Advancing The Circular Economy with Rob Kaplan

August 24, 2021

Rob is Founder and CEO of Circulate Capital. He brings nearly two decades of experience in corporate sustainability and impact investing with industry leaders ranging from Walmart to Closed Loop Fund.

Rob established Circulate Capital to deploy catalytic capital in partnership with leading corporations and investors to scale solutions that advance the circular economy and prevent the flow of plastic waste into the ocean in South and Southeast Asia.

John Shegerian: This edition of the impact podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy. It’s the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider, and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States, and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.

John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I’m so excited to have this edition because I’ve got a good friend with me today, Rob Kaplan. He’s the founder and CEO of Circulate Capital. Welcome to Impact, Rob.

Rob Kaplan: Thanks, John. It’s great to be here. Thank you so much.

John: You know Rob, there’s no greater person and for the reason why I do this show than to have you and be talking about all the great important work you’re doing at Circulate Capital. But before we get there, I would love for you to share your backstory, your history leading up to the formation of Circulate Capital, with our listeners and viewer’s information.

Rob: Great. Well, I spent about ten years in corporate supply chain investments. I was in the beverage industry for a number of years, and then I took on a role at Walmart, where I was responsible for supply chain partnerships, investments, and ended up taking over sustainable packaging globally for the company. I moved my family to Arkansas. We were really excited about the potential for scale and impact there. As we started getting more interested in the space of plastic and packaging, we saw a huge opportunity, which was if we improve recycling infrastructure in North America, we could potentially reduce the carbon footprint by increasing recycled content in every package on the shelf at Walmart.

For a company of that scale, that’s when it really starts to get interesting. We were trying to eliminate tens of millions of tons of greenhouse gas from our supply chain at the time. We developed an investment program to focus on that. We anchored it as Walmart and incubated it and spun it off and that is what became the Closed Loop Fund and Closed Loop Partners, which is the firm that I co-founded to take that idea forward.

A few years ago, a number of our corporate partners asked us to think about emerging markets. Some research had just come out that found that most of the plastic that gets into the ocean comes from a handful of countries in South and Southeast Asia. If we invest in recycling infrastructure there, we could cut the flow of plastic pollution in half. That was kind of our founding inset. I would start by landscaping, looking at the pipeline, looking at different countries, and as 2018 rolled around, the whole topic exploded. Suddenly, plastic pollution was no longer this blip on the radar. It had become a top priority for CEOs, Prime Ministers, and consumers all around the world.

And I found myself in a unique situation where while everyone else was kind of just waking up to the problem, I just spent the last year so developing an investment strategy as a solution. Long story short, we decided to accelerate it. It didn’t make sense to run it out in New York, so we spun it off, and I created Circulate Capital in the summer of 2018. We launched Circulate Capital Ocean Fund, which has raised about $100 million. Our investors are Coca-Cola, PepsiCo is our first investor. Unilever, Danone, Procter and Gamble, Chanel, and several others. We’re investing in companies and technologies that prevent plastic pollution in some of the highest leaking countries: India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand.

John: These are some of the greatest brands in the world that have entrusted you with this tremendous responsibility, but also as you said, opportunity. How’s it been going since the inception? When you sat down, I remember, I literally remember vividly like it was yesterday, visiting you and Ron up in your first office for the Closed Loop Fund, and it was so incredibly wonderful to visit you both, but also so entrepreneurial and humbling because that’s the humble beginnings of every entrepreneurial journey. So when you wrote the business plan for Circulate to spin out, has it been going to plan or how’s it evolved per your original vision?

Rob: It’s been going pretty well. I’d say we’ve exceeded some of our expectations. and then we struggled in other areas. In the first year of investing, we had committed about $40 million, just in seven transactions out of our hundred. So doing seven deals in our first year, 40 million, was beyond our target for our first year of deployment, and that’s been very exciting. In particular, we’ve been focusing on India, we’ve had a tremendous opportunity.

Actually, that’s part of what’s exceeded our expectations, we now see potential to invest another 100 to $200 million in India easily over the coming years. I think Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, has been more challenging to develop larger deals. So that’s been sort of our new focus. Of course, COVID really challenged everybody in the space and has slowed down a lot of progress. The good news is most of our portfolio, in fact, all of our portfolio companies, are doing well. They were profitable businesses before the pandemic. But growth has slowed. It’s been difficult to really expand it over the last year or two.

