The journey that made Andrew Tinkler Britain’s king of the road has been like many others that begins the hill country of Cumbria: long, twisting and with plenty of ups and downs.
One of the many jobs Mr Tinkler had was washing trucks at a Cumbrian haulage business called Eddie Stobart. Now Eddie Stobart and its ubiquitous dark-green trucks – each with its own female name and uniformed staff – are part of an empire that stretches as far as Ukraine and encompasses trains, ports and airports. And Mr Tinkler is chief executive.
Last year one of those trucks revved up to the London Stock Exchange to mark the day that Stobart Group became a quoted company thanks to the £138m reverse takeover of Westbury, the property development group. This week Stobart Group, headed by Mr Tinkler, is set to complete £70m of fresh acquisitions including the Irlam Group, a rival haulier, and WA Developments, the infrastructure engineering company founded by Mr Tinkler in 1993. Stobart Group also has an option to acquire Carlisle Airport, already owned by Mr Tinkler, to develop a logistics centre and air freight operation.
Acquiring Westbury brought Stobart a port on the Manchester Ship Canal, which will allow Mr Tinkler to develop his vision of turning Britain’s favourite trucking company – probably the only one with legions of “spotters” and its own fan club – into a multimodal logistics group, receiving and dispatching freight by road, rail, sea and air. The company runs a rail freight service and even has a Stobart Pullman train running luxury rail charters.
The Stobart name and brand, Mr Tinkler explains in a broad Cumbrian accent, “has the strength to do what Virgin has done in other areas of business”.
A brand would not be much in the hard-nosed world of logistics unless it were accompanied by plenty of operating savvy. Eddie Stobart has been turned round under Mr Tinkler and William Stobart, his school friend, business partner and son of the company’s eponymous founder. At Stobart headquarters and other depots giant screens track the company’s 1,000 vehicles across the UK: Mr Tinkler says efficiency is crucial and points to a fleet that is 84 per cent utilised, up from 71 per cent when he took over.
“Our business model is based around delivering savings to our customers by taking waste out of the industry,” he says. “We drove in a new cost model and we have learnt from the railway industry.” The customer list includes Tesco, Coca-Cola and Johnson & Johnson.
Stobart Group has a market capitalisation of more than £200m, making Mr inkler’s stake worth about £40m, but wealth has come to him after what he describes as “a very big apprenticeship” – years of different jobs that gave only modest hints of future entrepreneurial success.
Rural eastern Cumbria has few big employers. Mr Tinkler started as a cabinetmaker and joiner, and also tried farming and double glazing. There was also that early job at Stobart, already a well-known haulage firm.
Mr Tinkler’s big break came when he bought a van for £500, set himself up as a joiner and building contractor and landed a small contract on a big local property. When the owner fell out with the main contractor, Mr Tinkler – with barely any experience – took over the whole £400,000 job. “I dragged all my mates in and got it done,” he recalls. It was the start of a substantial leap forward for Mr Tinkler and for WA Developments, his company, which went from strength to strength as he discovered hidden depths of business acumen. “Part of my process of trying different things was to learn a lot . . . When I had to pick up a £400,000 job and the paperwork and the materials, that is when I started to understand figures,” he says.
He also remembers lessons from one bitter dispute over a payment. “Get your ducks in line and all your evidence,” he counsels, “but if you have made a mistake, hold your hand up and take it.”
Mr Tinkler made astute moves into contracting for railway engineering, as privatisation was creating more opportunities, and into foreign property – principally in Ukraine, where he first went trying to sell second-hand machinery. Realising that spending power was increasing, he acquired local franchises from UK retailers including Next and Mothercare.
Ukraine, he says, ticks along nicely as part of his non-quoted business interests: “It is about putting the right people in and getting the right expertise.”
In 2000 Mr Tinkler brought William Stobart into WA Developments: the school friends had become brothers-in-law, having married a pair of sisters. In 2004, when Eddie Stobart had grown substantially but was struggling under the management of another Stobart brother, William Stobart and Mr Tinkler took control.
Eddie Stobart made £4.7m of pre-tax profits on sales of £168m in the 12 months to February 2007. The Stobart Group is due to release its first results since the Westbury deal in May and says trading is strong.
William Stobart remains the company’s chief operating officer while Mr Tinkler, the incomer to the one-time family business, has the higher profile and greater strategic role. “We have different strengths. I throw the balls in the air – William tries to catch them and add the detail,” is how Mr Tinkler puts it. “I drive things in the right direction.”
This week’s Irlam acquisition aside, some of the more interesting places that Mr Tinkler is steering Stobart are off-road. Last month it received the go-ahead for improvements at its port at Weston, in Cheshire, acquired as part of the Westbury deal. Mr Tinkler’s plan is that Weston will berth “feeder” ships from bigger container ports. “There are 1m containers come into the [north-west] from Southampton or Felixstowe, they could come by water,” he says.
Meanwhile, Stobart Rail has a daily service from the group’s big warehouse centre in Daventry to Grangemouth, Scotland – carrying the same freight as 28 trucks. With soaring road fuel costs, Mr Tinkler wants to see more non-road services and says the train “was a big step forward to deliver savings to our customers”. The rail service is the equivalent of taking the truck fleet off the road for at least two weeks a year, Stobart says.
In the air, Mr Tinkler plans to use land at Carlisle airport to consolidate several local sites into a big operational hub – thereby supporting a business plan to improve passenger and freight services at the airport, which has a chequered history. “It will encourage other suppliers in and allow other companies to come on board,” he says.
The right way to do business, says Mr Tinkler, is with an open mind. “I think people sometimes say, ‘Why are you looking at that?’ But if you do not go and look you might miss the opportunity. I always go and listen and ask 10 different people what they think, and then make my own judgment.”
Mr Tinkler may be Britain’s top haulier but there is one aspect of the business he has never got to grips with: he does not have a Heavy Goods Vehicle licence.
Still living in Cumbria, when he does travel down the M6 he passes the time in the same way as thousands of Eddie fans. “I still count the trucks from Carlisle to London,” he admits. “On average I see one every 6½ minutes.”
A strong brand helps Eddie Stobart keep on trucking
Not many companies could attract fans to an industrial estate near Warrington. But an Eddie Stobart fan club and merchandising industry has coalesced around the fondness many people feel for the distinctive green trucks emblazoned with the odd northern name.
In the lobby of Stobart’s offices, a boy and his father are choosing from a growing range of Eddie merchandise: there are plenty of model trucks, of course, but the range includes paintings of Stobart lorries in Paris and clothing from the Stobart-sponsored motor sport team. For children, books and DVDs feature the adventures of a truck called Steady Eddie. Fan club members can go on depot tours and learn about “celebrity Eddie spotters”, such as Jools Holland, the musician and television presenter.
Andrew Tinkler, chief executive of the Stobart Group, knows the value of the name and having 1,000 travelling advertising boards. “The brand has fetched us a lot of work,” he says. “Lots of things we go into to get work have come through the brand. People have sons or daughters who are spotters and they are over the moon.”
Mr Tinkler sees no reason why the brand cannot become to logistics and transport what Virgin is to many consumer industries. “Stobart is not just about trucks any more,” he says – and indeed the merchandise on offer includes model trains in the blue Stobart Rail livery.