Walkers’ blue and white trucks are a common sight on our roads, moving more than a million pallets of goods every year. Chief executive Richard Simpson tells Mike Hughes about his very personal approach to keeping the operation in top gear.
How do you post a lightbulb? The answer is probably “Very carefully”, and Richard Simpson might add that it is easier if there are a few of them to pack together – so maybe five million would help.
Add to that load the tens of thousands of taps and sinks, more than a million drink bottle tops, four million envelopes and stationery products and basically anything that fits on to a pallet and you have an idea of the work his Walkers Transport trucks tackle every year.
The company has been going for 35 years and now has a base in Manchester as well as its Leeds headquarters, from where it also operates the “Northern Hub” for Palletways, Europe’s largest pallet distribution network. But Simpson is a relative newcomer, joining three years ago and towards the end of last year was at the centre of a £20m management buyout (MBO) with private equity firm Total Capital Partners.
So, he is now in the driving seat and, while his eyes are firmly on the road ahead, that doesn’t mean he can’t roll the window down, turn up the music and enjoy the trip. “We have invested, but have only just started on the journey,” he explains. “Do we want to dominate the world of transport? No. But do we want to dominate the chosen segments in the geographical areas we want to work in? Probably.
“But not at any cost, because the important thing is to keep growing financially, but also grow the people in the organisation and making sure folks are equipped to do their jobs properly, whether they are a driver needing the right tools to do his job or a financial director who needs some new kit to count the numbers better and keep score of how we are progressing.
“We had a good year last year, with revenue up by 14.6% – I still think we could do better, but we set ourselves high standards and on our growth curve we still have quite a lot to do. We are pretty good at what we do, but for me ‘Pretty good’ is not enough because, as Jim Collins said in his book Good To Great, ‘Good is the enemy of great’.”
The spirit of continual improvement at the company was a key attraction of the MBO. Simpson saw the potential for growth, but he also had to like the company, and the way it dealt with its customers and staff struck a chord. You soon get the impression chatting to this very amiable boss that he wouldn’t have made the move from document specialists Shred-It in the first place if he didn’t think he was going to enjoy himself.
“To be brutally honest, I probably didn’t see the opportunity at the time as clearly as the investors did, because I was so busy getting stuff done,” he admits. “We knew we were doing ok, but didn’t realise how attractive we were and how capable we were doing our jobs.
“I certainly never set out with the intention of being the boss, that was a serendipitous event brought about by the MBO. I just sort of keep my head and do what I think is the best thing every day and then it is up to other people to reward where it is due. For me that meant the job being all about getting the people to believe that they can be the best they can be.
“If you can encourage all of your people to do the right thing at the right time with a smile on their face and be engaged with the company then good things will happen. And, so far, it has been a blast – an absolute blast.”
Let’s pause for a couple of thoughts. Firstly… form an orderly queue for the chance to work with this guy and secondly… how often have you heard that sort of supportive and sincere eloquence from an influential boss and what difference would it make to face that sort of encouragement every day? Read on, there’s more where that came from.
Simpson’s modesty – “I’m ok at some things and not good at others” – fails to mask an impressive track record at Shred-It and he talks of a vision and the execution of “What we had dreamt about” when the MBO succeeded. “We have rules and regulations about how we behave around each other and there are visions and values and what amazed me when I introduced those in around 2016 was how quickly they caught fire – basically all we did was find a way of communicating what was important to us,” he says.
“I haven’t got any fairy dust because it doesn’t exist. It is about engaging people and as long as you have great people who come to work with a smile on their face because they know where we are going, then we will be fine. That’s all I can ever lay claim to doing.
“And if people come to work for me with a great attitude and put the effort in then it is up to us to make them successful, which is a very good way of transferring the responsibility for your success on to your manager to make sure you have the capability to do the job. I get such a buzz out of someone doing something they didn’t think they could, so much so that if a manager tells me they have had to let someone go, then I’ll say, ‘Well who took them on?’, and if they reply, ‘I did’, then I’ll ask them, ‘Who’s fault is it then? It’s not theirs, it’s yours because you are responsible for their performance’.”
That constructive frankness is key to his work ethic and might well come from his family background. His dad was a farmer at Draughton near Skipton, so Simpson was not a stranger to early starts, nor to being “Up to my neck in s*** all day”.
Working on the farm – because no one else was going to do it if he didn’t – taught him about doing a job once and best. With the unfailing support of his wife, Sarah, he set out to take those principles deep into Yorkshire and along the highways and byways of Britain.
An appreciation of teamwork is a core belief and probably stems comes from his love of sport, playing cricket in the summer and watching rugby at Wharfedale as well as going to the gym three or four days a week and fitting in the odd run when there is time. He certainly needs to be fit, given the job he has ahead of him as the sector in which he is now a leader confronts long-term change.
It can seem easy to criticise from outside, with exhaust fumes pumping out along thousands of miles of roads and fuel-hungry 44-tonne trucks seemingly creating miles of jams all by themselves. That happens, of course, but the smart bosses know that as well as anyone and they are changing the way they work for the good of the planet as much as their own reputations.
“The industry will change, and you can see the start of that in London with tariffs and restrictions on trucks over a certain age,” he says. “The critical thing is the pace of that change, and when we look at 10 million electric vehicles on our roads by 2019, I think companies of our size are still a fair way off that and the Euro 6 engines we have now are already so clean, with all sorts of aerodynamic modifications.
“But there has to be some change because eventually the world will run out of diesel but there are a lot of things that need to happen before we are all racing towards electric vehicles. I know they have done trials in Germany on driverless vehicles, and we have watched that from a distance, but I am not 100% sure that people will get comfortable in my lifetime with artics travelling up and down the M1 without drivers.
“The whole industry can sometimes get a bad rap, but it is a completely honourable, earthy business and if it didn’t exist there would be a lot of very disappointed people in shops with nowt to buy. Certainly the more environmentally-friendly we can be and the more caring we are about how we are portrayed will help, but that doesn’t change the fact that if you want to buy a product from B&Q someone has to get it there – and would you rather it was on some wheels on the floor or on a one tonne pallet on a drone in the air?”
Driving forward his business are the men and women who sit in the cabs on top of those wheels and take Simpson’s reputation out on a road-trip. In some businesses they might be at the bottom of the pile, but it is no surprise that this former tractor driver reserves special praise for his own drivers.
“They are true professionals,” he says. “They are continually trained on the job – we are now a recognised training centre for the Certificate of Professional Competence, so they are a very responsible set of people and they need to be because they have a big vehicle that can do a lot of damage if it gets out of control.
“They do a fantastic job and the industry sometimes doesn’t do itself any favours trying to get people to come into the industry. Instead, people need to realise it is an honourable vocation and should be treated as such.”
The Simpson route is a fairly-straight A-road, with no complicating twists and turns. Come in, do your job with pride and as well as you possibly can and he will be happy to work with you. That’s how simple classic Yorkshire management can be.