In less than three years Chris Hart has transformed Trucks 2 Go into a multi-million-pound business. But he isn't resting on his laurels...
Just a stone's throw from the northbound services at Bolton on the M61 sits a small empire in waiting. Chris Hart, managing director of Trucks 2 Go, grew up surrounded by road transport, and it was only a matter of time before he made his mark.
In September 2005, after 10 years with Mercedes-Benz dealer Ciceley in Bolton, he took the plunge.
"I decided I was doing it. I had offers from people who were looking to slow down a bit and asking me to do things with them. [But] I wanted to do something stand-alone. Phil Martindale [owner of Martindales Windows, and Hart's business partner] is a long-term friend who I knew through motor racing; he had this site available."
"I used to sell him all his vehicles when I was at Ciceley. He was happy to help and it allowed me to start retailing straight away, rather than having to trade vehicles into dealers - then, if the job goes quiet, you are only as good as the next dealer who wants slock off you," he says.
"Luckily enough, Ciceley didn't want to continue to do export. Once I left, they weren't interested in carrying on with it. That did the job nicely because I just carried on with an existing customer base," he says.
He got the ball rolling and enlisted parents Stan and Eileen. Business soon spiralled, more help was needed and two ex-Ciceley employees were drafted in: Dave Weinberg in early 2006 and Paul Christie in February 2007. Michelle Webber in accounts is the latest to join a business which has seen turnover rise from £2.5m in the first 12 months, to an expected figure of £8m this financial year.
Export is still a big part, and Hart has had to adapt to an ever-changing global market. "When we started off exporting, I didnt know anything about Poland, Russia, Ukraine; we [now] do a lot of stuff there."
"You have to move with export constantly. We were selling a lot of minibuses to Poland; then laws changed and duty increased. Now it's more viable for them to take the van and convert it there. We had 10 minibuses and were doing a roaring trade; then the phone stopped ringing."
"We keep our ears open. It's like the Russian thing - it was seven years, now it's five. Cyprus has gone the other way - they used to take up to a certain age, now it's open season. You can send older stuff," he says.
Africa is a favourite destination for older stock, but there are exceptions. The parts trade to South Africa stopped when prices shot up, and Kenya has age restrictions.
"I dont know why, but when it kicked off in Kenya people starting paying via Dubai. [The trouble] affected business in December/January. People just stopped buying trucks. [But] it has come back on stream," he says.
Not wanting to rely solely on export, Hart has branched out, selling new vehicles to customers from franchised dealers and adding to the portfolio.
"What I'm trying to do is not put all our eggs in one basket. We are heavily involved with up to 20 finance companies with repossessions; sometimes we repossess a car, we'll give it a go and try to sell it," he says.
Attention turns to the revamped website, www. trucks2go.co.uk. "We've spent a lot of time and money with Google marketing the site," he says. "They're doing a-good job, not just getting a load of enquiries but tailoring the site and refining the search for specific search words."
Hart admits neglecting the website because "its one thing that's there and works". That extra time spent on details, such as tracking searches and being able to leave details, is starting to make a difference, he says.
"It's speeding the job up. We've been through a bit of a pain barrier with it. We are spending as much as £3k a month securing our position," he says. "If you dont try and get an understanding of it, you'll be left behind."
Eye for an opportunity
Marketing plant and ballast trailers presents another opportunity. With John Makinson from Bolton based GHM Group, Trucks 2 Go will be the UK and Ireland agent for Belgian trailer manufacturer Stokota Trailers, and will be exhibiting at SED (13-15 May 2008).
"We've got a lot of people interested, but there's nothing quite like having something they can touch and feel," Hart insists.
The Trucks 2 Go site - Martindale House, just outside Blackrod on the A6 - struggles with the capacity. "We're on the hunt to buy something. I'd love to move just down the road, [but] for some places around Bolton, you are talking £lm an acre. It might be 18 months away, so we've rented a yard down the road," he says.
Cash flow is the biggest obstacle Hart has faced since starting up. "You buy 10 trucks and sell them - you should get your money back in your bank account, with profit. What actually happens is against those 10 trucks you might take six part-exchanges, so you get 70% of your money back, stock increases, then another fleet of trucks comes up.''
"We want to have a look at hire/contract hire, but it's a strain on the cash flow. Say we want to make 10 available on a hire fleet and they are £100k each, we have to find a 10% deposit times 10 trailers - that's £100k plus VAT, although in five years, that will be a viable thing because you can get them on rent.
"We seem to have the banks on side, so in a couple of years, we'll look at it," he says. "I'm not in it for the short haul, I want to grow it year on year. We've built a good reputation; we're seeing a lot of repeat business, you cant put a price on that."