Robert Del Bueno
The success of Southern Green Industries (SGI) has not come easily. The company, founded by Robert Del Bueno (right) and Dezso Gavaller, collects and recycles restaurant grease for biodiesel production, provides eco-friendly grease trap cleaning, and collects food waste for industrial composting. SGI’s success story is one for anyone interested in bucking the system and creating a green industry from scratch. Del Bueno will be speaking at the 17th Annual Georgia Organics Conference, Green Acres, Saving the Planet One Bite at a Time, which will be held on Feb. 21-22 at the Jekyll Island Convention Center.
What are the goals of your business? Of course I want, or need rather, for the business to be financially sustainable. That said, financial profitability is only one metric I use to define success. I want SGI to provide high quality products and services that embody my personal goal of our operation being an overall net benefit to all. Is the world a better place because of what we do and how we do it at SGI, or is it just a business that makes money? I could surely make more money if the big picture was not a metric that mattered to me, but it is, and fortunately I have been lucky enough to find a business partner who feels the same way.
What are you trying to accomplish from a business and a sustainability perspective? As you are well aware, there are many fundamental sustainability issues with our food infrastructure. There is a lot of attention right now regarding the front-end of food, meaning the sourcing side, but there is little attention paid to the back-end. Something like 30 percent of the food we grow, organic, locally, or otherwise is wasted. That means not only is the food itself wasted, which is tragic considering the hunger issues facing many, but additionally all of the inputs (water, fertilizer, labor, energy), all the transportation, all the refrigeration associated with this 30 percent is also wasted. Where does all this go? We hope to raise awareness about this side of the equation and provide tangible steps to help reduce food industry waste, and recover as much value from this resource stream.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about the grease industry? That all waste grease goes into producing make-up and cosmetics. I hear this all the time when I ask people where they think waste grease goes. The fact of the matter is the while some does end up there, the large majority of it ends up as “crude fat,” an animal feed ingredient.
How do you reckon you are able to succeed when there are so many competitors who aren’t concerned with sustainability? I guess succeed is subjective! While there are a handful of restaurants that are concerned with sustainability, the fact is that most are not concerned enough to pay any more for sustainable services. Because of this, SGI has to compete on overall economic value and customer service first. It is very hard to compete with the big guys on price. The industry has become super consolidated with most of the market owned by one or two international mega-corporations (much like the food supply side). These guys have huge economies of scale. However we can compete on service, and so we do.
Have you found that being an entrepreneur has ever conflicted with your sustainability goals? I could make more money selling the grease we collect into the animal feed market, so yes. The pure business side requires selling for the highest price to the highest buyer, however this conflicts with my (our) sustainability motivations so we don’t. This is likely why we are not getting our door banged down by investors or buy-out offers.