Insider Insight: Nik Spencer

Nik Spencer, chief executive of Mission Resources and joint developer of the Home Energy Recovery Unit (HERU) with Brunel University shares his career insights

Nik Spencer, chief executive of Mission ResourcesWhat helped you get where you are in your career?

When I was young, my Dad was involved in a serious accident. This left him on life support and did have quite an untold change on our lives. Rather than shy away from the situation, it made me really step up to the plate and be driven to do as well as possible.

I believe this period shaped not only me personally, but also my career significantly. Immediately, I wanted to become the family ‘bread winner’.

Who have been your role-models and mentors?

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great people throughout my career, but there are a couple who stand out.

Bob Short, who worked at Middleton Paper, taught me a lot in terms of how to conduct business in a manner that would see me achieve my goals. He really gave me the grounding and core skills needed to make a difference in the waste sector.

Another would have to be Fiona Hayes, a highly capable business psychologist. Fiona has always helped me to open my mind and look at the bigger picture, working through any business issues and breaking down the challenges. She also made me understand the importance of having a tight-knit team. I now see it as key to any project succeeding.

What qualifications are the most necessary and most beneficial in your sector?

As a whole, the waste management sector needs to draw on more engineering talent. As an industry, we started out collecting waste with the horse and cart and, aside from the introduction of diesel trucks, the process hasn’t really changed to this day.

Waste needs to be looked at as a resource and for this to become a wide-spread reality, we need to attract young professionals with technical skills.

I look at what we’ve done with HERU, which essentially generates hot water from household waste, and while it has potential to be a global gamechanger, it wouldn’t have got off the ground without sound engineering know-how.

Indeed, the process of using pyrolysis to breakdown waste is highly technical, and has been developed with some of the best minds across engineering and academia – precisely the type of people we want to be attracting to the waste industry.

What have been the stumbling blocks or barriers along the way? And how did you adapt to these challenges?

Legislation has been a huge challenge and roadblock throughout my career. When I started out, only charities could benefit from recycling credits via the landfill tax, which wasn’t ideal.

So, by working in partnership with a local MP, we managed to campaign for change and, eventually, secured recycling credits for commercial businesses too. This was a big moment for the industry, as it allowed for a lot more people to enter the sector, bringing their ideas and insight for the better.

One persistent challenge is the lack of knowledge of technologies, such as pyrolysis. This is where collaborations with the right people prove vital.

What was the pivotal moment that led to the idea for HERU?

It really came from the question of “are we really going to be running around and collecting waste in a dust cart for the foreseeable future?” HERU provides a solution that disposes of waste in a clean, efficient and useful manner. I truly believe it can change the future of waste disposal.

What stages of your career have been the most rewarding?

It’s great to work on a project that really makes a difference – this is what I find rewarding. The one that springs to mind for me is a recycling scheme called ReBox. Working with Herefordshire County Council, we launched the initiative to give people with learning disabilities full time employment opportunities, while paying proper wages. It was really rewarding to give people who may have struggled to find employment a chance to get out there.

I’ve also worked with the Young Enterprise Foundation as a business advisor, helping sixth form students with business ideas. This year, I’m honoured to be a judge for their competition finals.

What is your process or approach to coming up with new business ideas? 

I’m really driven by finding solutions to problems and pushing the boundaries. Once I have something that I want to go after, it’s vital to fully explore the area. Travel, talk to the right people and, most importantly, develop a team with the right skills and knowledge to drive the project in the right direction.

Where do you think there are the most job opportunities in the sector?

Challenging the powerhouse of China and becoming more self-sufficient in terms of disposing of waste are the areas where we can grow in Europe. We need to be investing in people to look at how we process the waste we produce here, rather than shipping off around the globe at great expense.

As an entrepreneur, how important is it to work with collaborators?

Collaborations are essential, as they open up the mind to new possibilities and ideas. But you must ensure that you’re collaborating with the right expert, and this sometimes involves thinking outside the box.

With HERU, we met with leading pyrolysis experts who thought the concept wouldn’t work unless we shredded the waste first. So instead, we spoke with Brunel University, who had no previous pyrolysis experience but a very strong background in thermal dynamics and came up with a solution that works without shredding. It’s all about looking through the other end of the telescope and challenging pre-conceived ideas.

What other advice do you have for people about to embark on a career as an entrepreneur?

For me, perseverance is vital to success. You may not get it right the first time, but that doesn’t mean you should give up.

Take the England rugby team as an example. After an extremely poor performance in the World Cup, they changed tactics and inspired an exceptional team spirit that resulted in one of the best periods in the side’s history. Simply put, always keep going and never give up when you hit a setback. If you have a great idea that can make a difference, then keep on pushing forward until you achieve your goals.

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