Bury St Edmunds: A business slow-burner which comes from the hearth
John Jardine, managing director of Bridge Brooke Energy based at Risby, near Bury St Edmunds, is fired up by his latest business venture - making ‘Loggies’ for sale to people from timber sawdust and offcuts. Powering the operation is a neighbouring anaerobic digestion plant also based on the farm-based business park. SARAH CHAMBERS went to see the renewable energy operation for herself.
Entrepreneur John Jardine grew up on a farm and has always been involved in recycling.
So it’s fitting that his latest business venture, Bridge Brooke Energy, which involves recycling ‘waste’ timber material, is situated on a farm-based business park and uses energy produced from its anaerobic digestion plant.
John makes ‘Hotties’, or recycled logs for wood burners, and a new type of charcoal which is the latest hot item for top chefs specialising in barbecue cuisine,
He is a long-time friend of George Gittus, who runs Symonds Farm business park, at Risby, near Bury St Edmunds, and when he was looking for a place to base his ambitious new enterprise it seemed a natural fit, he said.
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“All our electricity comes from George’s anaerobic digestion plant. I have known George for quite some time. I wanted to start this business and just before he was building this plant, I think we got talking. It was one of the main reasons I suppose because it’s quite close to where I live and it all fitted together quite nicely. It’s a good part of the story for us because we are making a fuel that’s totally renewable,” he says.
The material for making the Hotties comes from sawdust and chippings from sawmills. Taking that raw material and making it into something which is practical and easy for consumers to use is the hard bit and it took John and his staff many months to adapt, refine and build the plant required for the job.
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John, who went to Woodbridge School, comes from a farming family based at Creeting St Peter, near Stowmarket. But both he and his brother, Mark, realised that they would need to diversify.
Being brought up on a farm, they were used to “getting stuck into everything”, he recalls.
“At the time it was the mid-1980s or early 1980s and farming incomes were only going one way. We had ambition to do different things really. It’s a bit like farm diversification - that’s really where it’s come from. I would say my heart is still in farming although my business fervour has taken me away from it.”
Back in the 1980s, they used to sell imported charcoal briquettes. Mark was originally involved in a business with John which composted organic waste, but Mark built up his own pre-cast concrete business, Poundfield Products, and went into that while John fashioned and grew County Mulch, which evolved into a large enterprise. John raised some City private equity funding to expand it further, but this changed the set-up and he decided to exit the business two years later in 2010. About a year after he quit and sold up, the firm went into administration.
Setting up his latest venture in a 4,000sq ft factory building has been complex and involved a considerable amount of research.
But John saw an opportunity to use a resource and add value to it using the recycling principles which he has adopted throughout his career.
“I didn’t quite know what I was going to do. I was sort of thinking about things,” he says.
“This was the one that kept coming to the top and I visited some plants in eastern Europe. I went to India and saw a production plant.”
In 2011, he visited an “unbelievably crude” factory, but it showed him what he wanted to do.
“I gave my order for the equipment in April 2011 and started building in 2011,” he says.
He had hoped to be operational by Christmas of 2011, but the works took rather longer than expected and when the contractors left site, John was still unable to get the system to work consistently.
Luckily, with the help of his production manager, Dave Williams, who has lived and breathed the project with him, he was able to redesign elements of it and get it working in the way they wanted.
“Looking back on it now it seems easy. It seems logically what happens. One of the problems is there is a lot of contamination in wood which you don’t see. That was one of the problems. We have got a machine that takes that out which I found in the United States. The rest of it has been about getting it to the point where we have equipment that can work continuously,” he says.
“It’s taken from April 2012 really up to end of August this year.”
It’s a marked contrast from his last venture, but John is enjoying the new challenges it has presented.
“I used to have 65 people working for me now I have eight so it’s a bit different really,” he says.
The process itself, aimed at ensuring the logs are long-burning, is one which he has perfected over the last year or so.
“We take residues from timber processing basically wood chips and sawdust from sawmills and joinery shops. We blend it together to create our mix. We put it through a hopper to take out any metal. We then pulverise it down to a small size. Then we blow it from here next door into the factory. We are currently running 24 hours five days a week.”
The two shifts method has been developed in response to demand, but also because the extruders work much better when they are hot. Turning the system on and off causes temperature changes and affects its efficiency.
“We started off by stopping and starting and they want to two shifts and it’s so much easier to keep it going. we have got a lot of demand for our product,” he explains. “This is the problem: when you stop it, the machines don’t like it. They like to be nice and hot and consistent.”
Getting the process right has been difficult and time-consuming - not least because the raw material which arrives varies according to the supplier. “I knew it would be very difficult because not many people around the world have got it up and running properly, but it’s taken 18 months,” he says.
“I have got six or seven main suppliers now which has its disadvantages in that it’s burning different materials slightly but we have actually mastered it now. We have now got a good network of suppliers the last six to eight weeks things have increased in terms of materials. The biggest thing that has been the problem is getting the process to work. It’s incredibly difficult.”
Apart from one very small producer in another part of the country, nobody else in the UK is making such a product, says John, which means that the vast majority of Hotties’ rival products are imported.
John is experimenting with using the waste head from the AD plant, but also burns the sawdust to dry out the wood waste which comes in at between 15% and 40% moisture in order to bring it down to about 8% to 9% - the level needed to get the process to work.
As well as selling his “hotties”, John also uses a proportion of them to make a niche charcoal product which has been a surprise hit.
“We have been selling it into the barbecue market but what we have discovered now is we sell it into the restaurant trade. We sell to about 20 restaurants in London - very high profile ones. They just love it - it’s brilliant,” he says.
According to John, it burns longer than imported charcoal products, lights easily and has the added benefit of being UK-made - a rarity as around 95% of charcoal is imported into the UK.
“The cooking temperature remains very constant throughout the cooking process,” he says.
A grill chef event over a three-week period at Tobacco Wharf in London this year helped show off the potential of his product, he said.
“It was amazing actually. We have a distributor in London into that world and the customers think it’s a fantastic product. It’s more expensive than imported products but the benefits outweigh the costs.”
His is a premium product and the work has to be done by hand as it is very fragile, he explains.
“The other thing we are doing is we have been using the wood-based fuel as an alternative for charcoal,” he says.
This charcoal replacement product - the woodfuel in small chunks - will be cheaper than the premium charcoal but basically provides the same effect as cooking charcoal.
His product is Heat Association and Woodsure approved and John has built up a customer base of about 700 private customers and 400 retailers, from garden centres and garage forecourts to farm shops, who are spread around the country from Shetland to Guernsey.
“The demand for the product is very good - the winter fuel and charcoal and the charcoal replacement. The product is great but the manufacture is exceptionally difficult. I have learnt a lot about wood and how it reacts in different situations,” says Mark.
Mark is 52 and his brother 50. His parents are retired, and the 500-acre family farm at Creeting St Peter is managed by Sentry Farms.
“In terms of business experience I have probably had every bit of experience you can go through,” he says.
“We have been based on the farm but actually we have been doing what is outside of the farm. I’m a frustrated farmer - I would rather be farming in some ways.”