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Jazz Shaper: David Whitmarsh

Posted on 08 April 2023

After graduating from university and qualifying as a Chartered Surveyor, David built a career in property investment and development, founding and managing two successful businesses.

Elliot Moss                      

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss, bringing the shapers of the business world together with the musicians shaping jazz, soul and blues.  My guest today is David Whitmarsh, CEO of Standard Gas, the energy from waste technology business.  Having left the British Army after six years in the Parachute Regiment, David qualified as a Chartered Surveyor and built a career in property investment and development, founding and managing two successful businesses.  A switch in industries came after meeting Brian Reynolds, a founding investor and director Standard Gas.  With 85% of the world’s waste currently dumped, buried or burned and emitting 5% of the total global greenhouse gas output, David saw as he says, “the huge transformational potential of Standard Gas’ technology, not just for businesses and the challenges they face when it comes to the sustainable disposal of waste but in the overall sustainability of our planet and journey towards net zero.”  David invested in Standard Gas in 2013 and soon after joined the management team, leading the company’s successful growth and restructuring. 

David Whitmarsh is my Business Shaper here on Jazz Shapers.  He’s the CEO of Standard Gas and a sort of few time entrepreneur as well.

David Whitmarsh

Oh really?

Elliot Moss

Well, here you are, I mean you founded your own business, didn’t you?  Way back in the day.

David Whitmarsh

Yeah, I did.  So, I think I learned quite early on about myself that I was a bit of a maverick, I wanted to work in my own environment.  I wasn’t very political within big corporations and so in 1999, with two of the guys that I worked with at my previous employer, we decided to set up on our own.  I was encouraged by one of my clients to do that and yeah, I’ve never looked back. 

Elliot Moss

It sounds like yesterday, the way you talk about it.  Do you remember the feeling when you opened those doors and it’s your name above the door?

David Whitmarsh

I do, I remember it very well and I remember the three guys, we were all in our late twenties, all shaking hands.  We actually set up on April the First, which we thought there was a little bit of humour in that.  We all shook hands and said let’s give it a good go and I remember when the first cheque came in, I think it was for about £6,000, we all went down to the cashpoint machine to have a look at the balance.

Elliot Moss

Yeah, I’ve heard that before from people that have sold their businesses, they just went and checked on the 12.01, what’s that, oh that’s lovely.  And those two guys, are you still connected to them at all?

David Whitmarsh

Yeah, very much so.  So we, over the years, we set up a little property portfolio that we invested in together, so that’s still very much live.  We still get together once every three months for our AGMs and usually over a lunch but no, we’re still very close and they are in fact investors in Standard Gas, they were big supporters for me to make that transition across to Standard Gas.

Elliot Moss

And you’ve still got an interest therefore in the older business, have you?

David Whitmarsh

Yes, I do, yeah.

Elliot Moss

So, tell me a bit, in your own words, what Standard Gas is all about because obviously I’ve, people talk about the environment, people talk about waste, I haven’t actually haven’t heard the two put together before so, tell me just how innovative you really are, David.

David Whitmarsh

Yeah, so at the moment, the main way we get rid of the waste that we can’t recycle, so the waste that has no value, we either burn it or we bury it.  So we used to bury it in landfill and then we decided that was bad for the environment, so we pushed people towards what’s called mass burn incineration where we still burn it, use that heat to create steam and with that, we make power.  The problem is, that still emits pollutants up into the atmosphere and although they do their best to abate that, to pull that back, it’s still not the cleanest route.  What we do is a technology, for want of a better word, that’s been around for millennia, it’s basically how you make charcoal.  So, if you take anything that can burn and you expose it to heat in the absence of oxygen, you will separate the gas from the solid and that’s basically what we do.  We then refine that gas very efficiently and we create a gas which has been declared by the Environment Agency here in the UK as end of waste.  So we’ve taken a highly regulated substance, waste, and we’ve put it through our system and we’ve created a product from it, a gas which you can use in anything that you could use natural gas for.  What’s interesting about our technology, is the solid that’s left over, which in the past we had thought was another waste product, in fact it’s carbon, so we are removing carbon by creating that gas in the first place and I think the ability to actually, the expression is sequester, but bind that carbon into something and we’re looking at binding it into concrete.  The ability to do that removes carbon from the atmosphere and of course that’s high on the agenda at the moment with the net zero ambition for a lot of big corporates.

