House of cardboard: Miles Roberts at a DS Smith warehouse near Cambridge
Miles Roberts’ pet peeve is one with which we can all identify. The chief executive of FTSE 100 packaging titan DS Smith gets visibly agitated as he talks about the mind-bogglingly large boxes – containing tiny items – that land on our doorsteps. ‘Just think about all the products that you get in the wrong-sized box,’ he says with exasperation.
We are in a warehouse outside Cambridge that is mocked up as the inside of a supermarket. The aisles are packed with different foods in DS Smith boxes. In a corner is an open lorry, also laden with boxes, to show how many can be squeezed in.
The point is to ensure that boxes are designed so the grocery chains can unload and display products effectively while making maximum use of space on the trucks in order to cut transport costs and help the environment.
Does it sound a bit dull? Yes. But it doesn’t take long before I’m hooked. The more that Roberts speaks about the humble cardboard box, the more I start to sympathise with his belief that it is at the centre of the modern universe.
He grows increasingly animated as he explains the intricacies of a box containing large chocolate bars – decorated with the instantly recognisable colours of a major household name – that is designed to be displayed on supermarket shelves.
Roberts explains that whenever a bar of chocolate is removed, the remaining ones are pushed to the front, so subsequent shoppers don’t have to fumble about.
This is just part of the surprising amount of psychology that goes into packaging.
‘A lot of it is subconscious,’ he says. ‘The colour association with big brands, for example.
‘You don’t always know why you pick something up but there are subtle things happening. A curved front face of a box is more powerful than a straight-edged one.’
Displaying goods in attractive boxes can save supermarkets time and money, because staff don’t need to unpack the individual items but can just put the whole boxful straight on the shelf.
Making boxes easy to open increases staff productivity and could theoretically mean a need for fewer employees. When we do a race to rip open a box each, Roberts is marginally slower than I am.
Getting rid of ridiculously oversized boxes and making sure packaging is tailored to the size of the item inside means more can be squeezed into lorries. That in turn cuts down on the number of journeys. Then, of course, there are the benefits of being able to put increasingly advanced cardboards into recycling bins.
Ergonomics and satisfying lorry-loading aside, this eco-friendly approach gets to the heart of the business.
Roberts, 59, says he had a series of realisations, rather than one epiphany, about the dangers and prevalence of plastic over several years. Visits to landfill as part of his job impressed upon him the scale of the problem.
‘You see these vast areas of rubbish, plastic everywhere. You just know that this is not the right way of using the Earth’s resources – and you can’t clean it up afterwards.
‘I also sail and you go to some places and see the rubbish that’s washed up on the seashore overnight, it’s just not sustainable.’
During his 13-year tenure at DS Smith, he has put this observation into action, selling its plastics division to private equity firm Olympus Partners for £445 million in 2019.
This was a bold move – not least because plastics were accounting for about 70 per cent of the company’s revenue.
Thankfully for him, cardboard and paper have become more important, in part due to the ‘David Attenborough effect’ of seeing the issue highlighted in the environmentalist documentary series The Blue Planet.
Climate change is also a concern on a personal level. He and his wife have a farm in Sudbury, Suffolk, where they keep a small herd of cattle – for meat, not dairy – and sell crops including wheat. ‘My family and I can see in the environment the soil quality and how it’s changed over the years.’
Neither his day job as a FTSE 100 chief executive, nor his second job as a farmer looked likely when he was younger.
He grew up near Crystal Palace in south London and after finishing school drifted between jobs until the father of his then-girlfriend told him to buck up his ideas.
Roberts – who is tall, lean and smiley – then studied for A-Levels at night school before reading engineering as a mature student at Bristol and embarking on a career in construction.
En route to the top job at DS Smith, he trained as an accountant and did a stint working at the Generale des Eaux water company in Paris.
The DS Smith share price has risen by 215 per cent since he joined in 2010 – but is down 40 per cent in the past five years.
The company focuses on the UK, Continental Europe and the US. Roberts says he is not keen to move into other regions.
‘It’s about where the company can make the most difference and can also be successful,’ he says. ‘Look at all the waste that’s produced across Europe and the US. Most consumption in the world is actually here.’
One of DS Smith’s selling points is that it has a large hand in recycling – though in the UK this could be set to change.
The company is reviewing whether to sell or shut down six of its seven recycling plants, but it has not set a deadline for the decision, claiming this is a ‘challenging’ field at the moment.
Whether or not this part of the business goes, Roberts says he is keen to invest in the UK – but only if the Government can actually spell out crucial policies in areas such as energy.
There has been a lot of talk about reaching the UK’s net zero targets, but he claims heavy industry needs to know the details before it can commit to building new factories. ‘The UK needs an integrated strategy, not a piecemeal approach,’ he says.
‘There is a significant disparity between the UK and elsewhere.
‘We would like to invest more into the UK, but to do so, we need visibility – what is the energy source, where, who will build it, how will it be distributed. If we know that, we can get behind Government plans.
‘Our investments can take ten years to launch, so we tend to look up to 30 years ahead – and we need policies that do the same.’
He says the UK is running far behind the US, with its green subsidies known as the Inflation Reduction Act, and the EU, which has similar schemes.
The UK is at risk of missing out on innovative work that DS Smith could take abroad. The firm is experimenting with using fibres from daisies, cocoa plants and seaweed to make the sustainable packaging materials of the future.
Cardboard undoubtedly rules for now, but Roberts might soon find himself needing to think outside of the box.