Sink or swim: Former Youth Olympics swimming star-turned-budding Lancashire entrepreneur with global dreams

Sink or swim is very much the mantra by which Martin Handley lives his life. A former champion youth-level swimmer and self-described ‘scrap-chap’ turned budding entrepreneur with truly global dreams, the Lancastrian businessman is convinced he’s onto a medal-worthy winner.

By Jack Marshall
Monday, 25th July 2022, 4:55 am
Martin Handley
Martin Handley

Born in East Lancashire, the now-34-year-old Martin found his feet as a young man in the pool. Excelling at swimming from an early age, he nurtured a passion for the sport over the course of endless chlorine-tinged hours, his hard work earning him the chance to represent the UK at the 2003 European Youth Summer Olympic Festival in Paris.

Not yet in his mid-teens, he won gold in the medley relay with a championship record time, earning himself a place on a lottery-funded youth program to train ahead of the 2004 Aussie Age Championships. Just three months ahead of the event, however, Martin tragically broke his leg. For a moment, his dreams of competing in Australia went up in smoke.

Miraculously, however, he recovered, winning medals in all six of his events - two golds, two silvers, and two bronzes, in a jaw-dropping display. His impressive athletic trajectory was seemingly set in stone. After Australia though, he was invited to Swansea to train with the Youth Olympic Development Programme.

Martin and his dad outside Scrap Local

“I’m an all-or-nothing guy,” says Martin. “I either put everything into something, or I don’t focus my energy on it at all. Swimming gave me the discipline and, while I’m not the most organised guy, it taught me persistence and instilled in me a desire to succeed and keep going no matter what.

“Swimming requires you to get up and train every morning and every night so you can compete at weekends, so I was always very determined,” he adds. “I suppose that’s benefitted me with regards to running a business because that demands the same sort of thing: a will to keep trying and to keep sowing seeds so you can reap the rewards.”

But matters hit a snag in Wales. Having only ever trained under his childhood coach Alan Moorhouse up until that time, Martin was the youngest of the group by far and living with an unfamiliar family. He fell out of love with the programme, growing homesick for the North West. Before long, he returned to Lancashire.

Still dedicated to swimming, Martin nevertheless began to find the pool an increasingly lonely place as he watched friends head off to university or join the Army. Still doing well at school, he was also unsure as to what kind of career awaited him and so started to look for work - something flexible around which he would continue to train in the pool.

Joining a friend who worked in scrap-collecting, Martin found he had a passion for the job, taking to its varied and eclectic nature. Eventually, he landed a full-time job in the industry with local company Wallace Reader & Sons. Not long after, however, he learned that his old aoch Alan Moorhouse had died. Suddenly, swimming lost a lot of its appeal.

But a passion for business was just starting to take root.

“Scrap isn’t the typical industry you think about as a career option as a kid at school but, once I was in it, I loved the diversity and variation of the work,” explains Martin. “I don’t like to stagnate, so that was good. “I’ve always been very money-driven, which is a strength and a weakness for business, but it led me to explore other revenue angles at work.

“I wanted us to do more business - at Readers, I was the only non-family member to be offered profit-related shares - so that’s where the IT side of things came in,” he adds. “If I’m in a position or role where there’s no obvious progression, I’m not happy and I’m always looking for other things, which is why I took an interest in web design and marketing.

“I wanted to do my very best in the job, so I started exploring the potential for digital marketing for scrap and found a gap in the market,” Martin says, describing where the germ of an idea for his own business came from. “I toyed with the idea of starting my own business for God knows how long before I actually did it.”

Martin’s vision was simple: an online directory for scrap metal leads which would do for scrap what Uber and JustEast had done for taxis and takeaways. After leaving his job in 2016, Martin finally founded Scrap Local in 2019, landing his first few clients in 2020 just before the world was turned upside down by Covid. Overnight, the industry tanked.

“The grit and determination from my swimming background, and the fact that I’d put far too much in it to let it fail, meant that I persevered,” says Martin of what was a tough time. “I got a small bounce-back loan, started recruiting staff, got an office as soon as we were out of lockdown, and rapidly built the business. Before long, we’d grown to a team of 15.

“We’ve learned from a lot of mistakes and growing pains very quickly and we’ve worked hard,” he adds. “But, if I’d have known then what I know now about running a business, I’d have never have done it, but I’m glad I did! It’s good I went in blind! We’ve done well to grow organically and roll with the punches, even if we’ve had a few black eyes.”

A few of those black eyes came in the form of mental health struggles. Grappling with anxiety and, at times, depression, Martin tapped into a profound desire to persist. But what was the source of his motivation to do so at such a challenging time?

“The team kept me going,” he says simply. “Understanding it wasn’t just me in this on my own… I’ve got goosebumps talking about it now. Realising that I’m not just struggling on my own because I can be open and transparent with them gave us all such a solid foundation. From there, we’ve come a long way and I wouldn’t have been able to do it on my own.

“For the past 18 months, I’ve also been going to hypnotherapy, which has completely changed my life with regards to getting the mental health support I’ve needed,” he adds. “It’s helped me so much and I’ve got so much pride in the company. Then again, I probably don’t take the time to really look back and appreciate how far we’ve come.

Looking to introduce cutting-edge tech to the archaic world of scrap, Scrap Local is booming, working with clients such as local councils and the University of Central Lancashire. They’ve developed a swathe of exciting software, and Martin now harbours ambitions of taking the company global. Recently, the business was invited to the Collision Web Summit in Toronto, Canada to exhibit their ideas on green tech.

“Since I’ve been going to hypnotherapy, I’ve spent a little more time reflecting on what we’ve achieved but, as entrepreneurs with the vision and ambition to get up here,” he raises his hand high above his head. “...sometimes you forget to look at eye level. It’s only now that I’ve started to give myself a bit of a pat on the back.

“The only reason that doesn’t happen more is probably because of a fear of failure,” Martin admits. “But more recently it’s started to sink in. I’m not an expert at running a business and I’ve never run a team before - I’ve got the cleanest hands a scrap-chap’s ever had! But I threw myself in at the deep end. It was sink or swim and we’re swimming.”