Elliot Moss

So, am I right in thinking, David, just on the waste thing because it worries me about the landfill, are most waste management processes now all around burning rather than filling the land?  And is that true globally or does it vary wildly?

David Whitmarsh

No, it varies widely.  So, across the UK, we were very much into landfill but limited space, we’ve moved over more recently to incineration.  Other parts of Europe have been burning their waste for a lot longer than we were, Germany and the Netherlands in particular.  If you go across to the Far East, well they’ve been burning waste and I think the real shame that’s been exposed is that the waste that we couldn’t process in our landfill or our incinerators, we were shipping out to the Far East where they have very low standards of abatement for anything that they burn.  That’s now, thankfully, been banned and by the countries who were receiving it as well, which is a good thing, it’s a step in the right direction but it’s not the finished article yet.  And of course that brings a problem for the waste companies in the UK because now they have these high CV plastics that are difficult to dispose of and that’s something that we think that we can help with, with our technology because we can take these higher CV plastics, more complex hydrocarbon plastics, we can process those through our machine without creating any damaging emissions to the environment. 

Elliot Moss

Is what you do unusual?  I mean, are there many other businesses that are, that have got similar technology to you and are already doing this?

David Whitmarsh

It’s been seen as a bit of a Holy Grail, I think for waste management for many years and in the early 2000, late ’90, early 2000s, a lot of money was invested in trying to get technologies like ours commercially operational.  They either failed because they didn’t understand the complexity of the issue or they created a technology that theoretically worked but it didn’t work commercially because it used more energy than it actually produced.  What we’ve done is found a way of very efficiently reusing the heat that we create from our own gas to cause the reactions that are required for a technology like this. 

Elliot Moss

Just jumping back to 2012, 2013 and I mentioned at the beginning you met Brian Reynolds.  When you met Brian and you started talking about what this thing might be able to do and I imagine it’s morphed quite a lot over the last ten years.  Do you recall how you felt because at that time, you’re happily, you’d set up your business, you’re involved with your partners and I want to talk about that relationship, what was that emotion, did you go I want a part of that, that just sounds wild.  I mean, what was going on for you?

David Whitmarsh

Yeah, it’s an interesting back story actually because we were coming in 2012, if you recall we’re coming out of the back of the banking crisis, I had a sense that the property market was changing away from smaller agencies like the one I had set up, there was lots of mergers and amalgamations creating these big, super companies within commercial property and as we said earlier, that didn’t necessarily suit me.  I was also interested in trying to find ways of providing low carbon energy into commercial property because commercial property is one of the, through its construction and its occupation, one of the worst emitter of greenhouse gases.  So that was where the interest came along.  Brian had been a client of mine for a number of years, very successful in the property sector himself, with the same ambitions of finding low carbon energy and we came across these engineers who we started to support.  I think that I was ready for a change and I think I was intrigued by the technology but I think the final piece for me was, I actually travelled up to see their prototype plant.  The day that I went, I travelled with a guy called Ed Fortnum, who I’d never met before, very interesting American who’d lived in the UK for the last forty years, he was actually the CEO of Waste Management International, which he had turned into one of the largest waste companies in the world.  It was his reaction on the day that we went up that really kind of pulled me in because I remember him saying, “it’s like magic” because you are taking this complex waste, putting it into this machine and a very clean gas and clean carbon coming out the other end.  So I think really the combination of those factors is what led me to invest.  I think the more I got to know the company, the more I saw where the sector could be heading, that’s when I sort of made that choice to transition across to running Standard Gas and actually, I’ve loved every minute of it. 

