In nostalgic déjà vu scenes reminiscent of the film Back to the Future, to provide much-needed additional capacity, leading logistics company Pallet-Track is about to open a new hub in Wednesbury, just yards away from the original Black Country facility it launched its fledgling business from 17 years ago.
Pallet-Track launched in Woden Road West, Wednesbury in January 2004, moving 852 pallets on its first night of operation. Today, with a 267,000 sq ft landmark central hub in Millfields Road, Wolverhampton, a southern hub in Welwyn Garden City and another for the north in Wigan, Greater Manchester, the business tranships in excess of 18,000 pallets per day through its UK-wide network and, importantly, has never lost a single consignment since trading began.
Now, after a record start to 2021, which has seen the addition of two new network members and growth in excess of 20% compared to the previous year, a trend that looks unlikely to slow, the business has signed a lease on a new 150,000 sq ft facility with scope for an additional 3,000 pallets per night to relieve pressure on the main hub - in none other than Woden Road West.
Set up by founder Nigel Parkes on a people-centric promise to deliver on service and quality, as well as a pledge to repay every penny of those founding members’ investment if the business had failed, the market and thought leadership focus remains the same although, as of April 1, there has been a changing of the guard at the top as Caroline Green took over as the new chief executive officer (CEO).
Caroline, who was appointed as Pallet-Track’s chief financial officer (CFO) in September 2020, has a pedigree of boardroom positions under her belt including working in the supply chain of global copying giant Xerox and, prior to joining Pallet-Track, ReBound Returns, where she was chief operating and finance officer.
She has also served as a non-executive director at the British Business Bank PLC, a government-backed initiative to support small to medium sized enterprises, initially as an appointee
of Vince Cable, the then business secretary in David Cameron’s coalition administration.
A hands-on operator with a head for figures, Caroline will build on the business’ strong reputation for the next stage of Pallet-Track’s success, a step-by-step journey she will take with the loyal team and the 84 shareholder members.
“Our strategy is to continue to grow in line with our members, so we all succeed. A network is only as good as its weakest member so our job is to help all of them to realise their potential so that we all add value by being the best we can be,” said Caroline.
At this time, the so-called spring equinox and changing
requirements for seasonal products always creates additional traffic through the hub, an issue that has been compounded by external factors such as Covid-19 and Brexit, where additional online demand has run headlong into additional customs protocol costs, stock shortages and delays on certain lines.
With BBC headlines screaming ‘Garden furniture shortages no picnic for retailers’ and the cost of containers carrying stock rocketing from $1,200 to $10,000 each, it is little wonder there is additional pressure in the supply chain.
“We are booming at the moment despite general business uncertainty, but networks are well adapted to sharp spikes in demand, particularly at this time of year with the seasonal shifts and the need to rapidly move products such as garden furniture, which is in short supply as a result of people in lockdown ordering online,” added Caroline.
From weakest to strongest links, the pallet network model resonates with the climate challenges that the planet faces by reducing supply chain inefficiencies and boosting sustainability.
“Pallet networks are not only keeping the wheels of the UK turning, but they are an inherently green solution as the whole hub and spoke model is built upon operating to the highest standards and load optimisation to avoid empty trailers on any leg of the journey,” said Caroline.
When she speaks about Pallet-Track’s performance, she is also in praise of the other network members of the APN (Association of Pallet Networks), whose tireless performance during 2020 saw the perception of the humble haulier escalated to that of key worker.
“During last year, APN members delivered 27.8 million pallets, a 3.2% growth year on year and, tellingly, as a result of Covid-19, 63% of those shipments were next day delivery.
“While we have all been focussed on the customer journey, we have also had to be cognisant of other key factors, such as the welfare of our staff and the ongoing stewardship of the environment by reducing our carbon footprint while increasing our business profile.”
She highlights the APN figures that reveal an average of 76% trailer utilisation across the networks which underpins the quest to reduce emissions and improve operational efficiencies, all of which add to the bottom line.