John: Rob, going back to- And for our listeners and viewers, we’ve got Rob Kaplan with us. He’s actually doing this interview from Singapore where he lives now with his family. I’m in Fresno, California, the beauty of technology makes us seem like we’re back in the same room again. For our listeners that want to find Rob, his colleagues, and all the great work he’s doing, please go to www.circulatecapital.com, circulatecapital.com.

Rob, talk a little bit about the tipping point? You start this journey in sustainable packaging and plastic reduction at Walmart. It really made a big mark there and then evolved to create the Closed Loop Fund and now, Circulate Capital. Why does it seem like the world has just woken up to what you knew and others knew years ago? Why now is this massive almost over-exuberant, but not over, but corrective exuberance out there in ESG investing with institutions, corporations, and family offices around the world? Explain why it all kicked in and came together at once? If you could explain how the stars aligned, I’d love for our listeners and viewers to hear your take on that?

Rob: Yeah. That’s a great question. I mean, I’ve been working in environmental sustainability topics and initiatives for twenty years, and I’ve never seen the progress, especially within the plastic space, but even in ESG broadly over the last few years compared to the last twenty years. I think there are a few things. I mean, one key part, especially in the space where we work has been through social media. Plastic is tangible, we all touch them every day. It took a few viral videos of a turtle with a straw up its nose and some other terrible things for people to really get that visceral connection. When you talk about climate change, it’s literally invisible. It’s very difficult for people to connect to that same idea, as it is with something that they buy every day and they’re surrounded by. I can’t- I’m sure you figured out these conversations. But people are like are disgusted by how much plastic they have in their household and you know, around them at any given time, and they love talking about it. Yet they don’t stop buying it, of course.

John: Right, right.

Rob: But it’s that kind of change where people are able to connect to the topic in a different way and I think that has really changed. Then on the corporate side, ESG, and the financial industry, ESG has really taken hold in a different way. Once momentum that’s been building, I think expectations of corporations and other private sectors have evolved over the past few years. Thanks to the recession, thanks to the pandemic. Climate change is now getting increasingly urgent. And so a lot of the deals and questions that people I think were let’s wait and see about maybe ten years ago are now coming to fruition.

John: We read about all these wonderful stacks, of course, Tesla leads the way, and then there have been so many others, maybe nine or ten EV autonomous specs that have come out. With regards to circular economy investing, ESG investing, is plastics getting its fair due, or is it still underweight and more capital should be flowing to the plastic solutions like you represent instead of into the 10th or 12th, or 15th, EV autonomous vehicle company?

Rob: Yes, and I’d even broaden it beyond just plastics to the circular economy, which is how do we make a profitable resource out of the resources we’ve already extracted from the environment? Plastic is an example, but metals, textiles, apparel, food, and agriculture, there are many resource loops that remain wide open and are massive inefficiencies. I mean, I think you sort of answered part of your own question there, right? There’s been- one thing that investors are really good at is chasing each other. When they see one deal, they get a lot of FOMO, and they want to be a part of something similar.

That’s part of what we’re trying to do in the space where we operate, is to demonstrate that there are financial returns to be had here that this is an under-invested sector and that in the Crowd Capital in. We do that by demonstrating an investment track record, but also by showing that it’s possible in making these co-investment opportunities available and showing the pipeline, and showing that there’s a lot of opportunities out there.

John: What are some of the biggest hurdles that you have learned in your journey, especially in the last three years with Circulate Capital in plastics recycling and the circular economy? What do you have to overcome to continue to scale what you’ve already invested in, and also to bring more plastics and plastic types into solution-based recycling opportunities?

Rob: When we look at our portfolio, we’re investing in a number of exciting recycling companies across South and Southeast Asia. Nepra is the largest dry waste collection and sorting company in India. They operate in three cities, they build MRFs and sorting facilities. They’ve done three, they’re about to do three more, and the plan is to get them to twenty more cities in the next five years. That’s like a pan-India solution to solve waste problems for a billion people. It’s a really exciting opportunity that no one has really invested in before. Dalmia and Srichakra are building some of the first food-grade, bottle-to-bottle recycling facilities in India. No one’s ever done that before either. You need to buy food-grade. You can’t put recycled content in plastic packaging for food in India because it doesn’t exist.

I think some of the challenges that we’ve seen in the portfolio are what I classify as the growth mindset, right? These are companies that have been profitable today are successful entrepreneurs because they’ve grown organically. They never took on outside capital, they’re family businesses. I mean, you might even relate to some of these in some of your earlier podcasts. It’s a different mindset to go from- actually, we’re going to sell part of this company, we’re going to bring in an outside partner and go from one facility to an extra line to ten facilities. And that’s a big evolution for a lot of these companies and it takes time to get people on board with that idea.