Elliot Moss

It reminds me of, I’ve forgotten the name, is it Remington who was, “I was so impressed, I bought the company.”  I think it was way back from the ‘80s, someone will remind me what the name is shortly. 

David Whitmarsh

Remington Steele. 

Elliot Moss

That was Remington Steele, something like that.  Much more coming up from David Whitmarsh, my Business Shaper, he’ll be back in a few minutes but right now, it’s time for a clip from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions and they can be found on all the major podcast platforms.  MDRxTech’s CEO, Tom Grogan, talks about the metaverse, what it is, why companies would wish to explore it and the potential risks that we should all be aware of. 

You can enjoy all our former Business Shapers on the Jazz Shapers podcast and indeed you can hear this very programme again if you pop Jazz Shapers into your podcast platform of choice.  My guest today is David Whitmarsh, CEO of Standard Gas, the energy from waste technology business.  You talked about your first business and you talked about the camaraderie, the guys that you set it up with, you’ve talked about warming to the people that you work with, partly from a technical point of view in a way but also just sounds like you jive with them.  I mentioned that you were in the Army and we’ve had a few guests on the show who’ve been in the Army and they, they’re all very different but they’re all kind of, I would say it’s the old thing that I remember from trip to Indonesia when I was in my teens, it’s same, same but different.  There’s something about people and relationships and a sort of robust core about human beings in there that lasts the course.  Is that true for you?

David Whitmarsh

Very much so. 

Elliot Moss

Is that why you joined?

David Whitmarsh

No, I think I joined because I had a sense of adventure.  I think that was thing that attracted me to the Parachute Regiment particularly.  But realised very quickly that sense of belonging, that sense of loyalty, the camaraderie, I mean it’s extraordinary and these guys remain close friends of mine today, thirty years, more probably, since leaving.  Without a doubt, it gave me qualities of determination, of the ability to just keep going when things are going tough, that tenacity.  I remember asking one of my former colleagues in the Parachute Regiment whether that was something that we had or whether the Army brought it out of us and he said, “the reality is, it’s probably a combination of the two.”  Certain people who are drawn to the military service have that quality within them.  You know, it’s interesting, I saw a very fascinating podcast by a gentleman called Simon Sinek on, I think it was on a TED Talk actually, where he was talking about the exceptional people who are attracted to the military and when he asked these people why they did the extraordinary things they did, they all reply pretty much the same thing “because they would have done it for me” and I think in a nutshell, that really does set out what it means to me but without a doubt, I do call on the sort of, as I said, the tenacity, the ability to keep going when times are tough because let’s be honest, setting up any company, you come up with extraordinary challenges.  One of my favourite sayings that I learned from that time is, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” and that’s true in business as it is in the military. 

Elliot Moss

And the relationships you have in your team now, that I think the other side of what you said is all about environment because if you’re surrounded by people who are going to do the thing for you that you would for them, then people, everyone rises to the occasion.  How have you managed to create and nurture that within Standard Gas?

David Whitmarsh

I think we’ve been incredibly lucky.  Probably I’m not doing justice to the quality of people that we’ve actually attracted but the core, executive management team are made of shareholders who were interested in the company, like me, and they’ve stepped up and then support staff around that who are incredibly committed to the company.  I don’t think you can buy that sort of commitment.  They believe in what we believe and they see the vision of the company.  I think they believe in the legacy of what we’re trying to create and we have a core team of about a dozen guys and girls who I love working with and we have a lot of fun in the office, you know we make sure that there’s laughter in the office but also we’ve worked very hard, Ed and I, have worked very hard to create an environment where people feel it’s okay to fail, so I would rather that somebody came out with an idea that we ended up not following rather than not come up with that idea because they were fearful of it being shot down and I think you end up with a really tight team.  In fact, actually, one of the challenges in growing the company now is going to be how do you bring new people in that will fit into that very tight environment. 

