S2E19 - Andy Middleton, Founder and Chief Exploration Officer of TYF Group - Part1
Andy Middleton is the founder of TYF group, adventure pioneers, committed to using the power of play and learning in wild places to reconnect people to each other, our environment, and the shift needed to re-balance wellbeing.
TYF’s mission is to help people fall so deeply in love with nature that it changes the way they live every day. In addition to supporting the TYF team, Andy’s role is to inspire and enable leaders to deliver radical and transformational innovation to help solve carbon, biodiversity, resource and wellbeing challenges.
- Andy’s personal journey and family history
- From pioneering adventure sports of coasteering to studying at the Schumacher College and Cambridge Institute of Sustainable Leadership
- Becoming a catalyst of place-based change for leaders in business and government
- Superpower of connecting people across unlikely boundaries
- Becoming sustainable from day one, 32 years ago. Never to fly people on holiday just to go on a kayaking adventure.
- Working with BCorps and becoming organic.
Welcome back to the Green Element Podcast where we feature business leaders and innovators transforming their operations to be more environmentally and socially sustainable. I’m your host Will Richardson and I can’t wait to meet our guest today and help you on your journey of sustainability.
Andy, thank you so much for joining the green element podcast. Um, today we’re going to talk to you about outdoors and mission and purpose, all things general about how it is that you are helping reduce compartments and impacts in organizations and with people and um, your business is all about education and, and bringing people into the outdoors and helping them understand what it is that we can do to reduce impact. Please just tell us, I probably got that completely wrong cause you’ve just told me what I shouldn’t be saying. Please tell us more.
So I was fortunate enough to be born on the West coast of Wales in Britain, small city of St David’s, its like 1,480 people on the electoral role. It’s a tiny place that is perched on the Western edge of Wales, surrounded on three sides by sea that on days like today as we speak in August in our tranquil and blue and wonderful and then winter can be pretty banging, really rough and different. I spent my childhood on the cliffs and beaches that around where we live and had parents, although they probably wouldn’t have seen themselves as being adventurous and had actually done there, had done this that time in the outdoors in a kind of a, in a gentle way perhaps to what I do. But I do absolutely stand on the shoulders of my parents and grandparents in terms of what they did. And to put that in context, my grandparents or my grandparents on one side of the family were big cavers in Yorkshire in the 1930s.
Um, you know, my dad was a doctor and did loads and loads of really advanced work in rescue the rescue services, pushing the boundaries on that. So I didn’t appreciate at the time I grew up, my childhood was in effect, informed by time and nature. My parents gave me loads of space to play and stories that would get told that identity table of trying to overcome the inertia of bad thinking about making change happen and largely in health, which the world that my grandparents lived in and my grandmother was a chair of a health board in the 1950s in Yorkshire, in a woman chair of a board is incredible. I’m sending my dads, there’s stories of change happening and adventure and I think those two as I went through the subsetting of a business informed very much what we set out to do. So I essentially, I did a degree in geography, traveled for a couple of years, came back to West Wales and fell in love with it again, realizing that although it didn’t have the biggest or the longest beaches have incredible resource to like at my fingertips that were as good as anywhere I’ve been in the world and I fell in love with it again, as I had probably done as a child, I made the decision to say if I cut, my start point was to start a business where my heart felt settled and that was, that was where I’d grown up and there was doing dope businesses here at the time.
There was anything like I could do, so I set up a surf school and a windsurfing school, which is a pretty good thing to do when you’re in your early twenties I could earn, earn really good money teaching when the wind wasn’t too strong and when it was too strong, I’d go wind surfing, which is crazy. I did that for a while. I really loved it. And then that business morphed into the business that now became the became TYF and in my, when I was 26 I bought a hotel with a mate, turn it into the adventure center and we were the first to do what we did pretty much in the UK where we recognize there was a space between having good food, great adventures, great beers, late night parties and connecting people through play and that that grew and thrived. And on the way we pioneered a new outdoor sport called coasteering, which is a kind of crazy and beautiful pastime of climbing on the closest sea level, wearing a wetsuit, dodging the waves, jumping in when you can’t climb any further.
And we introduced that to the world. It’s what every kid at the seaside used to do if you swear he grew up, but we had the right resources to do it and I’ve got the very early days, we had a huge amount of support for the work we were doing and then start having businesses saying, Hey, do you do kind of bring your team down? And we got good at asking why questions and ended up working for 20 years, doing some fairly fairly hefty programs for government and businesses teaching common sense to corporates and all the way down that line. I was really aware that the things that we were teaching the business leaders, we were only teaching because they hadn’t learned it at school. Not only had they not learned it in school, but it still wasn’t being taught in school. And that was a kind of like a grit in the oyster to an extent.
