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