“Across the UK’s pallet networks, the APN has seen service levels remain at 96% despite the challenges facing the industry – staff and skills shortages, furlough and colleagues having to home school their children during lockdown – it makes you extremely proud to be part of something that can demonstrate its resilience and agility in the midst of a global pandemic,” she said.
Caroline recognises the challenges of the future – the ongoing skills shortage, the growth of online and home delivery for pallet networks and the education for the industry and the consumer required to make that a success – but is optimistic.
“We have great technology in terms of tracking consignments and are proud of the industry-leading reputation of never losing a pallet during the last 17 years. We also have dynamic routing to optimise journeys that improves efficiency and underlines our service-driven ethos.
“Pallet networks work because of these efficiencies, despite what has been thrown their way in terms of Brexit and the pandemic. It is a model that can rapidly adapt to changes.”
Her pride in the industry and its people shone bright when Pallet-Track launched a national ‘Hooray for Hauliers’ campaign to celebrate the role of the key worker drivers who have kept Britain moving throughout the pandemic, as well as navigating Brexit on top of the day-to-day challenges of long hours and even longer distances to deliver for the nation.
The campaign, which took the form of #HoorayforHauliers liveries on Pallet-Track member vehicles and a high-profile advertising hoarding campaign at the intersection of the M6 and M5 motorways, at the heart of the UK’s strategic road network, flew the flag for Britain’s transport and logistics workers.
The hoarding near Junction 6 of the M6 at Bescot, Walsall, north of Birmingham, was viewed by around three million motorists per week throughout March and April to cement the positive message into the consciousness of the driving public.
The campaign to celebrate the contributions of transport’s key workers also encouraged other road users to photograph the liveried vehicles and share the images on social media using the #HoorayforHauliers hashtag, but only where it was safe to do so.
As part of his last act as managing director, Nigel Parkes said: “Rather like the clap for carers, this campaign goes out to all drivers and workers in all logistics businesses as a thank you for their tireless efforts and everyday contribution, particularly over the last 12 months – they have kept the country going by putting food on the tables and vital PPE and health equipment into our NHS hospitals, some of which has been done on a pro bono basis.
“In this respect, the pandemic has raised awareness of the key worker status of lorry drivers up and down the UK who had previously not enjoyed a high profile, resulting in the dramatic skills shortage that still threatens our industry. This campaign goes some way to trying to address that issue.”
Three Pallet-Track members, PW Gates in Welwyn Garden City, JMS of Doncaster and Alan Firmin Ltd in Kent now proudly display the new #HoorayforHauliers liveries on their vehicles as they travel thousands of miles making deliveries across their postcode areas and to all parts of the UK.
Chris Lynch, development director of PW Gates, which is also the location of Pallet-Track’s southern hub, said: “This is by way of a thank you to all hauliers in all businesses who have worked tirelessly and together throughout the difficult times of this pandemic.
“We’ve all heard about the hard work of the NHS and care workers but not much about the hauliers, those essential workers who have gone the extra mile to deliver everything from food to pharmaceuticals as well as look after their own staff with regular testing and keep the UK’s wheels turning across the country.”
John Sheard, managing director of JMS of Doncaster, said: “This was a great initiative from Pallet-Track that we were happy to be part of and we hope that it starts a bit of a revolution as the sector needs a lot of support.
“It’s been tough during the pandemic, but the ordinary life of drivers is pretty tough and unappreciated with long hours, often poor rest facilities on their journeys and a lack of secure parking – issues that should be kept in the public eye after Covid-19 because we need to drive home the fact that drivers are indispensable.”
Paul Denyer, a director at Alan Firmin Ltd in Sittingbourne, Kent, added: “While other businesses have the livery on their larger trailers, we are putting it on a smaller vehicle to highlight the fact that the message is just as important for the whole industry – from the long-distance drivers to the final mile delivery couriers, demand for whom has mushroomed during the lockdown as more and more people are ordering home delivery online.”
