Late starter but gathering pace

Late starter but gathering pace

Entrepreneurs are often young, bright, decisive, get-up-and-go individuals. This accurately describes transport fleet management expert Julie Summerell – except that she didn’t form her own company until she was in her early 50s. Steve Dyson reports

ulie Summerell’s skills were first noticed when, working as a teenager receptionist at the Western BRS truck firm, she was offered a place on a four-year management training programme. “I turned it down because I said I didn’t need four years,” recalls Julie, “and I was managing in my early 20s after just two years.”

Born in Bristol, Julie says she was “not an over-achiever” at her Catholic school, leaving with just a few O-levels and getting a summer job as a clerical assistant at the old DHSS. She persuaded her parents that she didn’t need A-levels, let alone university, but quickly became bored of social security pen-pushing, which is when she became a receptionist for the Western BRS truck firm.

It was the beginning of what she says has been “a lifetime in automotive”. Her early promotion as a manager with BRS led to a string of jobs organising transport fleets of every kind, learning something from each role and slowly becoming an expert.

Julie lists her roles: “I’ve run a fleet of 1,200 cars, I’ve worked in procurement, I’ve managed a major car rental company, set up a lease company, worked for a car dealer, and for a major manufacturer. Basically, I deeply understand the fleet management sector, and could see opportunities.“When I was working with a VW dealer for the Lister Group, for example, I said: ‘Doesn’t it frustrate you to see all these drivers coming with cash allowances to spend on new cars, but no-one’s picking up the information that they’re all working for companies. Why don’t we approach the companies and add value? I ended up setting up a department for them, leading to direct sales of 1,000 cars a year.”

It was this and other smart management ideas that made Julie realise she’d been what she calls an ‘in-trepreneur’ for many years, and by the time she was in her early 50s decided: “I want to do it for myself”.

Although now divorced, marriage brought Julie to the West Midlands ten years ago. She lives in Warwickshire with her son, Lewis, aged 20, who’s about to complete his apprenticeship at Audi as a parts supervisor. In 2010 she formed TR Fleet Ltd, based in Berkswell, between Solihull and Coventry, offering transport fleet policy advice and supply chain management reviews – aimed at generating cost savings and greater safety for businesses.

Julie explains: “Your average transport fleet manager at any company feels they’re too busy and have too much management information to deal with – people, driving licences, journeys, expenses, policies, and so on – and not enough time to collate it all.

“What’s missing in many cases is the key approach to risk, and so I went out to find a system to handle this. I couldn’t find one, so I decided to build our own – DriveSecure. This is a new system that collates all the management information – drivers, DVLA checks, accident management, fuel costs, tyre pressures – and automatically alerts over any issues, essentially highlighting the ‘naughty boys’.

“The system pulls in information, produces a dashboard of ‘risk’ that then automates action. For example, the system will provide that ‘call to action’ for drivers to have regular eyesight tests. The system picks up if they’ve not had eyesight tests within two years, and automatically sends them Specsavers vouchers to have a free one.

“Another example is tyre safety – who at any company is making sure that drivers are checking their tyres? Our system communicates directly with a company’s drivers asking them for regular information, and keeps reminding them if they fail to respond. If this fails, the system prompts manual intervention: ‘Do it or you’re not legal, there’s no insurance,’ and ultimately, if this fails, the company takes their keys off them, and stops paying them, although it will rarely get to that stage.

“The system makes it easy for the driver as well as the fleet decision-maker, and it shapes the thinking away from being asset-led to being driver-led. For the company, it’s not them or their fleet manager having to do all this, it’s the system checking with the driver, talking
directly to the DVLA, and producing prompts and reports.”

One example of how this works was a company who’d employed a European driver on the basis of documents he’d presented in a foreign language. Once the DriveSecure system was in place, it quickly revealed that this was only a Polish washing machine engineer’s card.

The really clever part of Julie’s approach to companies is that TR Fleet offers to pay for clients’ use of the new DriveSecure system with savings it makes in procuring their vehicles and reviewing their fleet management costs.

“A lot of fleet decision-makers accept they need a budget for risk management,” says Julie, “but times are tough economically. We make it easy by ensuring that the savings we make by supplying cars covers the cost of DriveSecure. ‘Savings fund safety’ is the motto.

“We say: ‘You’ve not got to care about the costs, we’ll cover it through savings we find in reviewing your vehicle procurement’. I understand the size of the sector. We are not pushing them... our approach is a partnership.”

It’s what Julie calls ‘procurement-led fleet management advice services’, and involves the review of everything from the price of cars and trucks to the cash allowances and other employee benefits given to drivers, the result being recommendations on cost savings and safety compliance.

