From its early beginnings of using recycled plastic to make potato storage boxes, Marmax is now responsible for a raft of goods, ranging from picnic tables to dog agility equipment. Kay Wilson finds out more

A MULTI-MILLION POUND business that makes furniture from recycled plastic milk bottles is blazing a colourful trail from its County Durham operation.

Marmax may not be a household name, but its wide range of playground and dog agility equipment is used all over the country.

Jackie Robshaw, managing director, started her Marmax career 14 years ago, with just four employees.

The firm, based in Stanley, has grown to employ 22 permanent staff and four temporary members for seasonal work.

She said: “The business originally came about due to the innovative idea of making boxes to store potatoes in from recycled plastic, rather than the traditional wooden ones, which splintered and couldn’t be washed down or re-used.

“We realised there was massive benefits for farmers to be able to re-use the boxes and also for them to be able to be displayed on a shop floor professionally in the same container in which they had been picked.

“The recycled plastic boxes also needed no varnishing, saving time and money.”

From this original idea, Ms Robshaw said customers started to ask for other products and the team at Marmax experimented to see if it was feasible to make other product ranges.

After potato boxes came the opportunity to make picnic benches, which proved successful.

Ms Robshaw said customers then asked if it was possible to have them in different colours from the standard brown, which had been used for the original potato boxes.

She explains she always likes to say yes to customer queries, then work out how it can be done.

As a result, the company experimented and benches were able to be created in the bright primary colours of blue, red, green and yellow.

With the new rainbow benches business doubled in a year.

The main customers for these colourful seats were primary schools, initially in the County Durham area.

But they have been so successful, they are now in some of the country’s leading tourist attractions, including London Zoo.

One of the most unusual products it has made was also for animals, when the company was commissioned to make an elephant weighing platform for Whipsnade Zoo, while for Cadbury’s World, Marmax had an equally unusual request and made a seat called the Bournville, to represent the dark chocolate bars.

In keeping with Ms Robshaw and her team’s can-do attitude, requests for different uses continued to come and now provide a lucrative new income source from organisations such as the Angling Trust.

Marmax makes fishing platforms and walkways for them which are less costly. Unlike wooden structures, the recycled plastic is not subject to wear and tear damage or rotting in water.

The National Trust, Wildlife Trusts and Vindolanda, in Northumberland, are also clients and have Marmax-produced furniture.

Ms Robshaw said: “We have grown through word of mouth and the flexibility of our product.

“One of our biggest clients is the Dogs Trust.

“They saw us at an exhibition and at that stage we only produced seating.

“They asked if we could make agility equipment, to help dogs who are in their care stay fit.

“As a result, we now produce steps, posts and all types of obstacles to test a dog’s fitness and ensure they keep in the very best of health.

“Part of this work has also included developing dog paddling pools so they can stay cool in the summer with the tough panels instead of fabric, which could be torn by paws.”

The environmental benefit of using recycled products is always at the heart of what the company does.

Every product has a guarantee setting out how many cartons were used to produce it, with 2,000 recycled for the most popular product, the picnic benches.

One project of which Ms Robshaw is particular proud is for Virgin Airlines.

Marmax produced benches for the firm’s UK headquarters from recycled earphone plastic bags used on planes.

Diversification has continued in recent years, with the decision to exploit the growing university sector with a new product, a quadrant seat, more suitable for city life.

Another recent project was supporting Villa Real School, on the outskirts of Consett, County Durham, for pupils with special educational needs.

The children were invited to help design their own playground with equipment at the right height for wheelchairs that encouraged opportunities for them to play together, including a table tennis table.

Marmax also designed and created raised soil beds so vegetables could be grown at the school and easily planted and harvested.

The business started with one unit on Tanfield Lea Industrial Estate and now has eight with 60 pallets of goods going out from the factory every day.

However, it is not resting on its laurels.

Ms Robshaw said: “We have provided some products to areas outside England, such as Dublin Zoo and schools and hotels in Jersey, but have started to explore exporting.

“We are starting with a distributor in Holland and targeting dog parks as they are extremely popular over there.

“As our products are usually sold fully-formed, we needed to work out how to part-build our consignments and ship them successfully.

“A new production manager was recruited, Paul King, who had previously worked for Nissan and brought with him expertise about lean management and quality control.

“This has definitely brought us new opportunities.

“I also recently attended a seminar on trading with Scandinavian countries run by the North East England Chamber of Commerce.”

Chamber export relationship manager Les Dixon, who is working with Marmax, said: “This business is a tremendous example of what can be achieved by responding to customers’ requests and exploiting opportunities for expansion.

“The flexibility of the profiles, which can be used in so many different forms, offers great scope for exporting, as well as here in the UK.”

Marmax’s achievements have been recognised globally, with the company handed a Green World Award in 2016 for new and recycled products.

Judged in South Korea, the award was for its sustainable and environmental work, which has saved hundreds of millions of cartons from landfill sites since it started.

It has also been a Green World Ambassador since 2015 and a finalist at the Plastic Industry Awards for best recycled product for two years running.

The company, part of the 125- year old Samuel Grant Group, also supports County Durham Schools Environmental Awards and gives the winner its own picnic bench.