This month, unLTD meets Emma Hickling, Finance Director at South Yorkshire waste management company KCM, to discuss their recent growth, why family counts in business and breaking the trash ceiling in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

Generally speaking, waste management depots are not the places that immediately spring to mind when you think of vibrant, sociable workspaces. However, from the yard where we parked through to the reception area and upstairs office space we were eventually led to, KCM is not lacking in hustle and bustle, smiles and plenty of friendly banter between staff members.

“We’re very family-oriented,” says KCM’s Finance Director Emma Hickling. “We’ve always said that we want people to enjoy coming to work here, so we want everyone to feel comfortable and look out for each other, just as you would do with family members. We want to keep that approach no matter how much we grow.”

In fact, ‘family-oriented’ is probably putting it a tad mildly. KCM has been run by the Hickling family since its formation over 35 years ago. Today three generations of Hicklings are employed by KCM, from co-owners – Emma’s dad and uncle – at the top, right through to Emma’s daughter, neice and nephew who are learning their trade across the various departments of the business.

KCM waste management

There’s plenty to get your head around, too. KCM deal with about 75,000 tonnes of waste per year, guided by a fundamental commitment to recycling and waste recovery, while offering a wide range of commercial and domestic services: trade waste bins and collection, household waste, hazardous waste, electrical waste, tipping/recycling, secure document destruction, event waste management and skip, wagon, tipper and aggregate hire.

“There’s no job too big or too small,” says Helen Hayward, Commercial Director at KCM. “We can find a solution for any form of waste. I think what makes us unique, however, is that we treat general waste as a form of recovery, meaning we don’t just send it straight to landfill and will always find the most sustainable option.”

Another unique aspect is Emma herself, a key decision-maker at KCM in an often male-dominated industry. When she first arrived at the company just under 20 years ago, there was only one other female member of staff. Today there are 13 in the office alone.
“Growing up as the only girl out of seven grandchildren meant that it didn’t really faze me,” she replies when I ask about how conscious she was of the gender divide.

“I’m as good as two men anyway! So, yes, it was a very male-dominated place to begin with, but slowly, as the business has grown, more women have come on board – in both office jobs and also working outside as waste operatives. The tables have turned quite a bit.”

Over the last five years, that growth alluded to has been fairly substantial. KCM now employ around 130 workers and will be launching services at their new Sheffield branch in July. The core of their business revolves around South Yorkshire, but last year they launched a nationwide scheme allowing them to provide skip hire across the country by partnering with other companies.

Emma puts a lot of their success down to the versatility afforded to hands-on, family-run companies. “We can make decisions quickly and easily,” she explains, “which means we can focus on meeting the individual needs of our customers rather than having a one-size-fits-all approach that you might get with big corporates. There isn’t the same bureaucracy and set way of doing things – we can adapt.”

Such an ability to shift and evolve is a clearly key one in the waste management industry, where stubborn challenges include keeping up with rapidly advancing technology, government initiatives and rising fuel costs.

Ensuring that fleets are compliant and sustainable practices are implemented across the board is something of a given for a company committed to reducing pollution, but Emma explains that staying on top of innovation and trends in the market allows KCM to remain a step ahead of their competitors.

“The industry is a fast-moving one; you’ll regularly find new and better ways of separating waste, technology that ensures you can pull every last recyclable out of it. To guarantee you’re doing the best job and being as efficient as possible, you’ve got to stay on top of what is a constantly evolving marketplace.”

KCM waste management

As such, Emma will often spend time out on visits looking at new up-and-coming plant machinery, but I’m assured that’s just a small portion of a diverse workload. A surface-level job title of finance director leaves her in charge of the money, but some days she’ll find herself manning transport operations, in meetings exploring funding options or generally getting involved in the day-to-day running of whichever department needs assistance.

It all comes back to those family values, a shared ethos running throughout of buying into the company and mucking in where needed.

Commercial Manager Hannah Baker expands on this idea: “Glenn [Operations Manager] always says ‘one team, one dream’ and that’s how it feels. I think because the hours are longer than most office positions, we all spend so much time together, so we are very comfortable with each other. Everyone really cares about the company because of how it’s run.

“I think customers appreciate it too. A lot of them end up knowing the customer service staff here by name rather than going through some big call centre where you don’t get that personal touch. It makes a difference.”

Keen to extend this sense of companionship to the community, KCM are active in providing sponsorship and raising funds for a wide number of local organisations. Last year, their annual charity calendar – which featured employees posing in their bare essentials – raised over £11,000 for Sheffield-based specialist school Paces, and they are particularly active in sponsoring sports teams from Rawmarsh St Joseph’s Sunday League club to Rotherham United (the Hicklings are big Millers fans).

“Dancers, motorbikers, boxers – we like to support anyone local.”

Emma adds: “We also work with Bluebell Wood, collecting for them and recycling their Christmas trees for free, so anyone who volunteers for them can use us as a tipping point.”

Maintaining close ties to the community is another benefit of a family-run business model. There aren’t many independent waste management companies left in the region, as many have been bought out by larger firms that don’t necessarily prioritise reinvesting in local areas or staying true to their roots.

But, as Emma explains right at the end of the interview, keeping the family values in check is of the utmost importance to how KCM do things and will continue to guide them as they enter an exciting new phase in the company’s history.

“I want to get as big as some of your corporates but while keeping our unique approach. That’s what makes us different, and I wouldn’t want to change that.” // @kcmwaste

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