Sitting down at the counter in his brother John’s kitchen on a cold spring evening in 2014, it dawned on Steven Cartwright that the time to rest was yet to come. In a shock announcement that made headlines across Europe, the two had just agreed to a management buy-out of the family’s 65-year-old trailer manufacturing business, The Cartwright Group – but it didn’t feel like a “final curtain” moment to him, as he likes to put it.
“It’s not easy to leave something behind that has been in the family for such a long time,” he recalls of the fateful family meeting. “We knew we had done the right thing – the original Cartwright business had grown to a point where strategic decision-making wasn’t entirely up to us anymore, and since we wanted to lead the company 100 per cent, leaving it was the right choice – regardless of what it may have looked like from the outside.
“But we loved our job too much to call it a day, and we didn’t want to cut our ties to the industry all of a sudden. We just knew it wasn’t the time to turn our back on our legacy.”
Too pragmatic in nature to dwell on the past for long, Cartwright says it soon became obvious that the brothers’ love affair with trailer building had to continue somehow – even if it meant starting all over again. “We quickly realised we had created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start anew,” Cartwright explains. “Overnight, we found ourselves in a position to establish a whole new OEM from scratch, without any pressure or legacy issues. So we sat around my brother’s dining table, brushed ourselves off and planned the first launch of a new British trailer brand since the 1990s. That night, Tiger Trailers was born.”
Within a month, the brothers rented an empty warehouse in Winsford, Cheshire – some 25km from the site of the old Cartwright factory – and began turning it into one of the most modern trailer manufacturing sites in the country. “Once we knew what we had to do, there was no time to lose. We didn’t want to let a sabbatical or something like that weaken our network – speed to market was absolutely paramount,” Cartwright says.
What followed was a ‘blank canvas’ approach to setting up the new business: “We built at least 15 scale models of the production line during the planning phase just to simulate the best possible workflow, and we continued to refine the layout during the build – it was an inspiring time.”
Much of the old senior management team quickly joined the duo once word of the new project spread, Cartwright adds – too tempting was the prospect of going back to the drawing board and starting from scratch. “Who in manufacturing wouldn’t want the opportunity to throw out all the shortcomings that come with an organically grown production line and start over again,” he explains. “We had the entire management team in place before the first trailer had been assembled, which helped us build some momentum around the new brand while it was still under development.”
Merely based on the brothers’ reputation, Cartwright says all initial orders during that time were placed without anyone ever seeing the factory or a finished product. “It was quite humbling to be able to get such a venture off the ground just because we were who we were. It only took us about half a year until the first Tiger-branded unit rolled off the line – all thanks to our customers’ faith in our family name.”
According to Cartwright, the Tiger Trailers brand went on to build more momentum over the course of 2015, and 2016 “almost felt like it used to in the old days.” But the journey from counter to top-tier manufacturing still proved challenging: “Finding the right staff to scale up a business at that speed was especially complicated,” he admits. “Anyone can go and set up a factory, but building the right team and processes is the real test.
“Even though we are based in an area known for trailer manufacturing, it took some time to get the right people. In hindsight, that’s a good thing, though – we had the time to hand-select each and every team member, from management through to the workshop, and build the right culture around it all.”
An added challenge, Cartwright says, was that expectations in the young brand rose exponentially as Tiger Trailers’ fame grew. “As much as our reputation helped us get it all off the ground, it also added to the expectation on us and the product. We really couldn’t afford making any mistakes, so we had to make sure all processes were bulletproof. Luckily our team understood that dimension of the job, too, and created a truly outstanding product.”
In a move to spread the net wide, Tiger Trailers started off with a broad product range tailored to the line-haul market, but one sub-segment quickly stood out. “We’ve had some great success with double-deck trailers in the UK,” Cartwright explains. “Having no height restriction gave us a lot of room to experiment, and we’ve refined our system over time to a point where 30 per cent of our production now comes with a double-deck system.”
Three years into the project, Cartwright says Tiger Trailers is thus not only close to breaking into the top five of the domestic sales ranking – directly competing with the old Cartwright company and Stoke-on-Trent–based Don-Bur – but has also caught up with the powerful German competition. “At 30 units a week, we’re still very small in comparison,” he explains. “But we’re now sharing deals with names like Krone, for example. That’s an incredible win.”
Even though Cartwright is adamant that Tiger Trailers doesn’t want to be one of the biggest in the game, he says having shared a recent FedEx job with the second biggest brand in Europe is a sign of just how far Tiger Trailers has come in a short amount of time. “Krone is a world-class business, no doubt about it. Having FedEx see us at eye-level is priceless. I can’t believe I’m in a position to say we’re that established.”
With FedEx’ acquisition of TNT and the brand’s subsequent expansion to mainland Europe, Cartwright says Tiger Trailers’ continental business has been given a boost, too. “FedEx has certainly given us some momentum,” he says. “We’ve only recently exported 165 trailers to The Netherlands for the company’s local operation, and our gear is also on the road in Germany and France.”
The UK’s much talked-about exit from the European Union only helped accelerate Tiger Trailers’ expansion outside Britain, he adds. “What’s happened to the exchange rate only made the UK more attractive to buy from. We’ve seen a large Amazon job for the company’s central European operation go entirely to UK businesses recently, for example – including us.”
Back home, the market is equally buoyant, Cartwright says. “The rise of XPO Logistics has created a lot of movement in the local market, which is good for business. But we’re also working with a lot of SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises, ed.) that only buy one unit a year.”
He adds, “It’s arguably a little old-school, but we enjoy building a one-off design just as much as a fleet spec unit. There’s often a personal touch to it, and the whole design is generally much more challenging. We know where we come from, so truly delivering what the individual client wants is incredibly important to us – not just scale alone.”
The bold branding, supposedly chosen at random at that game-changing kitchen meeting in 2014, also played a role in the company’s success, Cartwright says – especially in the SME bracket. “The logo, the design, people love it. Small businesses that appreciate details especially enjoy the tiger logo.”
With business humming along both in Britain and abroad, Cartwright says upgrading to a new plant in the medium term is not entirely far-fetched – even though it seemed impossible to fathom a mere three years back. “There’s a strong possibility of us expanding soon if we continue to grow at the same rate,” he says. “It’s realistic to assume we will be building some 50 units a week by 2020 – that’s 20 per cent more than our current capacity.”
To maintain the brand’s current momentum and stay relevant on the mainland, the duo’s focus is squarely on product innovation and maintaining a simple, direct ownership structure. “A lot can change in a short amount of time – we’re the living example. That’s why we want to keep the business as nimble as possible and be able to correct the course when we see fit.”
Ever so courteous, Cartwright doesn’t reference the old Cartwright business when talking about his future vision for the British transport equipment – after all, the company was founded by his grandfather Stanley and father Alan. However, he leaves little doubt that ever since that spring night in 2014, the Cartwright family’s spiritual legacy has found a new home in Tiger Trailers.
“The times are a-changing in trailer building, and rapidly so. Trailers are getting more and more intelligent, and ‘lightweighting’ is a global trend we need to face right now to not fall behind. With Tiger Trailers, we hope to have created a future-proof business that’s worthy of our family name.”