Elliot Moss

In terms of growth, this sense of belonging that you talked about, whether you are in a group of three or a group of thirty and so on and so forth, are there some silver bullets?  Are there things that you actively do to counter the, I don’t feel part of it?

David Whitmarsh

Well, there’s the obvious of regular meetings within the teams.  I’m very keen on that.  We started it actually during Covid when we all started working remotely, we started having weekly management meetings to keep everybody abreast of what was going on within the company because we were growing very fast at that time.  But it was as much to keep people feeling connected and, as I say, we’re still a very small team so having these at least weekly meetings, where everyone has the opportunity to speak and I encourage them all to do so, but also within the office space, our office is still very small and I encourage people to be in the office, we all that flexible working now but I encourage them to be in the office and get to know each other closer.  You know, it’s that, it’s very much that shared experience when you go through tough times and good times together and sticking with each other during the tougher times and laughing when you can.  I think there’s a real, a skill to that and I think trying to keep humour involved as much as you can, maybe that comes from the military as well you know, the toughest times in the military someone will crack a joke or someone will get a brew on or whatever and that just lifts the spirit, so I think keeping morale going during Covid was touch but it was a relatively positive time for us as a business so we were building on that, that experience but…

Elliot Moss

Common sense, I mean it sounds like common sense but the other thing that occurs to me is around the notion of making a positive impact and that’s the thing that you are doing existentially with this business and I imagine you probably have that sense of purpose in the Army as well and maybe when you set your business up.  I’m just wondering how important doing something good is to you?

David Whitmarsh

And you know it’s increasingly so and I don’t know whether that’s a maturity thing for me as I’m getting a bit older and I’ve got my own kids and my own family, suddenly it’s not just about making money in the here and now, it’s about the future and I think one thing that our technology really can offer, is a brighter future and I think there is better ways of doing things than we do today.  I think suddenly deciding that we’re all going to reverse capitalism and the way we live our lives is unrealistic so finding ways to fit our modern lives into what is a not an infinite resource of the planet that we live on, I think that’s very important.  And I’m actually seeing, we’re talking about building futures, I think that with the younger people involved in our company, where as people of our generation, Elliot, maybe still think that the climate issue is a controversial one, I can assure you that within the younger generations coming through that they are very focussed on this because it’s their futures as well. 

Elliot Moss

In terms of the investors that have come in and you’ve raised money over the years right the way through the history of the business, do those investors need to feel the same way or are you less perturbed about whether they’re looking for commercial gain rather than something a bit bigger?

David Whitmarsh

Yeah, I think but actually I think it’s fair to say we’ve seen that change as well.  ESG is very much higher on everyone’s agenda now and actually within the bigger corporates and the bigger oil and gas businesses that we were talking to four, five years ago who were all saying look, this is clever, you seem like nice guys but you know where’s the return for us, that’s turned completely on its head now where we are seeing the biggest corporations, the biggest financial institutions coming to us now saying, can you help us decarbonise and…

Elliot Moss

And do you think they mean it?  I mean…

David Whitmarsh

It’s an interesting point because I would have said a few years ago, perhaps not, there was still some greenwashing and some scepticism around it but I think you see, again from the, from younger people coming through that there is a drive, now whether that’s still commercially led because I think there is a real belief that those companies that do transition to net zero will gain a commercial advantage, people will start making informed choices around the products and the services that they buy.  The cynic could say well they’re still doing it for that reason but ultimately, we have to get there so if the driver is the commercial return, coupled with a genuine desire to make the world a better place, then we get where we need to go. 

Elliot Moss

Bring it on.

David Whitmarsh

Yeah.  Absolutely.

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for my final chat with David Whitmarsh, my guest today.  And we’ve also got some Buddy Guy and Junior Wells for you as well, that’s in just a moment, don’t go anywhere. 

