Keeping the family business on the road through the peaks and troughs of economic cycles isn’t easy, but MD Rob Bartup takes everything in his stride and has resilience written all over him.
The business was started as Bartups of Brighton by his grandfather in 1923. His father came into the business after being in the RAF and having ended up in a PoW camp in the Middle East in 1944. Coming home aged just 26, he was dispatched to manage the ‘Hereford office’, which then had just one van. He remained working at GB Liners until he passed away in 1995. Rob has always worked in the business, although he was tempted by a several job offers in accountancy after finishing University and has one regret – that he might have preferred taking up the law as a profession
Rob took over the Hereford office in 1975, when the team had grown to about 15 and there were half a dozen removal vans in two locations – Hereford and Brighton. Today their dedicated staff operate a fleet of 90 vehicles from 11 UK offices. The network has grown by acquisition of smaller businesses – not always at opportune moments – and frequently when tough competition had drawn smaller competitors into serious cashflow difficulties. The sites at Bristol and Cheltenham were the first to be taken over when the owners went bust, their Hereford site merged into GB Liners Hereford. Leeds was another smaller, 2 van business which was acquired next; then came Manchester, ‘a difficult’ start up’ according to Rob. A warehouse storage site in Cirencester was later bought and a branch established. Loughborough and Edinburgh followed, then a business in St Helens which was merged into the Manchester office. Aberdeen was bought at the height of the North Sea oil and gas boon, only to present problems in 2007/08 as the oil price crashed. The last acquisition was of a sales office in Paris, to help manage growing demand for intercontinental business. Rob denies there is an overall ‘grand plan’ however is currently on the lookout for strategically placed acquisitions in the Northeast, East or South.
Rob appreciates the role of Mark Smith at Lloyds Bank in these considerable number of property acquisitions. Some have had complex compliance requirements; others have gone through in a remarkably smooth and speedy manner. What’s been valuable is knowing at an early stage whether the interest shown by GB Liners would be likely to lead to a successful purchase, and a great deal of time, effort and energy hasn’t been expended on those unlikely to fly. Mark has given sage advice and has an ability to explain in simple language the intricacies of some of the things GB Liners have tried to do.
The housing market and the removals business follows what Rob refers to as the ‘the economic cycle magnified many times over’. There are times when house sales are buoyant, and their existing staff and removal vans literally cannot cope with the high volume of consumer demand. At times of economic downturn, the opposite happens. “2008-09 was the worst” says Rob, “when nothing was happening”. He also recalls recessions in 1979 – 81, the introduction of the 3-day week and describes 1988-1992 as ‘extremely horrible.’ The business has always had to stash the cash at peak capacity and then watch it pour out in the downturns when the few business opportunities available get drawn into ‘silly price’ competition.
The challenge of new regulation changes and politics is never far away. The imminent introduction of Clean Air Zones around the country will have a severe impact. GB Liners managed the introduction of London’s’ Congestion zone by moving the vehicles around between offices, with newer models that complied with changing regulation on diesel engines used there. In the very near future, new zones could potentially be introduced in Bristol, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Birmingham and Leeds. Rob predicts that Manchester will introduce restrictions. This makes life difficult for a business that has a vehicle lifecycle of 15 years, as they’ll either have to be replaced early (and the old ones cannot be sold off as their residual value will be lowered) or customers will have pay a surcharge of about £100 per day if it involves a congestion zone.
Currently GB Liners has about one third of its business coming from moves across Europe, so Brexit could have a huge impact on the business. The scale of the challenge getting goods moved through the channel ports is huge, with the number of staff at customs agents reduced from a pre single market peak of 3,000 to around 150 people today in just five agencies. This could potentially mean each person having to process 12,000 consignments per day! Rob explained that even the planned ‘Simplified Transit Procedure’ wasn’t finalised yet and would require paperwork to be processed both before and after the movement of the removal vans. Without advance notice of what would be required it’s difficult for the business managers to put Brexit plans in place.
GB Liners have adapted to every change in the past and will, no doubt be equally successful in the future, whatever the economic and political climate. Over the years, the managers and teams have pulled together to share ideas and solutions and Rob is very proud of his staff who have stayed with the firm through thick and thin. GB Liners takes pride in their excellent service delivered by very dedicated people. “One thing I’ve learned, says Rob, “is that the cost of putting something right is unbearable, so we work very hard at making sure things are right first time. The reputation of the company for their high-quality service is our most important asset”.