John: Culturally speaking, you’re saying?

Rob: Yes, exactly. Risk tolerance and all of that. So that’s a big part of our portfolio management. That’s where we spend most of our time is helping develop that idea, not just the culture, but like the leadership mindset for the entrepreneurs, the CEOs so they can go there.

John: As you mentioned at the top of the show and at the top of the podcast, Rob. You have some of the biggest brands on the planet that have invested in your fund, Coke and Pepsi, Procter and Gamble, Danone, Unilever, I mean, not only credentials but huge brands. But you also have family offices and private investors. Many funds just choose one of those three sectors to raise capital from and become experts just with that sector. Why did you choose strategically to mix it up and open it up to all three verticals?

Rob: Yeah, great question. I’ve been very proud of the fact that we’ve been able to raise $100 million for these types of innovations and solutions, but it’s going to take much more than $100 million to solve this problem, especially in this part of the world. It’s going to take many, many billions of dollars. We’re only going to get there, that’s the type of capital if the pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, large scale infrastructure funds, the folks who are financing the future of infrastructure in Asia, start allocating capital to waste and recycling in a circular economy just like they allocate it to bridges, roads, and ports. So that’s part of our idea of catalyzing capital is by starting with strategic partners, like the corporates that we’re talking about. Bringing in private investors like family offices that have a personal connection or strategic interest in what we’re doing, but also want the returns, and building pathways to start to engage those more institutional and conventional investors who are currently waiting on the sidelines of the sector.

John: You’re down in Singapore, you can pivot Indonesia, you can easily pivot Indonesia, Philippines, India like you said, the whole Southeast Asia region. This is the top of the second inning, the bottom of the first inning, top of the third with regards to what you think this is going to be in terms of a journey with Circulate Capital and the plastics recycling model that you’re creating?

Rob: Yeah. We aim to build Circular Capital into an institutionally-backed investment management firm where we see ourselves as almost a platform for impact investing opportunities for the region. I think it’s a nascent space out here. It’s nascent in the US, it’s even earlier here. By being able to create a product and platform at scale, we think we can help others move further faster and join along with us. We also think about other regions. We’re talking a lot about Latin America and the Caribbean these days. There are a lot of similarities to the models that we’ve understood and invested in here that we think could be applicable there as well. And obviously, there are similar problems to be solved for.

John: For our listeners and viewers who’ve just joined us, we’ve got Rob Kaplan with us today. The founder and CEO of Circulate Capital. To find Circulate Capital, please go to www.circulatecapital.com. You can find Rob, his investors, and everything he’s doing over there. The important and impactful work at Circulate Capital on his website.

Rob, you know, you started a new fund, a disruption fund called the Circulate Capital Disrupt. Explain how that continues on your vision and mission, but also diverges a little bit and gives you some more- spread a little bit of your vision out a little wider?

Rob: Yeah. As we started to launch Circulate Capital, we started to get approached by a number of family offices, private investors that were interested in our sector but didn’t really have a good way to participate. So as that demand started to build, we decided to create a new fund. And at the same time, we started to see tremendous opportunity on the innovation side. While we are investing in the fundamentals of collection, sorting, processing, and manufacturing, building markets for plastic waste in the region, we also saw an opportunity to bring in new technology that hasn’t necessarily been scaled yet. Innovative materials, digitization and deep technologies, advanced recycling technology that can depolymerize plastics into their building blocks to create higher quality plastic outputs, and turn waste into a greater value. And we saw that we were well-positioned to find those fields, source them, and diligence them, but also understand how they can connect into this region with our existing portfolio. So as all those parts are to come together, that’s why we launched Circulate Capital Disrupt, which is a fund that brings more capital into our existing strategy from family offices and private investors. But it’s also allowing us to invest in some of these more innovations that we think could create a more disruptive impact over the time period of our investments.

John: Last year, in the midst of the global pandemic, you did seven investments. How many have you done through the first half of this year? Are you on track for another seven, or how many do you believe you’ll get done this year?

Rob: We’ll probably do another five or six this year, depending on both of the strategies. We’re really focused on Southeast Asia. As I said, we’re trying to balance our strategy, 50% in India and 50% in Southeast Asia. Now that we’ve been quite strong in India, our big focus is Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines.

John: You know, there’s a lot of young people that watch this show and listen to it around the world and they want to become part of the solution. They just don’t want to work for a paycheck anymore. The economy is changing. The workforce has absolutely changed. Even the pandemic probably truncated the change and is expedited as well. What advice can you give for young people in high school and in college that want to be the next Rob Kaplan? That want to go out, and not only make a nice living to buy groceries and pay for the roof over their head, but they also want to be part of changemakers, someone who can wake up every morning and know they’re impacting for the positive to the world and making it a better place.