David Whitmarsh is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes, he’s the CEO of Standard Gas.  The challenges ahead of you and doing this thing, I love, I mean to me it’s dead easy, you can do stuff with, you know because I’m standing here, sitting here listening to you talking about it, well it’s really obvious you do something really good with waste, you don’t waste waste, you can create energy, I think I read somewhere that the, the first commercial plant in the UK will be capable of generating 40,000 megawatts of energy which is 10,000 homes, so I mean that’s a hell of a lot.  Imagine doing a few of those and all that.  I go, it’s a no brainer but of course the world isn’t like that.  How are you going about convincing, if it’s Governments that this is important to or convincing big businesses it’s important to or the waste management industry?  Where do you start with this? 

David Whitmarsh

So, it’s an interesting question and obviously something that we challenge ourselves on the whole time and we’ve seen the change over the years as people become more open to new ways of doing something.  I think to be fair to the industry; waste is one of those things that has to perform every day.  In the UK and Europe, in developed economies, we produce waste, that’s a fact and the waste companies need to have certainty that every day they can get rid of the waste that you produce.  So when you come along with an innovative, new technology, particularly one that’s in a sector where there have been failures, they are naturally cautious.  So, it’s bringing them on board gently rather than saying right, there’s a straight line here, after this point you have to do things our way and actually where we’re finding traction now, not only because of the net zero ambitions, the net zero movement is gathering its own natural momentum, but we are seeing traction now where we’re saying look, the technology that we produce can co-exist alongside the existing infrastructure, it actually makes the existing infrastructure more efficient and over time, as we then start to prove the efficiency and the reliability of our technology, I think there will be a natural switch away from the old ways of burning and burying waste to these more efficient ways and you are actually seeing, as well as our technology, there are other technologies coming through and this was something that we always get asked about, what about your competition?  The potential marketplace is huge and actually, we need, there isn’t a silver bullet, we need many ways of dealing with this waste because there is so much of it.  So, I actually welcome these other technologies coming through as well.  I think the final point I’d say is, the fact that our technology is carbon removing so, this just to re-emphasise that point, we remove more carbon than we emit, so it’s a modern, industrial process so, in the manufacturing and the process itself, we emit carbon but through the char that we collect, we’re removing more carbon than we actually emit.  So, we’re having a positive effect on that net zero transition.  I think that’s the point that people are waking up to now, they’re realising that they can still have gas and electricity that they need to perform modern functions but they can do it in a way where they’re no longer harming the environment and I think that’s been a transition for us. 

Elliot Moss

In terms of the way you just described change though, it’s kind of interesting to me because it was a bit of, it’s not binary, it’s not going from one state to another, it’s a slowly, slowly, catchee monkey thing.  Is that the way you’ve always approached change do you think in your own life because you’ve done a few things here, David, I mean you’ve…

David Whitmarsh

No, I’ve probably been more…

Elliot Moss

The bull in the china shop. 

David Whitmarsh

Yeah, the bull in a china shop.  One of my friends once called me reckless and maybe at points in my life, I have been.  I would always back myself to find my way out of any situation so, I’m probably more confident to go into a new environment because I feel I’m adaptable, I feel I can change, I would back myself to find a way through any problem.  So, perhaps in the past I’ve made decisions that others, who perhaps like to transition more slowly, you know like investing in this and stepping across, it was a sector I knew relatively little about, in fact nothing about and there was a moment a couple of years ago where as we were beginning to better understand the carbon position around our technology, we called a university in the US who were the leading academic light in the carbon removing world that was emerging and we had an hour and a half conversation with them, where they were coming back to us and saying you know, we don’t agree with this, we don’t agree with that and we kept putting our point across and in the end, they said do you know what, we think you’re right and at the end of that call, I said to the guys, right, no more phoning experts, we are now the experts and I think that that’s another thing that I would say we’ve, as the company has grown, our confidence in our subject and in our technology has grown with it.

