Traditional British hauliers are facing tough competition as multi-national businesses keep pushing down prices to gain market share. Could 150-year-old family business, John Jempson & Son, hold the key to a positive future?
It is somewhat incongruous to see John Jempson & Son’s latest articulated combination – a Montracon semi pulled by an MAN truck – slowly threading its way through the ancient streets of Rye before swinging into a yard at the very heart of the old seaside town.
One can’t change a doorknocker here without approval from English Heritage – French raiders burnt down the local pub in 1420 and still haven’t been forgiven – so the contrast between old and new is especially salient.
That’s also true for the business itself: John Jempson & Son has been operating from Rye in Sussex since 1866, when the family began hauling timber from Rye wharf with a horse drawn cart, but a closer look at today’s operation shows full use of new technology and a unique ability to move with the demands of customers and meet ever-changing legislative requirements.
Developing that ability is an ongoing challenge, according to Finance Director and Company Chairman, Jonathan Jempson, and Managing Director, Mark Chamberlain.
Chamberlain was taken on as Managing Director in 2005 on the understanding of buying into the company, and became majority shareholder in 2009. He has extensive logistics experience but still admits he has a “lot of learning to do” in order to help the long-standing business adjust to an ever-toughening business environment.
Complicating the issue is that Jonathan Jempson, the last of the Jempson family to be directly involved in the company, is gradually handing over the reins after 40 years at the helm. With a lifelong passion for road transport and a proven ability to meet new challenges and deliver the best outcomes for customers, he will not be an easy person to replace.
Together, Jempson and Chamberlain may have found just the right future strategy for the company, though: With a fleet of around 90 trucks and 150 trailers, John Jempson & Son is considered a mid-sized player in the UK logistics scene, especially when viewed against the likes of Wincanton, which operates some 3,400 trucks, and Eddie Stobart, which has a fleet of 2,500. For many of Jempson & Son’s customers, that’s a key advantage as they know that big hauliers are not necessarily better ones.
The largest of them is British Gypsum, a leading manufacturer of plasterboard and plaster products that shares its distribution work between the Jempson business and two multi-national operators. Being able to match – or even outperform – the ‘big boys’ on service and respond faster to the demands of the building industry is crucial to keeping this contract, Chamberlain explains. Obviously pricing is still competitive, but more and more customers are now learning the risks of awarding distribution contracts to the cheapest bidder, he says – regardless of ability or long-term commitment.
Meeting the demanding requirements of the British Gypsum contract has been a challenge for the Jempson business, but a worthwhile one. “We can now take that level of service and provide it to any of our customers,” explains Chamberlain.
One challenge his team had to overcome was finding a strategy to safely transport aggregate in bulk bags, where the truck driver has to align straps on each bag with forklift tynes before they can be lifted off. OH&S regulations require all personnel working above ground level be safely restrained, so Jempson’s workshop staff developed a simple harness system that is based around a sliding block in a central track running the full length of the trailer and prevents a fall from the platform whilst still allowing the driver freedom to move around during unloading.
A second element helping the Jempson business prepare for the future is its membership in the Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme (FORS), a voluntary accreditation scheme encompassing all aspects of safety, fuel efficiency, vehicle emissions, legal compliance and transport operations that was originally created by Transport for London (TfL), the authority responsible for everything transport in the UK capital.
FORS came to life as a means to navigate the challenges that come with operating large vehicles safely and efficiently in one of the busiest urban areas of the world. For example, making a delivery into central London requires a vehicle meeting the minimum standards of the London Low Emission Zone – currently Euro IV – otherwise a penalty of about $400 per calendar day applies. This means an older truck passing through the capital around midnight would cost the operator around €580 before actual operating costs are added in. A congestion fee of around €17 per day is also charged between 7.00am and 6.00pm on weekdays.
Three FORS standards – bronze, silver and gold – can be achieved by fleet operators, helping them measure and benchmark their performance against the competition and demonstrate best practice. More and more companies who award transport contracts – especially those running large construction projects in London – now include the requirement for a prospective haulier to have achieved at least bronze FORS standard. Jempson has earned itself a gold rating.
