Neil Skeffington’s Novelplast had just turned its first profit when the Covid-19 lockdown had a deadening impact. Undeterred, the EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist succeeded in turning things around and is now spearheading the future of sustainable plastics in Europe and beyond.
This year 24 Irish finalists have been named for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards which take place later this month. Currently in its 26th year in Ireland, the programme works to recognise, promote, and build a supportive community around Ireland’s high-growth entrepreneurs and is considered one of the strongest programmes globally.
Since its inception, the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Ireland community has grown to a tight-knit network of more than 600 alumni who harness each other’s wealth of experience, with three quarters (75%) conducting business with one another. Together, the EOY alumni community generates revenues of €25bn, and employs more than 250,000 people across the island of Ireland.
“The fact that we already had a proven business model and had turned a profit before lockdown helped us to demonstrate that we had a viable business”
Among the finalists is Neil Skeffington, CEO and founder of Novelplast Teoranta in Meath. If there ever was a phoenix rising from the ashes kind of story to be told, you only have to look at what Novelplast has endured. The second most surprising thing about the Meath-based plastics recycler is the relatively small timeframe in which the business started strong, got wrong-footed by the pandemic, but stubbornly marched back to the market.
A vision for the future
Athlone native Skeffington graduated with a B.Eng in Polymer Engineering in 2002 and has since amassed over 20 years’ experience in the plastics processing and recycling industries in Ireland, Europe and the Middle East, specialising in PET/Polyester.
As a father to one young child, Neil is a passionate advocate for the circular economy and improving the sustainability of our resources for future generations through innovation in developing new recycling solutions, education, and empowerment of the next generation.
Novelplast is an innovative plastics recycling company based in the Gaeltacht in Co Meath. Founded in 2017, the company began operations in September 2019 with a clear vision to improve the sustainability of plastics for future generations.
They achieve this through developing recycling solutions for materials which are not typically recycled, that are then re-used in the plastics industry as a virgin substitute in a wide array of applications.
In 2022, the company doubled its recycling capacity to 25,000 tons per year making it by far the largest PET recycling plant in Ireland. It now has 55 employees based in Meath and has plans to expand further over the coming years, both in Ireland and beyond.
Through the mud to the green fields beyond
While this might seem like an impressive trajectory for the business, it is really the second act for Novelplast which started strong only to fall victim to the impact of the pandemic.
“You don’t need to tell me that being the CEO is a lonely place”
Skeffington’s stoic attitude and he and his colleagues’ pragmatic approach to surviving setbacks are an inspiration.
“As the CEO, when we got to more than 50 staff that’s when it kind of got scary for me. I knew then I had to bring in investment and shore things up. You don’t need to tell me that being the CEO is a lonely place.”
Skeffington was one of only a few from his college class that ended up focusing on polymer engineering after graduation as the rest pursued careers in areas like construction. “I spent 14 years of my career making plastics all over the world, including the Middle East. I also worked in fibre and virgin plastic manufacturing. I had come to the realisation that we were making lots of plastics but the likelihood of it getting recycled was pretty slim.
“So when I returned to Ireland in 2015 I had a plan in my head as to what I wanted to do, but I had no idea how to go about doing. There weren’t that many avenues for a start-up in the manufacturing space in Ireland at the time. What I was proposing was very different, I was trying to sell the dream.”
With support from Udaras na Gaeltachta Novelplast was established in a derelict building in the Gaeltacht area of Gibbstown, Co Meath. “We started up our operations in September 2017 and we turned our first profit in February 2020. You probably know what’s coming next.”
The nationwide lockdown in March 2020 came into force and Novelplast found itself in something of a grey area between essential manufacturing and closure.
“We had to take the decision to close the plant. We took a call on working capital and took all our money to lay off staff. It was a horrific time. We essentially had to restart the business.”
Skeffington and his management team didn’t give up, however. They used the time of closure to research new materials and focus on R&D. It so it wasn’t so much a restart of the business as it was an actual reset of the business.
“We still invest heavily in R&D and we invested heavily in a new lab last year.”
Once they reopened Novelplast has been on what Skeffington terms “ a crazy trajectory.” The business has doubled sales every year since reopening, with revenues of €13m last year and expectations of €18m this year.
“And while that looks great on paper, it’s always a challenge juggling your working capital and ensuring that your balance sheet looks as healthy as it should do.”
In essence, the pandemic was the making of Novelplast. “It really brought us to where we are today.”
Looking back on how he turned Novelplast around after the freezing impact of lockdown, Skeffington said that the Government Covid-19 supports were instrumental. “We tapped into the Sustaining Enterprise Fund. The fact that we already had a proven business model and had turned a profit before lockdown helped us to demonstrate that we had a viable business. All we were missing at the time was the working capital due to unforeseen circumstances.
“We ought to be seen as a poster child for how good those Government supports actually were. We would have been dead without the Wage Subsidy Scheme and the Sustaining Enterprise Fund enabled us to get back on our feet.”
Today Novelplast is back to its full strength of approaching 60 employees and the key to the company’s growth plans are opportunities in plastic recycling on the world stage.
Making sustainability viable
The R&D effort has enabled Novelplast to turn recycled plastic into materials that are in demand in industries like pharmaceuticals, particularly for packaging. “There’s an appetite out there for these recycled materials. Our investment of around €2m has enabled us to bring our capacity to around 25,000 tonnes a year. This makes us by far the biggest plastics recycler in Ireland. And we continue to grow our volumes which are up by about 40% this year.”
The challenge for Novelplast is to compete with its premium recycled material against the continuing use of virgin plastic. Allying tough margins with high energy costs, it remains a difficult environment for the business.
“What would make the business better would be legislation. There is legislation coming down the track from the EU that will break the link with virgin plastics and there are also virgin plastic taxes coming in force in Europe. We need to replicate this in Ireland as I’m sure there are a lot more recycling businesses that have gone out of business in Ireland than are active today.
“In terms of growth, we are in the process of bringing in private equity investment that will enable us to examine acquisition opportunities overseas.
“Our investment in R&D has allowed us to improve the technical skills within our team, which allows me to focus more on leadership and growing the business.”
As businesses worldwide need to demonstrate sustainability to customers, stakeholders and shareholders Novelplast’s position at the spearhead of recycled, quality plastics puts it in the right place at the right time.
“It has been a case of holding firm and waiting for our moment. We put a lot of work into finding solutions for materials that don’t get recycled at the moment and we are spearheading newer, disruptive technologies that will be applied in the medical devices and pharma sectors.”
Being nominated for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year has been an incredible experience for Skeffington. Not only has it propelled him into an alumni community of entrepreneurs but he has established some firm friendships.
“Just knowing that you’re not the only one who has setbacks and has to learn from mistakes. You can have good days and you can have terrible days. But when you meet business owners who will tell you what their inspiration was in those dark times or what their passion is about, it’s amazing. The alumni are very forthcoming with help and advice. Share a problem into the EY alumni community and you’ll be flooded with answers.
“It’s a fantastic experience and a humbling one knowing fellow founders and what they’ve come through as well.”