And then like 20 years ago, I spent some time down at Schumacher w and that the Cambridge business environment program, which is not a Cambridge Institute of sustainable leadership, I’m testing my thinking about the relationship between getting people and heart connected to what they do and seeing change happening around sustainability. And that’s been my journey for the last 20 years really? And it’s, yeah, it’s, as you know, it’s an interesting space as we try and break new ground and, and help people look at things in different ways. And what sort of businesses and organizations come to you? Is that a real cross section of different businesses. So we cut our teeth, we cut our teeth at the time, you know, Wales was full of like, well manufacturing in Wales is doing really well. So you had huge, huge businesses like Sony and Panasonic and it’s actually, you know, these guys were growing and thriving and needing people development stuff and we did really well, worked with them, saved, saved them millions and millions of pounds of value by helping people connect what they did to the work they did.
And most of those business would tolerate me talking about sustainability stuff cause they liked me, but it wasn’t part of their business and kind of post Schumacher and certainly past recessions. So 10 11 years ago I made the decision that we weren’t gonna work with any businesses that weren’t trying to make the world a better place. If they weren’t trying to do that, they just weren’t. They’d be our customers. And we’ve been on a, on a process sense of kind of reestablishing work with people like the B Corp community and with businesses that care a bit more good businesses get better. And grow rather than trying help bad businesses be just less bad.
And did you find, because you hear about this quite a lot about businesses own and I guess we do as well, there are certain businesses we would never work work with. Did you find that sales dropped or actually hasn’t made a difference by doing that kind of.
I think that things say sales fell off a cliff. Certainly 10 years ago there was so few businesses that cared and actually now a lot of the businesses are so they do care. I still think I just drunk on their own Kool Aid producing products that shouldn’t be on the supermarket shelves for instance. But I think that by really consolidating our business back to what really mattered to us allowed us to grow from a much stronger place. So we’re now trying to work out, you know, how we as a business we can become catalysts of place-based change by working with schools and government and businesses around communities so that the schools who work with other kids you work with in schools are as fully prepared as they can be. For the changes that we know are certain to come in their lifetimes. But also how do you then work with government and business to connect those both to education so that the next generation workforce are better prepared so that their governments and businesses are setting real challenges for schools.
You guys get to work on real stuff, real time and that, and the push that we’re making is for kids to be given the control over their schools for real, from mid primary school upwards energy, waste, water transport, have their own budgets for their schools, run by the kids. Because when there are tenants, who do you want them to have and you’d think that’ll work. Yeah. I can’t see any reason why kids at 14 and 15 shouldn’t be running at 200 grand energy budget for school with the right training. Take control and ownership of it. They will learn the skills that you would love them to have if they’re not in the door for a job at 20.
Yeah. Yeah. I think that goes with, goes with almost everything doesn’t, it’s, um, it’s that isn’t ethics and what goes in and what goes out and I think is completely lost completely in schools. We’re not taught and it goes down to, it comes into everything. It comes into politics. It comes into business. It comes into running your own finances in your own home. It runs into, you know, absolute infancy. And I, I think the kids aren’t taught that and it’s a shame that we should be teaching in such simple maths. Really?
Yeah. And it’s, I mean, I run a clear, it’s kind of a, it’s applied learning everything we did when you’re consulting in business, how people make change by applying theories of learning and theories of change to real things that maxed in their workplace. So you take an idea about a relationship or a via problem solving and apply it to real things in the business that they could work on on Monday. I did that and they applied it on Monday. That gets go. Right? Yeah. It’s interesting when I stopped describing things like that and look at it like this, the world changes and kids generally speaking, don’t get the chance to do that. And when our goal broadly is to give young people an unshakeable confidence in their ability to make shift happen because they’ve done it so many times, they’re well intentioned adults who don’t know better lose the ability to take away kids’ confidence. Right. And so my eldest daughter, Alice, has done a couple of Ironman races and when she did a first iron man and she was trading for her running and realized she’d got to a point of fitness where she said, no one could stand next to me on planet earth and pointed to somewhere further than I could run to.