Two other key elements of Jempson’s business success story are its close working relationships with other regional hauliers through the Transport Association, and its membership of the Palletforce network. The Palletforce network consists of around 80 smaller regional carriers who work together to provide an efficient means of sending consignments anywhere across the UK, Ireland and Europe. Each carrier has Palletforce-branded vehicles that collect and distribute freight within their local area, with overnight transfers handled using larger vehicles operating out of a central hub at Birmingham.
In Jempson’s case, joining the group has required considerable investment in new equipment optimised to suit both aspects of the operation. Getting the ‘final mile’ aspect right, however, has arguably been the most challenging due to Jempson’s rather rural location and a road network that often pre-dates motor vehicles. Here, so-called urban artics come into play, alongside three-axle rigid trucks with a steerable, single-tyre rear axle. The urban artic uses a short, nine to 11m semi-trailer with positively steered rear axles that can generally follow in the wheel tracks of the truck. They can operate at gross weights from 26 tonnes – equating to a two-axle truck pulling a single-axle trailer – up to 40 tonnes for a three-axle truck towing a two-axle trailer.
The increasingly prevalent three-axle rigid alternative now provides companies like Jempson with a GVM up to 26 tonnes. The extra axle has minimal impact on the turning circle, can be lifted to improve traction and reduces the chances of a front axle overload when part-loaded.
Efficiently moving bulk freight along the motorway network is another area that has been given close attention. UK regulations specifically rule out multi-trailer combinations, even though they have been successfully trialled in other EU countries before. The UK Department for Transport (DfT), however, now issues permits for Longer Semi-Trailers (LSTs) measuring up to 15.65m in length* as part of an on-going 15-year trial. The Jempson operation runs two double-deck LSTs on a Palletforce contract.
Each three-axle unit boasts a self-tracking rear axle to meet the turning requirements specified under the trial, rides on low profile 445/45 19.5 single tyres and is fitted with EBS drum brakes all round. By fitting a mezzanine deck beyond the step frame, Jempson & Son is able to make maximum use of the allowable height (4.9m) and width (2.55m), carting up to 52 UK standard pallets within the 44 tonnes overall GCM limit.
Membership of the Transport Association also provides benefits to the Jempson operations. The Association dates back to 1946 and currently consists of around 60 family-owned haulage firms who share information at regular meetings and conferences. Membership is by invitation only, so the focus remains on issues relevant to small- and medium-sized companies. On a practical level, co-operation extends to areas such as parking facilities, vehicle breakdowns and tendering for large contracts that might be beyond the scope of one operator.
Regardless of how well connected the Jempson organisation is nationally and locally, though, finding skilled drivers continues to be an issue. Driving heavy goods vehicles here is a challenging occupation where long hours, a lack of on-road facilities, traffic congestion and frequent nights out are the norm. Other factors such as close scrutiny of driving hours by traffic commissioners and, most recently, the requirement for 35 hours of mandatory training to be completed every five years prompted many experienced drivers to ‘hang up the keys’ or move to other areas of employment.
The situation has become so dire that a 16-year old school leaver who would like to become a Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) driver in the UK could have to wait up to five years before they can commence the relevant training and ultimately complete their C+E (artic, ed.) licence. It would cost them roughly €3,500 – and even after passing the test to drive a full-sized articulated lorry, many are rejected by potential employers due to a ‘lack of experience’.
Both Chamberlain and Jempson are proactive on this issue and have introduced measures to attract new staff and retain the services of experienced ones. For example, the company covers the cost of healthcare for all employees whilst drivers who may be considering retirement are offered on-going part time work.
There are, no doubt, more challenges ahead for Jempson and other traditional British transport businesses, but by relying on a strong local support network and a century-and-a-half of experience, the company is facing them head-on. Jonathan puts it in simple terms, “It is all about people in the end … and we have some really good ones.”
*As opposed to the 13.6m standard UK trailer.