Suffolk Director Magazine, Lead Interview: David Dodds, Joint MD, Sackers

Lead Interview: David Dodds

Our lead interview in the RESPONSIBILITY issue of Suffolk Director business magazines is David Dodds, CEO of Sackers
Published in Suffolk Director Magazine, Winter/Spring 2020

Accountable, Dependable and Diligent

“We have a responsibility to make sure that as little as possible of the material we take in goes to landfill. We charge a gate fee per tonne and our job is to make sure extraction and recycling is done efficiently and economically.”

When David Dodds was growing up in Ipswich, it was always his plan that when he was old enough, he would enlist with the RAF and train to be a pilot. It couldn’t have been further from his mind that he would instead end up joining his older brother Adrian in working in the scrap metal business owned by their father, Tony.

“I was fixed on becoming a pilot and when I was 16, having just left Westbourne High School, I went down to the recruiting office in Ipswich to have a chat about what I needed to do.

“Although they were very accommodating and helpful, they explained that certain academic results were a prerequisite before they would even start putting me through the interviews and testing process. I then realised I wasn’t going to get close enough to what they wanted to get accepted for officer training.

“Without a clear idea of what else I wanted to do and my only work experience being delivering newspapers, dad offered me a temporary job at Sackers. His intention was to keep me gainfully employed until I decided what I wanted to do.”

“From day one, I really enjoyed it. I was working in the yard with the guys
cutting up the scrap metal and there was always something different happening every day.”

A family business

Tony Dodds had bought S. Sacker (commonly referred to as Sackers) in 1972. It was a firmly established scrap metal business which had been trading since the late 1920s and Tony had been taken on as an Executive in 1952 having completed his National Service in Hong Kong. He was looking for a job around agriculture and he was introduced to Sidney Sacker, a friend of his stepfather.

Subsequently, Sidney retired and the business was taken over by his son-in-law, David Myer. When David retired in 1972 to concentrate on public duties (he was Mayor of Ipswich between 1977 and 78), Tony bought the company and trimmed the operations back to just concentrate on scrap metal processing.

“When I joined the business in 1978, Sackers operated from Riverside Road in Ipswich and employed around 20 people. My brother Adrian had been working there for eighteen months and was coming to the end of a one-year course in Business Management, so I decided to do the same and enrolled at Suffolk College.

“Then after my year, I went back to work at Sackers and went out on the road finding new business.

“The first thing I did was look at the scrap metal we were purchasing and then I took the Yellow Pages business directories for Ipswich, Colchester, Bury St Edmunds and Norwich and identified all the companies locally that might be producing some sort of metal waste. I then set about visiting them, calling them and keeping on at them until they gave me an opportunity to bid for their scrap metal.

“I was very tenacious and persistent, and one particular guy I remember was a scrap metal merchant in Lowestoft. I basically door stepped him for months with his standard response being, “I’m still OK, but if anything changes, I’ll let you know.” Then after two years, he offered me the chance to bid and as a result he became a customer and stayed with us for the next nine years until he retired.

“This proved to me that perseverance pays. Of course, it helped that Sackers had a good reputation and that dad was thought of as a gentleman, but I also learned to handle rejection and not take things personally. The fact was that people were quite happy with who they were using and didn’t want to change unless they needed to.”

“It’s true that people do buy from people, so I approached it as ‘drip, drip, drip’; establishing a good relationship and keeping in contact until I had the chance to prove myself was key to the success.”

Developing the business

“In the late 70s, the decision was taken that Adrian and I both needed to expand our experience in different aspects of scrap metal processing, which would in turn help to develop and enhance the offering the family business could make to its customers.

“So, Adrian went to Thomas Hill & Co in Derby for 12 months to gain skills and knowledge working with ferrous scrap, and I then went to McIntyre in Nottingham for 14 months to learn all about non-ferrous metals.”

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David and Adrian Dodds. Photo Warren Page Pagepix

Thomas Hill & Co. was one of the largest merchants in the country dealing with iron and steel (ferrous) scrap metal, which comes from a range of consumer products like automobiles and household appliances, as well as industrial structures and equipment such as railroads, trains, bridges, ships and farming equipment. Like Sackers, but on a much larger scale, it would take in the scrap, cut it down to furnace size and then send it on to the furnaces to be melted down.

McIntyre was an international company based in the UK which made ingots from non-ferrous scrap metal such as copper, aluminium, brass, lead, zinc and stainless steel. It would take the metal, melt it down to liquid in the furnace which would then be formed into large ingots, before being sold on for re-use mainly in Europe by the construction and automotive industries.

In the early eighties, business was steady and the UK metal industry was buoyant. Sackers was operating from a couple of locations around Ipswich when an opportunity arose to buy A King & Sons, a scrap merchant who had a large yard at Great Blakenham just outside Ipswich.

Negotiations went on for several months before the purchase was completed in 1982, whilst David was still away in Nottingham.