The transition of power at Pallet-Track has been steady. Nigel Parkes, who fondly remembers that first night of activity at the original Woden Road West facility, will remain a significant shareholder of the business and takes a seat on the board of parent company, Palman.
Continuing in the managing director post for two years following private equity firm TPA Capital’s investment in the company, Nigel, 50, along with the board, had already begun the process of looking for a successor.
“I knew I was going to step back from the day-to-day running of the business and we were going into the market to recruit a replacement for me,” he said.
“However, working with Caroline from the autumn of last year, I soon realised that she was bringing a new fresh perspective to the business as CFO – she is so enthusiastic and a breath of fresh air, so the board and I asked her if she would consider taking on the CEO role and I’m delighted to say that she accepted.
“From a personal point of view, leaving Pallet-Track was always going to be a big step for me, but I know I could now stand down knowing the business is in very good hands going forward.”
He said Caroline shares his approach to the business in terms of drive and enthusiasm and the ‘old-fashioned’ ethic of putting people before profit.
At the time of her appointment, Caroline said: “This is a bittersweet moment for me – I am extremely honoured and excited to be taking Pallet-Track forward, but unfortunately, it will be without Nigel day to day – these are very big shoes to fill.
“Nigel has built a business on very firm foundations, maintaining a strong growth trajectory even through some difficult economic circumstances including the financial crash in 2008 and the current pandemic. These have all been challenges – and there will undoubtedly be more uncertainty in the future - but we look ahead from a position of strength because we have invested in the people and proven processes that will see Pallet-Track continue to grow.”
One of those issues is related to the increased volume of online orders and the pallet network shift from business to business to business to consumer.
In 2020, UK pallet networks delivered 10.5 million tonnes of freight with an average weight of 380.5kg, an increase on 2019’s average weight of 378kg, but a mark of the direction of travel as a result of market confidence in just-in-time deliveries and the growth of home deliveries. The APN has worked closely with other trade associations, its members and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to produce guidance on safe tail-lift delivery and Pallet-Track has been at the vanguard of this health and safety movement.
This is in part due to a chronic national HGV driver shortage – upwards of 50,000, according to the Road Haulage Association (RHA) - and the push towards more kerbside deliveries of heavier consignments, including building materials and turf, that have created a perfect storm around productivity and health issues that are blocking recruitment and retention.
In 2019, Pallet-Track recommended that all of its members invest in power-lift truck technology.
“This is the right thing to do from a staff protection perspective, as well as a moral point of view,” Nigel Parkes said at the time.
“Anything over 500 kilos should be moved on and off the vehicles using one of these trucks. Most of our network members have already equipped their drivers with the lift trucks through strategic investment, because they not only respect the narrative around safety but also understand its value as a retention and recruitment tool.
“There is greater productivity and efficiency and less down time from avoidable strain injuries – this is understanding the investment as part of a bigger picture, as it costs less in the long-term if you factor in higher morale versus the cost associated with hiring agency drivers or having people off on long-term sick,” he added.
Duncan Pannell, operations director at Pallet-Track member Aztek Logistics in Letchworth Garden City, said: “We currently have 13 of these power assisted pallet trucks – the first of which was purchased in 2017. All the trucks are used daily in preference to the manual pump trucks that each network vehicle was equipped with and the general feeling is they make light work of a heavy pallet and prevent over-straining on the part of the driver.
“This works on more than one level. Firstly, the driver is given some protection from a possible strain injury; secondly the driver is more agreeable to moving the pallet a reasonable distance to assist the client and thirdly it promotes an image of the right kit being used by a professional company that cares about the driver and his cargo.”
During its 17 years as a business, Pallet-Track has become synonymous with industry leadership and doing the right thing by its employees, its members and its customers – a torch Caroline Green will continue to carry as, with the opening of its new Woden Road West depot, the business looks forward as well as back to the future