Stories of Growth

Rob Harris, Accsys Technologies: “Changing wood to change the world”

As part of our Stories of Growth series, we hear from the CEO of a leading chemical tech business.

2 February 2022

BGF’s Quoted team invested £12 million in Accsys Technologies, a wood products technology business that’s listed on AIM. The funding helped to support Accsys’ growth plans, including opening its Tricoya wood chip manufacturing plant in Hull and expanding its Accoya facility in the Netherlands. In this in-depth interview, CEO Rob Harris discusses the Accsys growth journey and his career to date.

Rob Harris, CEO of Accsys Technologies

I’ve been in the sustainability space since 2004 when I got involved in biofuels with BP. I went on to spend two years in India growing the biofuels and biochemicals business for Reliance, India’s largest company. Later I ran the European business at Ecobat, a company that recycles batteries.

The principles of sustainability mean a lot to me – ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ – and I’ve learned a lot over time and through my career. With recycling, for example, India is fantastic at it compared to many other countries – including here in the UK. People imagine it’s the other way around.

In 2019, I got a call about Accsys Technologies plc. It’s not often you see an opportunity to grow a company 10 times over, and change the world for the better while doing it. I looked at the business proposition and the talent in the organisation and thought, ‘I can do this’.

Cladding the Ivy

Our purpose is simple really: changing wood to change the world. I think everyone throughout Accsys really takes that to heart, and we see that commitment and drive every day.

We transform sustainable wood into building materials that match or better the performance of man-made and highly carbon-polluting alternatives. We make our wood products an attractive choice for not just their sustainability, but also their quality and performance.

Our products have been used for some amazing projects: floating bridges, an ‘ecological school’, an ark (see below). We’re in some amazing places, used by some of the world’s leading companies. You’ll find our products at Google, Louis Vuitton and Starbucks. The Ivy restaurant in London is covered in Accoya, our main wood product.

Our focus is really on four sectors: windows, doors, decking and cladding. We could focus on almost anything made of wood, but our plan is to build the brand through these targeted areas where our products’ benefits really stand out against the alternatives.

Accoya wood cladding and decking - Vaucluse villa, France

Not all about price

Our time is right as a company. Decarbonisation, environmental credentials and sustainable construction materials are a global priority, and an increasing focus, especially within the built environment.

For us the key is to compete on sustainability, performance and durability – together. A lot of people think renewable or recycled products should be cheap or will have worse performance, but that’s not the proposition. The beneficial characteristics of our products are key, it’s not all about price. The end consumer understands that. The nearer you get to the consumer, the more interested they are in performance and sustainability.

But growing a business like this can also be tough because you’ve got to work with and educate the supply chain. If you talk to a distributor, sustainability is maybe fourth on their list after price, quality of service and so on. Architects, specifiers and the end-product manufacturers are slowly getting more involved. They are starting to value sustainability because the consumer is pulling them that way. But the fact that our products outperform many others, that remains a key selling point, and the combined proposition is a winning one.

“You’ve got educate the supply chain”

Since joining Accsys in late 2019, one of my priorities is how we systematise the business, preparing us to scale up effectively. It’s about getting the right people and processes in place to deliver our growth plans, because the demand in the market is for more of our products, as soon as possible. Managing the balance sheet so we can achieve growth is key within this too, especially as a listed company.

The most recycled product in the world

I’m a chemist by training. I started my career at ICI in new product development and joined BP after that. I got involved in a joint venture between BP and Mobil. That was my first taste of growing a business – I took that from £100 million to £400 million. It was terrific to develop the market and achieve the outcome that we did.

My first foray into sustainability was in BP’s ethanol business. After that, I ran a biofuels business in the US for a couple of years and then went to India. That was my real learning about growth. I was brought in to develop the biofuels and biochemicals business at Reliance, and also to do corporate venturing. I found that we could do it better in India instead of buying companies around the world – the growth opportunities there were phenomenal, as was our success.

After two years, I was approached to work for Ecobat, which was built on recycling lead from batteries. I ran the European business for seven years, growing and scaling that business by going into different types of batteries and supporting electric vehicles.

People don’t realise the car battery is the most recycled product in the world – not a soda can as you might think. Chances are your car battery has lead from Roman times in it, it’s been round the block so many times.

The right thing for society and planet

There is real sustainability and then there’s a lot of greenwash. What I saw in Accsys was the chance to do something I believe in – to do the right thing for society and planet. We make a sustainable product that outperforms unsustainable alternatives. Our products lock away far more carbon than has taken to make it, for decades, growing the carbon sink capacity of our built environment. That has to be a good thing.

My plan is to grow our annual production capacity five times over by 2025 from 2019. We are currently going from a business with one production site to three: our original facility in Arnhem in the Netherlands which we’re expanding, the world’s first Tricoya production site in Hull in the UK, and our planned new Accoya site in the USA.

It’s really exciting: the North American market alone is three times the size of the whole of Europe for these materials.

A home in Hawaii, clad in Accsys wood products

This company is blessed with fantastic people. As a business grows and scales, an organisation and the people in it need the leadership to evolve too. People need clarity on what their role and purpose is, and a sense of ownership of the company’s success and delivery. They need to know: ‘Where is the company going?’

Putting all that in place has made a huge difference because the people in Accsys are amazing and now we’ve got that collective direction, focus and accountability – that means we get better results.

It’s already started to happen, but the way I think about it is that I want someone to walk into a home improvements store, or be talking to their builder or architect, and if they’re offered PVC, aluminium or hard wood window frames, they turn around and say ‘No, I want Accoya’.

We can get there. In the US, we have seen real estate agencies specifically call out as a selling point that a property had Accoya windows. That, to me, is magic. It means our brand is getting out there, and it makes me very proud of what the team has done, and what we’re going to do in the future.

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