And that’s the confidence that I believe every kid in every school has a right to have a mobile quality to shape the world so that it’s safe for them to live in. And that comes from a little bit of theory, but it’s a shit load of practice. Yeah. And so we’re working with a load of businesses from kind of B corp . And the unreasonable impact presence has taken a lead as those businesses to set really tough challenges for schools. They get to work on for real was real data, real time and pitch box. The people who own those challenges. And if every kid that we think that if every kid did something like 20 days between 13 and 15 in school or around school, they would develop that kind of confidence. And if that’s based on real challenge and based on what things that interest them, confident, I’m pretty sure that we’d end up with a huge, hugely increased ability to influence parents and others about the things that matter. That’s so interesting,
Me and my other half an hour, we’re talking about a pretty much exactly that and what we can do to our children and to be completely personal, I went to private school, my dad left school at 12 and his whole idea was I didn’t have an education. I want my children to have the best education that’s possibly get . Ended up moving to London, pavements, filled with gold or whatever and sent us to private school. And so, and one thing I’ve learned now in my adult life is most privately educated adult children or adults have got an air of confidence over, um, state school education as a rule of thumb. And Laura and I are not going to send our children to private school because we don’t necessarily agree with the system. Although my mom was saying the other day, it’s actually a, our society that’s a problem in Italy. They don’t have the different systems and it works really well.
And she said that she sent her children to private school in Italy because she wouldn’t have, wants to, but she wouldn’t have needed to. So that like, cause she, she was against it but wanted to give it her children the best opportunity and knew that that was the end. So there’s something fundamentally wrong with our system to have the two difference systems in place. But what I’m trying to get to is we were trying to work out that confidence and how we could instill the confidence into our children. Um, because, and we didn’t know and I did, didn’t know in it’s, it’s so interesting to listen to you and to understand that it is possible.
And I think, you know, worked and in some ways, you know, we were talking to talking to family who are down at the moment and one of them is saying that they’re their daughters helping out in a language school in Bristol. Yeah. And the kids who are coming in from Spain or France or wherever to Annette schools would rather take an Uber for 10 minutes and walk right. Not only walking, not only does that not give you the health, but actually not walking for 10 minutes and unfamiliar city textable hollered of other skills around route finding about risk management, about time management, et cetera. And I think there’s a, the, the, the potential downside of this is that we’re just taking away so many of the skills that come from like playing in nature, learnings, have light fires on beach, cooking the outdoors, be outdoors, that without that you just can’t stop.
You can’t stop a lot of these processes. So the kind of the big wild project I’m working on in a minute is kind of taking that idea of unshakable confidence and say, well what would that look like if we’re serious? And this comes from a, a model I developed a few years ago with with a cut of biomimicry colleagues looking at how we measure success in business or society I guess, and recognizing that if you have a naught to 10 scale performance, then there’s the whole load of businesses that are legal and played by the rules and do things within the law. But there are allowed to make things in the law that are really, really bad for people in nature. Yeah, legal is a big 10 out of 10 it’s a business. So really good at shipping stuff doesn’t make you a good business in a walk is critical.
The great example of making billions of packets of non-recyclable Christmas every year got us the content of the product they make should not be on the shelves and the sustainable world. It’s quite legal to make it so in some ways we ended up as crazy scale where the businesses that are lauded as being the best are the best within a broken system. And government within that system was never designed for delivery. So on a scale of one to might only be two or three out of 10 anyway, which is why I still got so many people unemployed or broken the economy because they can’t. It’s not designed for fixing that system. And on the other side of the frame where people get the idea of a shared reality, you might understand what quality looks like, including the view of the river or you know, the other Leopold, the Wolf, but also people who are, have less money or whatever else.
You end up with a whole bunch of people that have got really good insights into what needs to happen but never did the courses. They’ve got the insights themselves, it to make scale happen opposite corner of the box to corporates. There’s loads of community activist groups that have environmental groups, people who are great at, um, saying the right thing, but don’t know how to make change happen at end of the top side, the 10 out of 10. But on that side is what we call our 10, which is where reality meets 10 out of 10 performance. So when I asked politicians, so how many kids, for argument’s sake, how many kids do you think it would be good to be able to cook tasty, nutritious, healthy food? By the time they reach adulthood? Their answer tends to be, we’ve got some great projects. Well, which is the right answer to a different question rather than saying, wouldn’t it be amazing if all kids could cook proper food all the new school?
