6 minute read 27 Sep 2021

Mark Simmers, CEO of Celtic Renewables, shares how a sustainable business serves as a constant inspiration to achieve success.

EY Photographer standing on a bridge and looking up

Why shared values are important for creating a sustainable business

6 minute read 27 Sep 2021

Mark Simmers, CEO of Celtic Renewables, shares how a sustainable business serves as a constant inspiration to achieve success.

Three questions to ask:

  • Why do business leaders need to demonstrate action when it comes to sustainability?
  • How can businesses commit to sustainability, without disrupting their day-to-day activity?
  • How can entrepreneurs become early adopters of sustainable initiatives?

As part of our Entrepreneur Insights series, Mark Simmers, CEO of Celtic Renewables, and EY Entrepreneur Of The Year UKTM alumni, discusses how having shared values and a clear mission is key to overcoming challenges and building a genuinely sustainable business. Today, Mark and the team at Celtic Renewables are united by a clear purpose to displace fossil-fuel solvents with high-quality bio-based equivalents to help solve one of the sustainability imperatives the world faces.

Can you tell me about Celtic Renewables, and your role there?

I am the CEO of Celtic Renewables and I helped to create the business in 2011. We use local, low-value materials to produce sustainable products which are low-carbon, and valuable in the long term. We are commercialising a process that converts biological wastes and residues into bio-based chemicals, biofuels and other valuable sustainable products. The main products are bio-butanol and bio-acetone: solvents that are currently almost exclusively derived from fossil fuels used to make derivative products which touch our everyday lives through sectors such as pharma, cosmetics, personal care, household products and energy.

What inspired you to cocreate the business?

My previous leadership roles were mostly in the sports marketing and events sector, but I wanted to transfer my skills and experience from a “wants” sector to a “needs” sector – the world really needs sustainable chemicals and biofuels which displace fossil fuel equivalents, and this mission is a continuing inspiration to achieve success with the Celtic Renewables opportunity.

We have an incredible sense of purpose at Celtic Renewables, which has helped the small team maintain its resolve and focus as we have overcome the many challenges faced by an early-stage company.

What do you think is needed for companies to be more sustainable?

I think the first thing is for the company to make the commitment to sustainability and to have an honest and collaborative approach and plan across the whole team.

Everyone in a company wants to, and can, play their part, and it is important to harness that. It is also crucial for companies to adopt initiatives and new ways of doing things that fit with the strategic direction of the company and are not overly disruptive. There shouldn’t be one single panacea to improvement. Instead, businesses should seek to achieve several incremental improvements towards sustainability across all activities.

Do you believe COVID-19 has affected the way your business and employees feel about corporate social responsibility (CSR)?

Whilst the start of 2020, when the pandemic first emerged, was a difficult time for almost everyone around the world, one of the hugely positive outcomes is increased global focus on sustainability.

The Celtic Renewables proposition is to displace fossil-fuel solvents with high-quality bio-based equivalents. We’re helping to solve one of the many sustainability imperatives the world faces, and as a result, we all feel the pressure and the excitement, to scale our technology as soon as possible. The pandemic also brought a greater focus on employee health and well-being and has heightened our commitment to the well-being of our team and their families. We know that ultimately, the future success we hope to achieve will be borne out of how well we look after our people.

How important are shared values within the whole of the Celtic Renewables team? As a leader, how do you drive these?

As a renewables business, the belief in and ownership of our shared values is a vital part of being a successful company. We have a clear mission, and we involve the team across the board in developing and maintaining the culture in the business and the values we stand for.

As a leader, it is fundamental to believe in those values and demonstrate that belief in actions and personally set a strong example. I try to live my life in a sustainable way – for instance, the heat for my home is from an innovative renewable heating system developed here in Scotland by Sunamp.1

Are there any sustainability initiatives taken by Celtic Renewables you are particularly proud of?

Celtic Renewables will complete the construction of its first manufacturing plant in August 2021, located in Grangemouth, which will be Scotland’s first biorefinery producing bio-based solvents for the global market.2 We are all incredibly excited and proud to be reaching this major inflection point for the company, which will be the springboard for the development of larger-scale biorefineries strategically located all over the world.

What have been your biggest challenges with sustainability?

As an early-stage company with innovative process technology, the biggest challenge has been raising the investment needed to establish the process at the scale required for commercial manufacturing. Whilst the global drive for sustainability is increasing, there is very limited availability of risk capital for early-stage companies like Celtic Renewables who are looking to scale the process beyond the pilot stage.

Is there anything that you would have done differently?

There have been some major challenges and some very difficult times in the journey for Celtic Renewables, particularly in the raising of finance to establish our first plant. One main takeaway from the experience is that we could have taken some difficult decisions and made some changes in strategic direction more quickly. Hopefully, we can help other similar businesses like Celtic Renewables to navigate that scale-up journey more smoothly, by sharing our experiences and the knowledge we have built up.

Which businesses stood out to you as being great examples of sustainable models?

One of the examples we often cite is the original Ford Motor Co. Its founder Henry Ford was the pioneer of mass-production of motor vehicles, and he was also a pioneer of biofuels in the early 1900s. He believed that sustainably produced biofuels should be the fuel on which his cars ran, as they burned cleaner in the engines and did not create air pollution. He believed in this synergistic business model of producing vehicles to help cultivate the land to produce the biofuels to power the vehicles. Sadly, the global adoption of oil as the source of fuels won the day, but Henry Ford’s vision remains a great example to follow as a complementary and circular business model.

I think the key is for companies to commit to the journey and make solid strategic steps to achieve greater sustainability without too many unintended consequences.
Mark Simmers
CEO, Celtic Renewables
What are the biggest challenges companies currently face with regards to sustainability?

From a business perspective, there is a very broad meaning to the term “sustainability”, and there are so many differing approaches and metrics. It is difficult for companies to navigate through the multitude of options to find the initiatives and actions which are relevant and will deliver real impact.

There are a lot of “green-washing” initiatives which diminish the credibility of real progress. I think the key is for companies to commit to the journey and make solid strategic steps to achieve greater sustainability without too many unintended consequences.

How do you think the UK entrepreneur community can help bring sustainability into the forefront? 

There are many new business opportunities emerging in the sustainability space, and entrepreneurial companies will be key in pursuing these. Entrepreneurs are often fortunate to have the ability to act and make decisions quickly, which helps to integrate new sustainability initiatives into their business models. Options around sustainability can be innovative and somewhat risky, and so an entrepreneurial mindset will help in testing new options, often as an early adopter.


As sustainability moves up the corporate agenda, how can entrepreneurs ensure it is part of their wider business strategy?

Lynn Rattigan interviews EY Entrepreneur Of The Year UKTM alumni, Mark Simmers, CEO of Celtic Renewables, about his experiences of building a sustainable business, which uses local, low-value materials to produce low-carbon, high-value, sustainable products.

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