Trevor Ellis

As Palletline celebrates its 25th year, we caught up with long-serving former chairman Trevor Ellis.

Trevor Ellis, chairman of Rutland-based CS Ellis, had an unusual introduction to pallet network Palletline. “I was at a Transport Association dinner in London and was offered Leicestershire,” Ellis said, outlining the sort of deal that feels more in keeping with the Royal Family.

“It was bizarre. It wasn’t Bob [Russet, a network founder] that roped me in; it was John Rayner of Rayner’s Transport, which sadly met its demise some years ago.”

Ellis’s firm, a fourth-generation family-run haulage business founded in 1933, has seen a lot of change. Palletline though, as the originator of the pallet network concept 25 years ago, was something new – in palletised freight at least.

“We nearly got caught up with the Connect UK model – parcels and all things to all men. A lot of hauliers went into that and it was a disaster,” said Ellis of the late 1980s venture that came to market with a similar concept to the pallet network.

Something good

Ellis recalled that plenty of his contemporaries got their fingers burnt, making it all the more remarkable that Palletline launched successfully in 1992, with the Connect UK failure still fresh.

“But you already had a feeling something good was happening, as Palletline’s membership was all the people you respected,” said Ellis of his decision to sign up when the network had been running close to a year.

Despite the original Coventry hub on the Godiva Trading Estate being far from what present home Starley Way is today, he remembers being star-struck initially. “I went to the hub on the first night and thought, blimey, all the superstars you pass on the road are here. A lot of them we’d worked with but typically on an ad-hoc basis. To get them all together and working as a team was pretty remarkable.”

Hub-and-spoke model

Ellis wasn’t that long in membership before Palletline moved to Tyburn Road in Birmingham at the end of 1995 to increase its capacity. “It took us about a month to get our first full load into the hub,” he said.

However, the benefits of Palletline’s hub-and-spoke model soon paid dividends. CS Ellis won Pedigree Petfoods thanks to its membership, a deal described as complicated as it involved collecting 100 pallets a day for trunking into the central hub for onward distribution to locations including prisons and military dog units.

“I went to see it and it said to me ‘we’re used to a five- and six-day service’ and I said we’d be better off delivering to you every two days. It couldn’t believe I was able to offer that, but we did it thanks to Palletline, and it was a success,” said Ellis.

All things end

CS Ellis

Ellis stepped down from his role as chairman of Palletline this summer, having served for 12 years, and was replaced by Jim Welch, MD of Welch Group.

MT asked what he was most proud of during his tenure. “The biggest thing is that we didn’t go for a super hub. We’ve adopted a regional hub model. After all, we’ve all got [a depot] and buildings that we don’t use at night.”

While Palletforce has expanded its site in Burton upon Trent significantly via another parcel of land, and Palletways snapped up the former UK Pallets site to complement its own in Lichfield, Palletline now has six regional hubs based in members’ depots, including at CS Ellis.

“We didn’t buy or rent another square metre of space,” said Ellis. “Having reached 12,000 pallets through the central hub a few years back and capacity, myself and a few others said there’s another way. We literally turned these [regional hubs] on overnight.

“We’re now doing 20,000 pallets a night, and we have capacity to expand – and we are doing fewer miles to get there,” he said.

Keeping the ethos

That success has been hard won but essential for the network’s 77 members. “I think if it wasn’t for Palletline a lot of us wouldn’t be here now. We’d have been fed up with it or drummed into the ground,” said Ellis.

He added that being able to talk to fellow hauliers [through the membership] that have faced similar problems had been invaluable. “You also know that anywhere in the country, you have a friend that will help you – and in our job that’s a big plus. You can’t buy that. It’s one of the things I hope that we keep: that ethos.

“Palletline was the first time I can think of where hauliers actually got together for the benefit of themselves [collectively], and thankfully we’ve kept that alive. We have one mouth to feed [Palletline is owned by its members] and that’s us. It’s a unique band of people.”