“On car acquisitions,” Julie says, “we make recommendations, provide service levels and give advice that companies would struggle to find elsewhere. Previously, their only route to market was via the internet or dealerships. But by talking to us we give them the benefit of scale and our specialism on making savings.

“We look at how they currently find and fund vehicles. Which models are they buying and why? What policies do they use? Have they considered the whole ‘life cost’ of their vehicles. That’s not just the purchase price but the fuel and insurance costs.

“We then use this to renegotiate with the supply chain, and we’re delivering clients an average of 20% savings. We’re talking about tens of thousands of pounds or, for our bigger clients, six figure sums in savings – procurement and fuel savings, funding costs and tax breaks.

“To date, we’ve found no-one with no savings to make, and we then use this to fund the risk management – so it becomes a cost-free benefit to them, and a business for us.”

Since launching, TR Fleet has grown organically through cash-flow, tripling turnover and profit within the first two years. There are now seven full-time staff serving 12 current clients – including Findel Plc, Rail Gourmet, NRS Nottingham and Sharps Bedrooms. Julie plans to take on two more workers by the end of 2013, and sees turnover rising to £700k next year. The real driver of this growth, according to Julie, came in 2012 when she was selected for the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Programme, designed to develop high-growth SMEs. She says: “It was a gruelling selection process but, once on the programme, you are mentored for four months with learning modules equivalent to an MBA. Goldman Sachs support you through this growth programme, which I think was crucial in getting TR Fleet to the next stage. The hardest time for any business is the third year – and I didn’t want TR Fleet to be one of those that failed. I needed the vision and the time to do the strategic things in a structured way and understand where the business needed
to grow.

“I didn’t even get to the end of the programme before we got a £300k investment from Midven, who took a 25% stake after valuing TR Fleet at £1.2m. They saw what I wanted to do – strengthening the management team and going for growth. As one person you’re ‘always in the weeds’, as they say. Goldman Sachs got me out of the weeds, and the Midven investment meant I could get people to carry on the day-to-day business while I carried out my longer-term business vision.”

Now a Goldman Sachs graduate, 56-year-old Julie believes she’s gained the confidence and vision to “think strategically and to get there”. The latest developments at TR Fleet have been acquiring the development cash from Midven, enabling her to recruit the right calibre of staff.

“I’ve now got a very, very strong team. One who’s worked on the board of a £40m company, another who’s been 13 years at KPMG, another sales expert from Lombard. Goldman Sachs has given me the confidence to invest in the right people to support growth.

“When you’re working day-to-day, you’re just working hard, so you get a salesperson and it takes them a month to six weeks to cleanse and prepare the database and the prospect list. Goldman Sachs made me think about getting the best, someone who is ‘sales ready’. So I got a consultant in for pre-sales cleansing, and then the salesperson gets going from day one. It’s a simple ‘sales ready, growth ready’ approach.

“And having strength in finance is crucial. I always thought: ‘I haven’t got to worry about that – it’s someone else’s job that I pay them to do.’ But Goldman Sachs taught me to ask the right questions and challenge their thinking. Initially, not having any formal business education or qualifications, I worried about how I was going to cope on the Goldman Sachs programme. But I adapted well and realised I knew more than I thought. The basic skills are common sense and confidence, and telling yourself: ‘You’ve got it right, Julie.’ And real success is about long-term, not short-term, thinking. Look five years ahead and then work back to make sure you get there.”

Now geared up and ready for growth, Julie’s next idea to enhance staff benefits through ‘salary sacrifice’ – giving SMEs the opportunity to let employees buy cars through this scheme, net of tax and, through scale purchases, offering the very best deals of the day. And her wider vision is to grow the firm bigger through targeted acquisitions, to become “an award-winning” business, and shape the entire fleet transport industry’s thinking around risk management.

Multi-tasking on an industrial scale

As well as leading TR Fleet, Julie holds a number of strategic positions. She is regional chairman of the Association of Car Fleet Operators, which meets to discuss topics such as safety and vehicle savings, helping fleet managers achieve their objectives. She’s also an executive committee member of Solihull Chamber of Commerce, is helping the CBI to devise a new SME support programme and works on the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS).

PACTS provides independent advice from experienced business people to government departments. An example was Julie challenging transport minister Stephen Hammond about a new law for eyesight tests that could improve safety and drivers’ behaviour.

“I was able to tell him that we haven’t got the basics rights because there’s no legislation over eyesight tests. We need this to make sure people are fit to drive because if they can’t see, they’re having more accidents.”

Julie is also an ambassador for the military ward at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, helping the ‘Cakes for Casualties’ appeal by raising funds to support renowned charity worker Kath Ryan, who bakes cakes for wounded troops undergoing treatment.