Rob: Yes. It’s a difficult career path. I mean, I think you can probably appreciate this too, but it’s non-traditional. It’s not like you can do, see that path and say, “Okay, these are the five steps to follow.” At the end of the day, I’m a bit more of a jack of all trades than any particular expert in any given area. But that’s sort of what has been my success. I think the key principle I’ve used throughout all of my careers has been when I’m presented with an opportunity around what I want to do, I asked myself, “Where can I make the most impact?” And that’s been kind of how I made that decision, how I went from non-profit, profit in the public sector back to business school to switch to the private sector, went to the beverage industry, went to Walmart, went to Closed Loop, and now, Circulate. In each of those ways, I was trying to make more impact in a different way. I think some people would look at it and say, “Well, get really good at one thing, understand that, and then try and make an impact after that.” I think those are both really viable pathways, and it kind of depends on what makes you happy. I learned early on for myself. I’m much happier when I have that intrinsic value, where I get that impact than about anything else, and the extrinsic parts start to work out at the end.

John: But as you said, there’s no clear path for success in the entrepreneur’s journey, especially those who are doing things that haven’t been done before like you are. The fact of the matter is, someone like you with your background could have stayed in a very, very, very cushy, corporate, or even fund what you’ve already created at the Closed Loop Fund, and not disrupt your life, per se and your family’s life in Brooklyn, and move all the way to Singapore. So there’s also an element of not only risk-taking, and faith in what you’re doing, but also the ability to be a little uncomfortable in the journey to effectuate the greatest change. And not that Singapore is uncomfortable, I’ve been there numerous times, I love the country, but it’s not the norm when you’re born in America and you’re raised in a certain part of the United States to go live in a foreign land with your entire family, not a bachelor, you’re married with children, and to be this change-maker and the catalyst for change in that situation. I give you a ton of credit. But I don’t want the audience to think that any of these things, any of this journey comes easily to anybody.

Rob: Yeah. No, that’s true, and let’s be honest, I mean, really, the only reason I’m able to do this is because of my wife being excited about that same idea of where we can make the most impact and getting along for the ride because, otherwise, that would not have happened.

John: By the way, after thirty-seven years, I can say this woman is the same as me, and that’s how it worked for me too. So there’s no disagreement on that at all, Rob. Rob, talk a little bit about 2022 and beyond? You know, the exciting part is still you’re super experienced twenty years behind you. But you’re still super young as lifespans go now and predictable work life spans go. I mean, Warren Buffett is still killing it at ninety years old. And greater goals are not going to be traditional like our grandparents were, and somewhat retired in our early 60s. Where do you see, give me the next two to four years ahead for you in Circulate Capital and expanding your vision?

Rob: Yeah. We’re having that conversation right now about what the next five years kind of look like. If things go according to plan, we may have almost fully committed Circulate Capital Ocean Fund One in the next twelve to eighteen months. We’ve done 40 million already, we’ll do another probably 20 or 30, and pretty soon, with follow-ons, it’s time to think about what’s coming next? So that involves the big question about like, what’s fund two? What’s our follow-on fund? Now, we need to start thinking about that. We have, as you noted, raise this new fund. It’s more of a parallel vehicle. It’s a way for private investors to engage in our existing strategy. So that’s our big focus for the next year. But we’re starting to think about how do you turn this from a 100 or $200 million strategy into a 500 to a billion-dollar strategy over the next five years? What does that mean in Asia? What does that mean in India? What does that mean, potentially in other emerging markets like Latin America?

John: Awesome. That’s great. Well, Rob, we’re going to continue to track your journey on the Impact Podcast. I’m so grateful for your time. I know we’ve been dealing with time differences and stuff to get this one done. I’m just grateful for everything you’re doing.

For our listeners and viewers out there, to find Rob, his colleagues, and all the important work they’re doing, please go to www.circulatecapital.com. Rob, you’re a good friend. But you’re also making a huge impact and making the world a better place. I’m so grateful for all that you’re doing for all of us.

Rob: Likewise, John. I’m a big fan of yours and the great work that you guys are all doing over there. It’s been an honor chatting with you today. Thanks for having me.

John: I look forward to seeing you in person, either in the United States or in your side of the world now, as well as we get through this pandemic.

Rob: Absolutely. Take care.

John: Have a great day, Rob. Continue the success.

Rob: Bye.

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