Elliot Moss

But the nuance of the first part is that actually, David Whitmarsh can get there without necessarily “being reckless”, there’s a…

David Whitmarsh

Oh a 100%.

Elliot Moss

And that patient, patient…

David Whitmarsh

Yeah, but I would say that people perceive what I do as reckless because it’s decisive, whereas in my head, I’m seeing it slightly differently, that I’m backing myself.  I think that to get to somewhere new, you have to go through unchartered territory and so unless you are prepared to do something that’s different, you are never going to break new ground. 

Elliot Moss

It’s been great talking to you.

David Whitmarsh

My pleasure. 

Elliot Moss

I think you are absolutely right.  You’ve got to do something at some point otherwise it isn’t going to change.

David Whitmarsh

Exactly. 

Elliot Moss

Just before I let you disappear to go and sort our waste out, hopefully, successfully and taking lots of carbon out of it as well, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

David Whitmarsh

It’s What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong.  It’s a song that is very personal to me.  It was the favourite song of an aunt of mine who was actually more like my grandmother, very influential in my life, we were very close.  Whenever I hear it, I hear her singing it, particularly the “Oh yeah” at the end, in her sweet, old voice.  But also, I think it’s relevant for what we’ve been talking about today and what I’m doing, you know it is a wonderful world.  I get very wistful now when I think about the words of this song with my own family as well, there is a future, it is a planet worth looking after, I think, so that, yeah, that’s why I chose it.

Elliot Moss

Louis Armstrong, What a Wonderful World, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, David Whitmarsh.  He talked about his own sense of adventure and you need one of those if you are going to traverse across a number of industries.  He talked about it being okay to fail, we’ve heard that a number of times but critical when you’re trying to break new ground and on that particular point, I love the way he said this, unless you’re prepared to do something different, you’re never going to break new ground.  Absolutely true.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers have a lovely weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You’ll find hundreds of more guests available for you to listen to in our archive, to find out more just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to Mishcon.com/JazzShapers.

Seeing the potential for producing carbon negative energy from waste feedstocks, in 2013 David became an investor in Standard Gas and, soon after, was invited to join the management team.  

Since 2016, he has led the company’s successful growth and overseen the Standard Gas group’s restructuring. Driving the business forward, David continues to underline the value of teamwork, agility and adaptability in tenacious pursuit of clear strategic goals. 

Highlights

I learned quite early on that I was a bit of a maverick. 

The more I got to know the company, the more I saw where the sector could be heading. That’s when I made the choice to transition across to running Standard Gas and, actually, I’ve loved every minute of it.   

I joined the Parachute Regiment because I was attracted to the adventure. 

That sense of belonging, that sense of loyalty, the camaraderie you get from being in the Parachute Regiment - it’s extraordinary.

In business, I do call on the tenacity, the ability to keep going when times are tough, because setting up any company throws up extraordinary challenges. 

One of my favourite sayings that I learned from my time in the military is, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” - and that’s true in business. 

I have worked very hard to create an environment where people feel it’s okay to fail.

I would rather that somebody came out with an idea that we ended up not following rather than not come up with that idea, because they were fearful of it being shot down. 

One of the challenges in growing the company now is going to bringing in new people that fit into the very tight team environment.

I encourage people to be in the office - we all have flexible working now, but I encourage them to be in the office and get to know each other closer. 

During the toughest times in the military, someone will crack a joke or someone will get a brew on and that just lifts the spirit of the soldiers. 

As I’m getting a bit older and I’ve got my own kids and my own family, suddenly it’s not just about making money in the here and now, it’s about the future. 

I think one thing that our technology really can offer is a brighter future, and I think there are better ways of doing things than we do today. 

I think there is a real belief that those companies that do transition to net zero will gain a commercial advantage - people will start making informed choices around the products and the services that they buy.

Unless you are prepared to do something that’s different, you are never going to break new ground.

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