Yeah. And yet those big goals can never ever be delivered by single organizations. It’s a single organizations can never take all of the glory or have all of the control because governments could deliver that by Christmas this year prepared to work with busdayiness and charities and community groups. But they never ever asked the question about what could we do if you couldn’t fail. So for me the question is about saying if we couldn’t fail you to reality at face value, where would we try to get to? So that the big project, which I mentioned earlier that we ended up playing with is to say, well what would that look like if every 15 year old, if we were working with 15 year old, so we now have a huge impact on influencing behavior, what would it look like if they took a bunch of actions in a year around climate and nature and sustainability?
And I put this proposition to the washroom reunion who owned the principality stadium and a really good guy called Martin Phillips, who’s the chief exact set account giving the stadium for free. I got a 60,000 seat stadium every 15 year old in the country this time next year and take them on a journey of sustainability that lasts from September to July, June, which time if each them take 40 significant actions on nature, climate and wellbeing between her, they’d have knocked 2 million things off the to do list on sustainability and learned a bunch of the skills that are good for them, good for their homes, communities and the potential employers. So if that all comes together as we think it will, that’s going to keep you quite busy over the next few months.
I think in some ways it’s, it comes back this adventure stuff about going, knowing the scale of challenge we have around climate, what would an appropriate response look like that some kids have done some stuff, none of which is relevant, which is pretty much where we’re up to at the moment. Or kids have a base understanding of how the relationship between their choices impact their future and so on. So I don’t see it as being a big project. It’s just like it’s just the only appropriate project and they can never be delivered individually. And so my main job is just been the catalyst that allows other people to work together and build a shared jigsaw puzzle, front picture where they can go cake real. Can you do the green bits? Can you do the blue? Can you do the houses? Shared vision. It’s detailed enough to be able to get on rails where we connect to others and then we can do something remarkable and being in Wales where we have really good sustainable legislation is a good place to start.
What would you say your business superpowers, my personal business superpower is having no power and connecting people because I have no power. I’m not a threat. I’m not trying to grow. I’m not trying to make a deal out of this. I’m not trying to make business out of it. Um, and connecting people across unlikely boundaries isn’t my superpower thing. You’ve got a clear mission and purpose at TYF. How do you engage your staff supplies and customers with that mission and purpose? That’s a great question. And one that we’ve spent, we’ve spent a long time doing. So as a business, you know, we’re 32 years old as a business and from day one we made a decision that we would never ever fly people on holiday to go on kayaking adventures and other places or whatever else. And so wanted to make sure that what we talked about was the way that we worked.
So a few years back when he had it, we had a couple of hotels and some Davids that we use as residential training centers. One of them we turned into the first certified organic cuts out in Wales, right. Cause he wanted to know what it was like to walk the talk when you know about this stuff. So you can’t go talking to people about importance of ethical supply and everything else if you’re not prepared to practice it yourself. And we ended up with a retail business, which is a, an amazing ethical outdoor retail business at St Davids. And for a long time it was just a really good outdoor clothing shops realized that actually if we want to be telling us, if everyone the right to tell the story to businesses and to kids what we sell in our shop needs to be in line with all of that stuff, which our entire supply base to businesses that could demonstrate that they cared.
And we have a really high proportion of businesses, name suppliers, so it’d B Corps or, and, or 1% of the planet businesses are encouraging others to go in that direction. So as I said, next year I supplies, we include kind of new supplies at a brand called 10 trees who plant 10 trees for every product you buy. Right? Right. So we can count on the wall clothing brand, we’ll give an hour of, we’ll give a day of learning to ship a school kid for every product you buy. We can help our customers make the connection between the way that they shop and the value of the pound in their pockets with the consequence that action has. And so the more we get that bit right, the easier it’s for. Tell a story about, this is not the back end of the world living in St Davids, but the front edge, it depends where you stand. And I think with our, in terms of getting the staff engaged on for us, I think is, is finding staff who care and then teach them are their values that align with us and then takes them how to do what we do rather than people have the technical skills to be an outdoor instructor that don’t think you can teach people to care in the same way it’s been a journey, but we have some amazing people who’ve come to join us now from activist organizations who are just, who are stunning.
Right. Brilliant. And when it comes to running an ethical and sustainable business, what would you say your biggest struggle so far has been? Can you tell us a bit about how you’ve overcome it?
