In the latest of our features on achieving success in business, Chris Ducker looks at the most fundamental of factors, People & Skills, and the ways in which owner-managers can draw on support and advice to maximise their human resources.
The UK’s road transport industry is said to suffer from an annual shortfall of more than 80,000 drivers.
That statistic comes as no surprise to 34-year-old Julian Thompson and his wife Melody, who in 2004 decided that a loan to install a new kitchen at their Wiltshire home would be far better spent launching their own recruitment agency, 24-7 Staffing.
With turnover due to hit £1 million for the first time this year, the investment has turned out rather well for the Chippenham-based concern.
Among approximately 100 clients within a 25-mile radius of Chippenham are national distribution firms, supermarket giants, manufacturing companies, recycling firms, florists, printers and even a polo club that needs horses transporting to its matches.
As the company name suggests, it’s a 24-hour, 365-days-a-year operation. “Transport never sleeps,” declares Melody. “Take a look around your house and there will be hardly an item that hasn’t been on a truck at some point. If someone’s driver falls sick at three in the morning, the shift has to be covered. So we are always on call.”
24-7 Staffing, which specialises in supplying temporary and permanent drivers, now employs a team of eight permanent administrative staff and has more than 400 drivers on its register, of whom up to 100 will be active at any one time.
But, if there appears to be so much demand, why the shortage of drivers nationwide? Partly, say Julian, it is down to clients insurance restrictions that apply to anyone aged under-25 seeking to use their heavy goods licence.
There’s also no denying that people are put off entering an industry saddled with a ‘greasy spoon’ image. That’s a label the Thompsons are determined to shrug off. “We want to encourage people to specialise in driving as a career and for the industry as a whole to get rid of the idea that agency drivers are invariably those not good enough to get a full-time job elsewhere,” Melody continued.
“Some agency drivers are actually far more experienced than the average full-time employed driver – they can handle any type of vehicle, pull any type of load, follow different client systems and are far more flexible to changing working conditions.”
Before 24-7 Staffing came into being, Julian worked for a national driver recruitment supplier; Melody had learned a few basics of running a small business while employed by an IT company. So, in 2004, they pooled their expertise to develop a business strategy – which won a £2,000 Best New Business Plan Award for Chippenham from Wessex Chambers of Commerce – and welcomed their first client in May of that year.
Julian worked all hours to get things off the ground while Melody devoted her evenings to marketing. When friend Jo Ball joined to help out with administration, she worked unpaid for the first three months – “Jo just wanted to help us succeed,” Melody explained. “Since then, we have made sure that everyone here has a real motive for wanting to work in this business and we are lucky to have such a dedicated team.”
The Thompsons have received invaluable support throughout from Business Link in Wiltshire. A Business Development Grant helped provide a bespoke software package for managing the company. Matched funding from the Organisation, Leadership and Management programme (OLM) enabled Julian to attend a management training course run by the Wilshire Group, Corsham.
Says Business Link adviser Julie Cromwell: “Having businesses take up your recommendations and actually benefit is the ultimate in job satisfaction for me. Julian and Melody have seen a real, positive change in their company since training took place and they are now involved in a wide range of Business Link programmes, workshops and networking events.”
Unlike many small to medium recruitment companies, 24-7 Staffing also has a training budget for dedicated new recruits– “our way of putting something back into the transport industry,” said Melody. Two drivers, in particular, have every reason to be grateful for the support they received:
James Bish had lost everything and was sleeping in a tent after his 15-year career in another industry came to an end. He approached the Thompsons and explained his ambition to become a truck driver.
A Class 2 qualification costs an average of £1,500, which, of course, James did not have. So the company paid for his training. “Now he has his Class 1 licence and is our number one driver,” Melody explained. “Many of our clients offer to take him on full-time, but he much prefers the flexibility of working for our agency.”
24-7 Staffing has now inaugurated the James Bish Award, which puts one new Class 1 driver on the road each year at the company expense.
Chris Pearce, aged 23, also had a burning desire to be a truck driver, even though he has a degree in graphic design. His parents paid for him to take basic driver training. But, when it came to job-hunting, his age was against him; so was the fact he has had a hearing impairment from birth.
24-7 Staffing took him on, identifying a client willing to communicate with him by text message. Last month, that same company employed Chris as a full-time driver.
The Thompsons live in Chippenham and have two sons, Joshua, aged 11, and eight-year-old William. They often dreamed of running their own business and it was just a case of finding the right vehicle to help achieve our dreams.
We have a fantastic team of people working for us and have pooled our skills to make sure we get the best out of each other. Julian is a superb sales man and a great leader for our team – he really knows how to inspire people. I guess you could say that he drives the business, while I navigate.” says Melody.
The next challenges for 24-7 Staffing are to move from their first rented premises in The Causeway, Chippenham, and then to begin the process of expanding the business on a regional basis.
That initial investment seems a long time ago now. “We paid it back within six months, and didn’t need the kitchen anyway – because we moved house,” Melody adds.
24-7 Staffing Ltd,
5 The Causeway, Chippenham SN15 3BT.
t: 01249 447247