Peter Denby: Keeping business on the move

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When Peter Denby left the classroom in 1979 he hadn’t made up his mind about his future career direction, but his father Dick already had a bright idea. He casually suggested his son might like to spend a bit of time in Denby Transport’s offices, but the job which Peter initially thought might be a temporary diversion, swiftly turned into something more permanent. And, in the mid-90s, as a third-generation member of the family firm, he became managing director. He’s still in the hot seat today.

Quite rightly, Peter Denby is proud to be at the helm of a company built on traditional values and quality customer service, but he has also recognised that it is vital to move with the times. It’s an approach which has ensured that Denby – with is distinctive, eye-catching red fleet – is now as well-known on the continent as it is in the UK.

Continued investment in equipment has been an essential part of a strategy which has seen the company evolve into a much more broadly-based business than it was a decade ago.

But some issues never go away, including the intense competition from other European operators and the fact that it is an ongoing struggle to tempt younger people to consider training to become long-distance lorry drivers.

“My grandfather Bill (W G Denby) started the business in 1926 and it continued until transport was nationalised in 1949. After a break of 12 years, Bill and my father Dick, got going again in 1961 and dad was the one who started the international haulage side.

“I remember leaving school and not being too sure what I wanted to do workwise, but my father didn’t like to see anyone sitting at home being idle and he said ‘why don’t you come into the office for a few weeks?’ Looking back, it was probably his subtle way of letting me know he actually wanted me to come into the business. From that moment, I went on to work in all areas, from the office to the warehouse, doing everything except the actual driving.

“I think that most people who join a family business have periods of doubt as to whether it is what they really want to do, but as I took on more responsibility, it began to feel very natural for me. However, my father is still company Chairman and my mother Elisabeth remains a director, reflecting their strong interest in our fortunes.”

Denby Transport, which has remained true to its Lincolnshire roots, has grown into a company with a £7 million turnover. Today it employs 75 people, many of whom who have been with the business for many years.

Managing Director of Denby Transport Peter Denby. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Managing Director of Denby Transport Peter Denby. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

“There are very few UK-based international hauliers left. We have been a shrinking sector for years due to the impact of Eastern European competition. For many years our core markets have been in France and Belgium and we are still well-known as an Anglo-French haulier,” said Peter.

“We will go anywhere in Western Europe and we occasionally go to Italy, Spain and Germany, but 90 percent of our business is to France and Belgium and we transport anything from machinery to chemicals and general cargoes.” Denby also has significant Lincolnshire-based customers and it offers a service which includes everything from warehousing to the delivery and installation of equipment.

“Ten years ago, we would have described ourselves as a haulier and warehousing business and that remains true, but we are now also doing more work within the UK, having raised our domestic profile. This has created more balance within the business,” said Peter.

Denby’s Training Division, which has now been established for ten years, remains busy as a service provider to Denby and many external companies. Bespoke training is offered at the firm’s Sadler Road premises or at a customer’s own site.

“We initially set up this division to service our own business, but other firms are keen to have their training provided by a professional company which uses real ex-fleet vehicles. This means that, when newly-trained drivers get into similar vehicles, they immediately feel comfortable,” said Peter.

You have to evolve and adapt to changes, such as the growth of the Internet. On the one hand it has intensified competition but, equally, it has brought us additional enquiries and potential new sources of business.

So what does the future hold for Denby Transport and the haulage industry in general, as 2015 beckons? “This is a low-margin industry and it is always challenging. You certainly cannot afford to take your eye off the ball. We are directly linked to the general business community and to what people manufacture or sell. Our fortunes rise or fall in line with the general state of the economy,” said Peter.

While any opportunity to attract extra business is welcomed, one of the more worrying issues for the haulage industry is tackling an anticipated shortage of drivers in the years to come. “Finding sufficient drivers for the future is a demographic time bomb because the majority of drivers currently working within the industry are over 50 years old,” said Peter.

“The industry is failing to attract newcomers. A lot of young people are coming out of education with very high expectations of the kinds of jobs they want and, as an industry, we have failed to sell the idea of lorry driving to them, even though today’s vehicles are quite sophisticated.

“I would like to see more vocational education made available and financial backing from the government for these sorts of careers. A loan of £3,000 would be sufficient to get someone through their LGV (large goods vehicle) training and hopefully, they would find their way into employment fairly quickly.

Aside from these concerns, Peter has relatively modest ambitions for the future. He is keen to see the economy operating on an even keel, giving Denby the best chance of future growth.

Peter is married to Niki. Their son Charlie (25) is a digital marketer in London and daughter Emma (22) is studying for a degree in Fashion Management at Nottingham Trent University.

This feature interview was first published in issue 9 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.