Sure. I think finding in the past, finding staff who really care has been hard. And I think that’s to an extent that’s compounded for us ironically about being in a beautiful place on the edge of Wales cause it’s, it’s not for everyone to live here. If people lived in big cities, the idea of coming and living in it in a tiny place doesn’t necessarily appeal. So attracting people to live on the edge has been quite hard. And we found that if people don’t live here, generally speaking, it’s pretty hard for them to stay engaged in the business. Does that sense of being, being on the edge has got many, many benefits, but there are downsides in terms of, in terms of some of the stuff stuff cause with a population of only 400 in total, right? Big pool to go to go fishing in that is significant.
It’s shifting now, which is already positive thing. And ironically I think one of the things that stops a lot of the environmental movement moving forward is the lack of people having commercial skills. Knowing how to influence, knowing how to sell, knowing how to pitch. Because certainly the law of the land, lots of pushback we’ve come across in the past was a perception that those kinds of skills are already practiced by shiny suited sales folks rather than the fact that literally if you’ve got good product to sell that makes a difference. Everyone should be unashamedly confident to telling stories about what we’re doing.
Um, I mean personally I’m seeing more and more, I guess shiny suits and people coming into the sustainability market. Um, environments. For example, funny enough, I’m looking over our house. We’ve got a lady that’s, she’s on mat leave at the moment. She used to work for one of the large banks, was made redundant at the same time as going on mat leave and has already decided she wants to go back into corporate risk is working on a micro level in her own area and she’s actually lives in London, but I’m from Glasgow. She on environmental matters and it’s gone. Actually. I can use my skills in the sustainability and actually I’m really enjoying myself doing what I’m doing. It’s all voluntary work that she’s doing at the moment, but she’s working with Sustrans on cycle routes through the area that she lives in. She’s working with local council on environmental matters, on rerouting cars and making sure there are less people driving lesson. It’s really interesting listening to her, but the skills that she has a fraud map corporate world is phenomenal. It’s way better than what I could do. I’ve never, you know, cause she would’ve been on those uh, courses as well.
Completely. And I think if you look at that, compare that with that kind of model I described earlier to Mike, the R 10 stuff, there’s loads of people in really, really worthy, well-intentioned environmental organizations who still think that business is a bad thing. They’re still marketing as the work of the devil and stuff and kind of don’t understand that if you have no, if you can’t tell a story about what you’re trying to do, you can’t get other people on board. Yeah, I think so. Having people who come from the corporate world who excel at getting stuff done good things is how we make that shift. Because the corporates never how it was another why and if you can put those two skillsets together, I think that’s when you get to more exciting goals where people don’t get scared about the idea of going, okay, could we get 50,000 kids together for a training workshop? And I know the concept on myself, but if other people come on board, we can, I don’t think, and it’s now, I think when you see people, as you say, caring for that corporate world who reconnect to their heart, decide that they want to use it and use their time and their spirit in a different way.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I think it’s accelerating. As I started to see shift probably about 10 years ago with friends coming to me saying I’d like to change careers, I’m starting to think that it was a kind of, there was only one or two every couple of months that were asking me. And that definitely stopped over time, started to build up with more and more people from that world going, actually I want to change, I want to do something different. And it is really exciting. And I agree. I agree with you absolutely. With the fact that one of the reasons why I used to wear a suit to work 15 plus years ago and walk into organizations and I, I actually bought one of Marnie suits. I wanted to dress like a management consultants and I didn’t want to have sandals and wear jeans and a shirt, which some of my competitors were wearing. I wanted to be, is he from Ernst and Young or is he an environmental consultancy? We don’t really know because that was a way to shift people mentality.
I mean, I, I mean I was in exactly the same space and I didn’t, you know, it’s hard to communicate what you and I do anyway without making way that you dress back in those days. Another reason for not engaging and the, you know, the advance, and it’s kind of interesting when I reflect on some of these, some of these things about, you know, when I sitting, when I started the business and for quite a few years afterwards, people would kind of gone down the London route would say, but don’t you miss the real world? No, but the advice, it doesn’t matter. I can remember that had like four days in the last week or so. I’ve been on long walking meetings out from my house at a six hour meeting with a government director couple of days ago. Walking on the cliffs talking about the future of education has kind of, it doesn’t really, really, really, it doesn’t get better than being immersed in nature was talking about stuff that really matters, but in the unhurried way without pens and paper. Take a few notes at the end of the day. So I think, yeah, getting people to different spaces to help understand what that change feels like is I think so important and I’m hopeful that as the world gets more digital, the more people will be able to go and work in nice place where the heart can be connected to nature, but still be still be able to get online and do the day’s work if that’s what you need to. But, but with your kids at near a beach or something in summer
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