One of the great bonuses of the digital world is the ease with which we can share knowledge, stories, and best practices with one another. The other day at lunch, we realized that we were sitting across from a rich repository of all three. His name is Steve Morriss, and he’s the founder of CtL. We think you’ll be as inspired by him as we are, and if you happen to be an entrepreneur, take note.
Steve Morriss: An Entrepreneur’s Story
The best first thing to understand about Steve Morriss is his credo: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” The motto, although borrowed from Leonardo Da Vinci, perfectly fits Steve’s Aussie openness and his straightforward entrepreneurial ethos.
“My work is my life and I love it, “ Steve says. “I am motivated by a combination of primal instincts like food for family, shelter, setting a good example, and my connection to community and planet. It’s simple. Our current trajectory of climate change and consumption is not sustainable, and I want to contribute where I can do the most good, both in creating jobs and in solving environmental challenges.”
Straightforward doesn’t preclude imagination, and Steve is walking, talking proof of that. Close the Loop was a bright idea born of equal parts imagination and common sense.
“Thoughts are very powerful,” Steve says. “A business idea can start with a single random thought. That was the case with CtL. I clearly remember nurturing the thought and massaging and building its scope in my mind. I would consciously come back and exercise the idea from all angles until it became a physical thing, starting with a working title, a brand, a series of meetings, a legal structure, and so on.”
If you’re guessing that Steve is not your typical entrepreneur, you’re right. “Making a million to get bought out,” was never at the top of his to-do list. Born in Melbourne, Australia, Steve earned technical qualifications in civil drafting, but the creative challenge of entrepreneurship was always a life driver. He bought and sold small businesses alone and with family members. “My strength,” he reflects, “comes from a combination of vision, determination, and passion for collaboration.”
Starting from scratch in the USA in 2007 – Dean Vukovic, current Business Development Director.
The CtL Story
The idea for CtL, as Steve tells it, came from a USP (unique selling proposition) he developed in a previous family business, National Toner & Ink. “We were losing our best customers to lower-cost suppliers, so we offered to take back and recycle everything we supplied. This was a very novel idea back in the late 90’s, but for our best customers, the progressive education sector, it worked a treat. Not only did we keep those customers, we proved what many considered a fallacy—that customers will indeed choose ‘the environment,’ as we called it back then, over lower-cost options.”
The volumes of empty cartridges and bottles the company collected started to grow, and it soon became obvious that manual separation of plastics and metals for recycling would never be viable for such a complex waste stream. “Then came the ‘ah-ha’ moment,” Steve remembers, “when the thought popped up that the large multinational printer and copier companies would value a service that collected empty cartridges from their customers. Furthermore, if I could get them to cooperate, we could create a game-changing model of industry-wide, cooperative, and voluntary product stewardship.”
Steve knew that the main drivers were the growing number of end users who felt guilty about throwing used toner and inkjet cartridges into the trash. He shared the belief that it was a reckless habit and determined to find a solution that was both economically and environmentally sustainable. “We realized that we could cut reverse logistics costs by accepting all brands and sharing the cost among all major printer and copier companies. Best of all, we would make it possible for them to control the destiny of their branded empty cartridges, competing for the first time with a growing band of third party cartridge traders and refillers.”
Steve launched Close the Loop in January 2001 with the brand promise “zero waste to landfill.” In the intervening years, CtL has become a game changer in the electronics recycling space and the source and inspiration for much innovation, including six patents for innovative materials recovery technologies. CtL is now the world’s largest recycling and resource recovery company for imaging consumables. It serves its global customers from bustling state-of-the-art facilities in Somerton, Australia—just outside Melbourne—and in Hebron, Kentucky—just outside Cincinnati.
Business growth after 3 year of operations in the USA.
Accept failure as growing pains
Steve sees himself as an entrepreneur, rather than a corporate “suit.” But he also knows that means he has to have a team of professionals to support him—one of the first important lessons for any entrepreneur: understand what you can’t do. “I realized that I did not have the skills necessary to run the administrative side of the business,” Steve says with characteristic frankness. “Entrepreneurs must be aware of their weaknesses and cover them by employing good people as early in the project as possible. Luckily I had the emotional intelligence to step aside and let a professional CEO take over while I focused on my own strengths and my vision for CtL—to be a leader in the new circular economy.”
Steve is generous in sharing his hard-won wisdom with young entrepreneurs and urges them not to succumb to negativity. “Be open to advice,” he says, “and closed to dream stealers.” Steve is quick to make clear that disaster may well strike at some point. “Be ready, because challenging situations occur as a business grows. In the case of CtL, we continually ran out of cash in the early years, which really gets the negative thoughts swirling. But failure is a temporary condition. Never treat failure as a terminus. It’s merely a growing pain in the evolution of an enterprise.”
It’s all in the people
As proud as Steve is of CtL’s environmental and technological accomplishments—and his own entrepreneurial success—what excites him most of all is the team he’s assembled. “One of things about CtL that make me most proud is creating fulfilling employment for a host of wonderful people. To me, that is a meaningful contribution to society.” Steve pauses for a moment and looks around him at his colleagues absorbed in their tasks. “I love to see people join CtL and just blossom in their careers. Even if they eventually move on to other opportunities, it’s great to have been a part of their lives.”
For Steve, the bottom line is communication. “I like to say that no matter what job you have in your life, 5% of your success will be determined by your academic credentials, 15% by your professional experiences, and 80% by your communication skills.”
Read Steve Morriss’ blog post “What happens to my cartridges at end of life?”