The Big Interview: PG Paper founder and CEO Poonam Gupta

Poonam Gupta sees a big opportunity for Greenock-based PG Paper in offering alternatives to single-use plastics. Picture: Contributed
Poonam Gupta sees a big opportunity for Greenock-based PG Paper in offering alternatives to single-use plastics. Picture: Contributed
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Poonam Gupta embodies her ambitions for women as entrepreneurs, as her company sets an example of eco-friendly business.

A £250 billion boost – that’s what would await the UK economy if women were to start and scale new businesses at the same rate as men, according to this year’s Rose Review. With fewer than a quarter of new enterprises in Scotland currently created by women, it will take purposeful, action-led initiatives to close the deficit and unlock this added value.

Founder and chief executive of Greenock-based PG Paper, Poonam Gupta, is pushing for greater recognition of women-led businesses. As a founding members of the Women’s Business Mentoring programme in Scotland, along with the likes of Scottish Chambers of Commerce chief Liz Cameron, and a judge at the NatWest Everywoman Awards, she is aiming to inspire and promote female entrepreneurship.

Named EY Entrepreneur of the Year for Scotland in June, Gupta’s own story is one of grit, determination and vision. She relocated to the west coast of Scotland in 2002 from her native Delhi, India, after marrying her husband, Puneet, a Belfast-born pharmacist. Frustrated that she couldn’t find suitable work despite holding an MBA in international business and marketing, she started her first company, a recruitment agency to place pharmacists in hospitals, in the December of that year. It took a matter of months, however, before she moved on to her second venture, PG Paper. The paper firm has since grown to turn over £56 million a year and export to more than 55 countries.

“I started looking at what I could do across borders, something which was scalable. At the time recycling was the main thing that everybody was talking about,” says Gupta. “It interested me because it was also obviously making a great environmental impact as well. Talk of eco-friendly businesses was just starting at that time but it wasn’t as big as it is today.”

'I was never supposed to be this person'

Stemming from a background where women were expected to remain in the family home, Gupta took motivation from businessmen such as Richard Branson and political leaders like Indira Gandhi, India’s first – and, to date, only – female prime minister. “In my culture women weren’t really allowed to work. You were kind of expected to take the role of a housewife and run your house. At the most, if people feel generous, they might allow you to work part-time with your husband. That’s how it used to be. I think the major motivation came from the fact that I was never supposed to be this person who I am today, and I always wanted to be. This woman who has financial independence.”

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She likens her move to Scotland, and being granted permission to work, as a “ticket to freedom”. After discovering that India was a net buyer of paper, and mills in Europe were disposing of paper as waste that could be put to another use, she founded PG with a £1,000 start-up grant from Business Gateway. Gupta even devised a strategy which would allow her to finance the business “without having a pound in her bank”. Her first supply came through a manufacturer in Italy, which she convinced to sell her a couple of loads of scrap paper to then sell on to buyers in the subcontinent.

The business still follows this operating model, on a much larger scale. Gupta estimates the firm has saved companies “possibly, over the 16 years, millions of pounds” by preventing material being burnt or buried and sending it to countries where it becomes an asset. PG has established sites in India, Turkey and Sweden, as well as launching a physical presence in the US this year, and is poised to open a base in China. Upwards of 95 per cent of PG revenues come from exports. Puneet is now chief financial officer, joining in 2005 as Poonam was expecting their first child and the company was turning over about £2m. She laughs: “I kind of forced him to work part-time in the business. Initially, he gave me six months to prove to him that it had the potential, and after that he left the NHS to join full-time.”

Just one year later a rare, life-threatening auto-immune disease left Poonam wheelchair-bound for around 12 months. The illness took hold in 2006, when Gupta was pregnant for a second time and caring for her one-year-old daughter. Undoubtedly a dark and testing time, she is able to take a heartening sentiment from the experience. “Difficult circumstances can sometimes make us a better person, once we come through it. I was preparing myself to die. But my will to live was my daughter and my business, I wanted to leave a legacy behind for my family, a lot of whom work in the business with me. It reiterated that life can be too short and full of surprises, so make the most of it.”

'You can make a social impact'

This belief is also behind her philanthropic work, which includes teaming up with singer Annie Lennox to form The Scottish Circle in aid of Oxfam – an initiative raising funds for female-centric programmes at home and overseas. She received an OBE for services to business and charity in the 2017 New Year Honours and is also lending her voice and business prowess to projects tackling environmental issues, such as water cleaning projects, in collaboration with companies including Highland eco-tech firm Biomatrix. The partnership addresses pollution in the river Yamuna, described as a lifeline for many of India’s cities and villages, and aims to bring water to some of the country’s most rural communities.

“What Biomatrix were doing was absolutely amazing but they weren’t having much traction, obviously not knowing the market, not having the network or connections to India. The technology that Biomatrix has can actually clean the rivers,” says Gupta. “Water pollution levels are a concern pretty much all over the world right now. By providing clean water to communities through innovations such as those of Biomatrix not only do you solve a massive problem, you can make a social impact and you can also make a business out of that, which helps you do further research and develop future technologies.” Gupta’s input has since led to involvement from the Indian government, with providing clean drinking water one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s key policies.

This example epitomises Gupta’s view that collaboration adds value. “I’m not an engineer or scientist, but I can see the products you would need, or need to combine, to have an end product to meet demand. It’s so important for businesses to work together sometimes,” she says.

Gupta is passionate about impactful technology that can drive sustainability and increase productivity as well as have scalable potential to move into international markets. She has taken a role at the Scottish Chambers of Commerce with the major goal of raising export ambitions among local businesses, recently leading a trade delegation to India to explore gaps in demand. “Internationalising de-risks a business. If you’re present in multiple markets and something goes wrong in one, you already have another market that you can trade in,” she says.

Tackling plastic

With plastic pollution making more headlines than ever before, Gupta predicts the biodegradable packaging market will open the door to the next phase of growth for PG. “Every company is looking into how to get rid of single-use plastic. Can we change to something made out of paper or cardboard which are more biodegradable? All our products are in line with that. We’re looking to actively replace, one by one, plastic products with ours.”

PG is also anticipating an acquisitive growth spurt and is now in advanced talks to acquire a business in the Far East, which Gupta expects will conclude around April, swelling revenues and headcount. It currently employs around 50 staff, with half of these based at the Greenock site.

Gupta has been judging the NatWest Everywoman Awards, which unveiled this year’s finalists last week, for three years as part of her efforts to recognise the achievements of the UK’s female entrepreneurs. Among this year’s cohort is Scotland-based Sara Hawkins, founder of Projekt42, a not-for-profit gym and wellness centre based in Leith which aims to make mental and physical fitness affordable.

“I was pleased to hear there was at least one entry from Scotland,” says Gupta, who has led the charge for the free-to-enter NatWest awards to increase its presence north of the border. “When people see you, if they know what your business is, then it gives you better potential for the future. You might have interested suppliers, buyers, VCs [venture capital firms] who can help you on your growth plan.”

Ultimately, in keeping with Gupta’s collaborative ideals, she feels that showcasing positive role models and developing mentorships is the best way to progress women’s enterprise in Scotland. She allows as much time for this as she can, and encourages others to do the same, as “sparing a little bit of time to help others along their journey can make such a huge impact”.

- Poonam Gupta is a judge for the NatWest Everywoman Awards. The 2019 award winners will be announced on Tuesday 3 December. For information on these or to register for the 2020 awards visit www.everywoman.com/ewawards