LEO Group managing director Danny Sawrij tells Lizzie Murphy why turning dead sheep into electricity is future of his business.
Danny Sawrij reaches under his desk and produces a small jar of what looks like cumin.
“That’s what meat and bone meal looks like when it’s ground,” he says. “Every animal and human body is made up of three constituencies: solid matter, oil and water. We extract all those things and,” he shakes the bottle, “this is the solid matter when it is refined.”
Sawrij is the head of Halifax-based waste recycling firm Leo Group, which specialises in the collection and processing of animal by-products.
The company, which has a £58m turnover, traditionally specialised in pet food for household brands such as Butcher’s, Nestle and Mars, and it has now expanded into renewable energy, turning animals and food waste into biomass fuel to produce electricity. It is planning to build a £4m anaerobic digester in the next 12 months and a 10MW biomass plant in Aberdeen.
The majority of the company’s fuel is used in power stations and cement works in and around Yorkshire as an alternative to coal. It also supplies a million litres of oil a week for bio-diesel.
“That’s where we perceive the growth in the UK – supplying and making renewable biomass fuel,” says Sawrij. “We like to say we can turn a dead sheep into diesel and electricity with no wastage. There’s no need for a farmer to bury them any more.”
Leo Group employs over 400 staff at six sites across the UK, including its head office in Boothtown, Halifax; a rendering plant – Omega Proteins – off Thornton Road in Bradford; and a site in Ingleton in North Yorkshire, which collects fallen stock from 7,000 farms across the North of England and Scotland. It also has a fuel store in South Yorkshire.
Sawrij says it deals with every major abattoir in the UK and collects food from shops, catering companies and pubs.
“The food waste side is growing,” says Sawrij. “Why would you want to put food into landfill that we could use? It doesn’t make sense.”
The company is currently making a £4m investment in its headquarters, including an upgrade of the existing pet food plant, new buildings for housing animal carcasses and its waste transfer operations, a new staff canteen, an office block extension, a new food storage building and an extension to the woodchip area.
It is a controversial business which is often under attack by local residents in Halifax and Bradford who complain about the foul smells, noise and spillages from its lorries as they make their way to and from the rendering plant.
The company has been prosecuted a number of times for spillages, flouting planning rules and breaching environmental permit conditions.
Sawrij says the spillages, which have been in Halifax and Bradford, are unacceptable.
“I scratch my head and wonder why?” he says. “It’s probably to do with the area, and the hills, but all we can do to eradicate it is give the drivers training.
“It isn’t acceptable to us that we have spillages but we’re not cutting corners, it’s an accident.”
The company set up a community liaison group last year in a bid to improve community relations and also gave them a tour of the site.
“One of the main issues is that they want to reduce the odours that come off the site at times and we’re working hard to achieve that,” he says.
“You can’t always please everyone, that’s the problem. Nobody wants a turbine, nobody wants a nuclear power station and nobody wants an animal by-products processing plant on their doorstep but we all want to eat, we all want electricity and we all want to go to the pictures in a car with fuel. “
Leo Group is also working with Crane-Fruehauf to manufacture a trailer to minimise the number of spillages.
“People will say to me, ‘put it in an enclosed vessel’”, he says. “But when you put this material in an enclosed vessel it gasifies and it will blow the top or the door of a trailer off.
“We’ve got to contain it without making it airtight. It won’t take the smell away but it will make it better.”
In addition to its expansion in the UK, Leo Group is focusing on growth overseas. Four years ago, export sales accounted for £200,000 of its turnover. This year, the figure is expected to be over £10m.
It already has operations in countries including Holland and Ireland but there is an acquisition outside Europe in the pipeline.
The company is unrecognisable from the business Sawrij’s Ukrainian father started in the 1970s.
Sawrij is the youngest of six children. “My mother called me the mistake, my dad used to call me a pest,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
The family lived on the farm which became Leo Group’s headquarters. His sister, Sonia, is the only sibling involved in the business.
Sawrij left school at the age of 14 to work on the farm, which bought and sold cattle and bred mink and foxes for the fur industry. “I didn’t have any interest in school,” he says.
He met his wife, Joanne, at the age of 17, with whom he now has three teenage children. The family lives half a mile from the headquarters.
He took over the family business and its six staff from his father in 1988 at the age of 19.
The firm, which was then called Swalesmoor Mink Farm, was finding it difficult because it relied solely on the selling of fur once a year.
Sawrij began growing the maggot breeding business, selling to fishing tackle shops.
It became the biggest maggot producer in Europe, supplying up to seven thousand gallons a week.
At the same time, it was also mixing food for small pet food labels.
Sawrij changed the company name to Leo Sawrij in 1993 in memory of his father who died that year.
Over the last 10 years the company has grown with a series of acquisitions, starting with its rendering plant in Thornton, Bradford, in 1999.
“We strive to make things out of products that people perceive as waste and of no value,” says Sawrij.
One of the biggest changes to the business recently is the way it is structured – bringing in more managers to run day-to-day operations.
“That’s been a huge advantage to the group,” says Sawrij.
“Four years ago I wanted to know everything. Everybody had to ask me if they could do something.
“My wife says I’m a control freak but now I get a great buzz out of someone else in the business doing a great deal. It’s not just me any more.”
However, he still works up to 18 hours a day and admits he can be difficult to work with.
“I probably blow up too much but it’s because I want it right,” he says.
“I’m very passionate but it’s probably difficult for the people who work in the business.”
DANNY SAWRIJ FACTFILE
Title: Managing director of Leo Group
Date of birth: June 22, 1969
Education: Halifax Catholic High School
First job: Buying and selling cattle at the age of 14
Favourite song: Crazy, by Gnarls Barkley
Car driven: Toyota Landcruiser
Favourite film: The Hangover
Favourite holiday destination: Mallorca
Last book read: Decision Points, by George Bush
Most proud of: My three children and my parents