“Dad was a measured businessman and at that time, quite rightly, he felt that there was really no need to expand too far geographically, as there were still a lot of steel, copper and aluminium yards in the UK.”

However, the next two to three years saw a significant reduction in scrap metal refining and the marketplace for such production moved overseas.

“As I was doing some of the selling, I could see what was happening and that the markets we operated in were on a downturn. I realised that we needed to look for new markets and this, together with the time I’d spent at McIntyre, made me realise that trading internationally could be the next big opportunity for us.”

“I knew what I wanted to do but didn’t know where to start;
I just had the benefit of working for a company that traded internationally.”

Going international

“There was a book in the office named Metalworks of the World. It was an A-Z directory of all the companies and countries around the globe that bought and melted metal. Bearing in mind that at that time, there were half a dozen melting works in Ipswich alone – Ransomes, Cranes, Delta and Reavells were the big names – the book was thick and heavy.

“I decided to adopt the same approach as I had with The Yellow Pages, but this time working from my desk using a fax machine. I typed a letter using a typewriter and then I faxed it to lots of different potential customers changing the name on the letter using Tippex each time.

“Initially, I concentrated on India as it kept coming up repeatedly as the country with lots of metalworks. It didn’t occur to me that there was a time difference, or that they might not speak good English.

“So, after a day out on the road, I’d return to the office, go through the book and send a load of faxes, before returning home late at night. I looked forward to coming in to work in the morning and seeing whether there were any replies.”

At this point, David was working 50 plus hours a week. He lived on his own having bought his first house on Norwich Road when he was 22. Apart from playing football on Sunday and riding his bike, everything else revolved around work.

“I was in my mid-twenties and I was fairly single-minded. I knew what I wanted to achieve and that was, to successfully establish Sackers overseas. I think dad thought I was mad, but he humoured me and he gave me the opportunity to have a go and take total responsibility for this aspect of the business.”

Having had no luck in three months, David’s first positive reply came back from an Indian customer.

“He had tried ignoring me but got tired of my letters, so he decided to give us a chance. That customer is still our customer to this day.”

Although excited by the opportunity, panic set in when David realised he was out of his depth and he didn’t know what to do next. The Indian client wanted copper and to trade in volume. Sackers didn’t have the volume they needed, although David did have an idea of where he could get it from. They also wanted the copper delivered to a certain place in India, but he had no idea on how to get it there.

“I spoke to the shipping line, saying that I needed to ship a container to India. I was blagging it, because at that stage I hadn’t received the order commitment, so I couldn’t go out and buy the metal volume required or work out my costs; all of which I needed to make it happen.

“There was lots of paperwork and red tape to get through, but the shipping line helped me enormously and when that first container was shipped, we ended up making enough money to cover our costs and make a small profit. More importantly, it got our name out there and it opened a whole new world in our understanding of exporting and trading internationally.”

At the same time, Riverside Road closed as it was too small to meet the needs of the business, and everything moved to the 3.5-acre site at Great Blakenham where operations concentrated on buying, processing and selling scrap metal.

“Although I was still faxing people, I was now also having telephone conversations with them. However, no further orders could be placed until that first container arrived in India and the quality was verified. Back then, it took 45 days, but due to quicker ships and more direct routes, today it takes only 32 days.”

It was only after several years doing business, that David decided to make a personal visit to his new Indian clients.

“By this time, I was married to Helen and had three young children under five. It was a massive thing to do and I admit I was a bit scared.

“We were doing such regular business and I realised that if we wanted to continue, it was important to see the customer face-to-face. It’s often seen as a softer side to business, but it’s vital to personalise the business relationship and provide quality; these aspects are often seen as more important than price.

“The initial visit was only for four days, but as MG India was the agent, they arranged several meetings with different foundries around the country.”

“The time spent with MG India also enabled us to strengthen the business relationship, allowing Sackers to expand further into India.”

Today, India accounts for 60 percent of Sackers’ export volume.

“For me, MG India gave me the confidence to do business internationally and to network.

“The Internet has made the world a smaller place and we now ship to Pakistan, Bangladesh, UAE, Saudi Arabia and East Africa, as well as, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. 90 percent of our business comes from exporting, with 80 percent of our exports outside the EU with the rest of the World.”

Managing waste responsibly

Although they had been appointed as directors in the business in 1991, when Tony Dodds retired in 1997, he appointed David as Commercial Director and Adrian as Operations Director, with the aim that the brothers would then go on running the business as Joint MDs.

Whilst David was focusing on building the export side of the business, Adrian was managing and overseeing the waste management and recycling operation. He played the main part in developing this arm of the business and its establishment as a waste management company in 2004.

“This side of the company sets up deals with industry, collecting waste such as paper, cardboard, plastic, wood, organics etc. There is a ban on certain materials going to landfill and local councils want to establish a recycling route for most materials. We are paid to pick up the mixed waste, which we then separate and sort into various commodities before transferring the majority on to recycling companies, or the waste to energy plant at Great Blakenham.

