Driven to succeed

Group managing director, Andrew Palmer

Group managing director, Andrew Palmer

Against a backdrop of economic instability, one company bucking the trend and achieving impressive organic growth is the Suttons Group. The Cheshire-based global logistics provider recently announced group revenues of £149 million, pre-tax profits of £7.2 million, and a 40% rise in turnover in the last two years alone.

Liz Boardman visited group managing director, Andrew Palmer at the company’s Widnes headquarters to find out the secret of its success.

Riding the storm

Seven years ago the company was not in the enviable position it is now, but in many ways this enabled it to ride the recent downturn more effectively, as Andrew told FON: “The company was in trouble financially and commercially, but we were able to turn it round successfully. By actively looking at cash flow and overhead costs, we were able to make the business leaner and stronger, which actually prepared us for the downturn better than most other companies. We’d already taken the necessary measures to survive and put the company where it needed to be.”

Currently in the fuels sector, Suttons operates 75 road tankers across 20 sites throughout the UK, including Grangemouth, Purfleet, Milford Haven and Avonmouth. Harvest Energy is one of the company’s biggest customers with whom it has “a long and mutually successful relationship.” Fuel logistics accounts for approximately 20% of the group’s overall business, making it an extremely important area for Suttons.

Speaking to Andrew, a day after the chancellor’s Autumn Statement, he was optimistic about the fuels side of the business. “Now the fuel duty has been put off, it gives us breathing space. It’s the right decision and it will definitely help everyone.”

The last link

Probably one of the biggest factors in the company’s growth and success is its approach to training and health & safety. With 450 drivers on its books, recruitment, training and safety are key issues for Suttons, not just in fuels but across all areas of the business. A number of drivers are trained in more than one area to ensure flexibility. “Whilst drivers mostly stick to their own areas, some are cross-trained and we do have a contingency plan, which was developed when the bird flu crisis struck a few years ago.”

He went on to say: “Drivers have got a very responsible job. They spend an awful lot of time on their own and are the last link in the chain for the customer.”

Managing director of the company’s road tanker division, Tony Leighton, told FON that driver recruitment is intense. “As well as a pre-employment driving assessment and interview, drivers must undergo numeracy and literacy tests and drugs and alcohol checks, in support of the company’s policy of zero tolerance. We’re also looking to bring in behaviour-based psychometric testing in the near future.”

Making safety memorable

As active members of Brake and four times winners of Motor Transport’s Safety in Operation award, Suttons takes safety extremely seriously. The company employs 11 dedicated driver trainers to assess new starters and all drivers on an ongoing basis. As well as monthly tool box talks and yearly refresher training, Suttons insist that all drivers undertake a defensive driving course every two years. “We look at all the potential risk factors and try to minimise them where we can,” said Tony. “It’s about making safety memorable and constantly refreshing the message.”

“Anyone can buy trucks,” Andrew added, “but people make the difference – that’s why we have such a strong focus on training and development.”

It’s this focus that has won the company a lucrative contact in the Middle East. “Our partners in Saudi Arabia were very impressed with our strict training and safety policies and its one of the main reasons why they wanted us on board. Our driver trainers have been out there recently, transferring skills to local drivers.”

Moving forward however, the company is going take a slightly different approach to training, as Andrew explained: ”We’re going to begin some joint attitude training for both drivers and managers. This will be carried out in a series of workshops, in conjunction with a third party training provider.”

Preparing for winter

Driving in treacherous conditions is also something that the company is keen to cover with its drivers so it actively prepares for winter. Andrew told FON that preparations start as early as July. “We make sure that all of our drivers are briefed on winter driving techniques by the middle of August and that we are well stocked up on grit. You cannot underestimate the value of preparation.

“However, the problem is not getting the depot cleared for action, but getting drivers to the depot,” he added. “We learned a lot three years ago, when the weather was bad. The worst time is after Christmas when some of the vehicles can be stood for three or four days unused. It’s important to check the engines and lights before the drivers get to site.”

Long term, the company is also looking at ways to get better predictability, to try and safeguard and plan for extreme weather conditions such as flooding, which affected the UK towards the end of last year.

So what’s next?

With projected figures for April 2013 looking healthy, FON was keen to find out how Andrew plans to take the company to the next level. “We’re aiming to double business in the next three to five years by retaining and recruiting excellent staff,” he said. Admittedly this isn’t going to be easy but Andrew remains positive: “Generally, the economic outlook is still bleak and predictions aren’t great, but in our industry it’s about making the best of what you’ve got. We’ve set a high benchmark of growth in recent years and have raised expectations amongst shareholders. However, we’ve renewed and taken on new business in the UK, including Total and are always looking at where we can add value and skills.”

Although Andrew admitted that the company has looked at acquisition opportunities in the fuels sector, so far nothing has been the right fit. “Along the way things have not fitted strategically or the price has been too high. You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince,” he joked.

“Acquisitions are fraught with challenges. It’s a challenge to integrate a company and extract value. We do take risks, but not gambles. We’re a privately owned, family business, extremely conservative and prudent about where we put our money, but we may acquire in the food sector at some point, if the right opportunity arises.”

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