“We have a responsibility to make sure that as little as possible of the material we take in goes to landfill. We charge a gate fee per tonne and our job is to make sure extraction and recycling is done efficiently and economically.”

Over the last decade, business has grown steadily with the capacity licence being the only constraint on how much waste the business can process.

“Our job is to finesse the volume to achieve the best gross margins without exceeding the 110,000 tonnes capacity allowed annually by our licence. We are a processing company and our currency is scrap metal. We have worked out which metals give us the best margins. We then prioritise and max out metal one, before moving to the next and then the next, until capacity is reached.”

A large financial investment was made when a granulating machine was purchased in 2018 for £700,000. The granulator gave Sackers the opportunity to refine copper cables for recycling.

“This purchase is a typical example of where good communication with the rest of the world comes into play. I picked up that China were taking the decision to not take copper scrap anymore, so a new destination needed to be found for this waste stream. Therefore, we decided to buy the machine and recycle it ourselves, with the plastic going to UK plastic recycling companies and the pure granulated copper then still able to go to China, but also Europe and the UK.

“Investment in this type of plant and equipment has led us to a position where we can handle, process and recycle 100 percent of all grades of scrap metal. And, with the only metal shredder in East Anglia, it allows us to be the final processor before the metal is exported around the World.”

Today, Sackers is well established as a scrap metal and waste recycling business. Employing 90 people, it operates from two sites; Gipping Road in Great Blakenham and Ipswich Road in Needham Market. Its continued investment supports a commitment to quality and efficiencies that is passed onto customers.

“Adrian and I manage the business together as Joint MDs, with a team of senior managers supporting us. He heads up the operations and I manage the commercial side of the business. We understand each other’s limitations and have a huge amount of respect for each other. Once a week, we sit down together to discuss strategy, projects and progression.

“Our older brother Ewan sits on the Board with the Finance Director, Nigel Canham. All decisions taken on projects and investments are made once a proposal has been put together, torn to shreds, then stress tested. If it survives that process, then it is introduced into the business.

“Running a business does have its challenges with time management being the main issue. I never seem to have enough hours in the day to do what I need to do, and my work life balance is particularly poor.

“Also finding and recruiting top quality people remains a general business challenge across Suffolk for many businesses, so we have introduced a ‘Culture Club’ into the business which actively engages with employees and is more understanding around their needs when it comes to working conditions.

“However, the upside and the driver for me, is the people who work in the business and their enthusiasm which spurs me on. I also love the cut and thrust of doing a deal and collaborating with new customers to give them a good reason to give us their custom.

“Professionally, I enjoy and am developing opportunities to buy and sell materials without them coming through the yards. My goal is to build sales revenue by trading scrap materials with our portfolio of well-reputed customers and clients worldwide who have been built up over many years’ experience. The aim is to get it, so it equals the turnover of the business that goes through the yards, as the growth of this trading side of the business is unlimited.

“Overall though, I want every member of staff to be proud of working for Sackers and every customer to be proud of doing business with Sackers.”

Keeping it physical

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Photo credit Warren Page Pagepix

A typical day for David revolves around physical activity.

A keen distance cyclist and runner, his day starts at 6.15am when he takes the dog for a run around Christchurch Park.

Every day he cycles to work getting into the office at Needham Market around 7.45am. He takes a shower and has breakfast at his desk while he sorts out his emails and sets up a task list for the day ahead. Two days a week are spent visiting customers.

When in the office, lunchtime is usually spent at the gym across the road before he has soup for lunch sat at his desk. David leaves the office generally around 6pm to cycle the 20 miles home.

But, where did this passion for exercise come from?

“In my late 30s, due to an accumulation of speeding points, the local judge deemed it necessary to take my licence away for six months. Amusingly, the last three points were gained when I was driving ‘Rudolph’ – the Round Table Christmas float – back from a press event where we presented a £10,000 cheque to a local school, and I was caught doing 34mph in a 30mph limit. Consequently, I had to still get to work every day, so I wheeled my old rusty bike from the garage, pumped up the tyres and was ready to go.

“I hated every minute of it for the first few weeks, mainly because it was cold, and I couldn’t keep my cigarette lit! After a few months though, I started to get a little fitter and began to enjoy the benefits that cycling was giving me. So much so, that I started to run to work as well and this, subsequently, got me into marathon running.

“I have now completed six marathons, a couple of Olympic distance triathlons, and a Half Ironman.

“I have dropped the triathlons and marathon running now and just concentrate on cycling. 20 years later, I’m still cycling to work every day and cycle around 150 miles a week.

“They say that every cloud has a silver lining and that really does apply here…”

Lead Interview: David Dodds 9

David Dodds, Joint MD of Sackers based in Great Blakenham, Ipswich.
David Dodds LinkedIn

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