Preston-based 3PL WH Bowker has taken an eight-year lease on a 165,000sq ft warehouse in Thorne, Doncaster to enable the business to attract new business in the food sector.

WH Bowker director Bill Bowker said: “Our current warehousing estate has been operating at close to full capacity for some time. We have been looking at various options to increase our storage capacity and we’re now pleased to be in position to provide new and existing customers the additional space.”

The site is owned by Unilever and has a capacity of over 31,000 pallets, 16 dock levellers and four floor level doors. It will be BRC food grade accredited in line with Bowker’s Selby, Hull and York DCs.

Commercial director Neil Bowker, pictured, said: “We believe that we have acquired the ideal facility, in a great location for the continued growth of both our warehousing and transport operations.

Neil Bowker 1

“The site’s proximity to Immingham will also significantly assist our international transport operation. With its proximity to Killingholme and Immingham we see the potential for food importers.

“We have some customers who want to expand significantly and our estate is full so we needed some extra capacity.”

Founded in 1919, WH Bowker is now one of the UK’s largest private transport and warehousing operators, specialising in food, pharmaceutical and chemicals. Including Doncaster the estate comprises of over 1.5m sq ft of storage capacity across 12 UK sites.

“Everything is pretty strong at the moment,” said Neil Bowker. “Food grew significantly during Covid and is still generating a lot of enquiries. We see Doncaster as a site for food rather than chemical or MHRA [medicines and healthcare].

“We are in ambient packaged food such as jars and tins not daily products like sandwiches or cakes. Suppliers to the discount retailers are strong customers of ours and they have seen incredible growth.”

While WH Bowker had no presence in Doncaster before the latest deal; its Selby and Hull sites are both around 25 minutes’ drive away.

“We had depots in the vicinity but we see the gateway into Europe being south of Humber currently as there is no service into Hull for our Zeebrugge operation,” said Bowker. “We see it as an opportunity to do some cross-docking and as part of the Palletline network we service Amazon into Doncaster which is only 10 miles away.”

Bowker Thorne 1

Despite the upheaval of Brexit, WH Bowker’s international business has also grown, especially on the North Sea.

“We are shipping into Immingham from Zeebrugge and the Thorne operation will support that,” said Bowker. “We have seen a drop-off of Eastern Europeans coming to the UK so it is a strong market. We use the unaccompanied model so we have partners who pull our equipment to and from the ports.

“We employ the subcontractor to deliver the goods and then we tell him where to reload and put it back on the quayside. We then ship it and do the UK leg.”

WH Bowker is a member of Palletline and Hazchem and since the acquisition of James Nuttall (Transport) in April last year has operated three depots – Preston, Rochdale and Selby – within both networks.

“It serves a purpose for us,” said Bowker. “We are unusual in that we operate a nationwide network whereas most smaller pallet network members use the network to provide a nationwide service. We put the smaller consignments through Palletline and put the groupage consignments together and deliver them on milk runs using our own equipment.

“We use Hazchem with the same model and are its largest inputter.”

Doncaster will employ 50 people, including management, warehouse operatives and HGV drivers. WH Bowker’s UK and European fleet now consists of more than 225 vehicles and 450 trailers and it has not yet been decided how many vehicles will be based at Doncaster.

Bowker centenary 2

“We will have to see how successful we are in generating traffic,” said Bowker. “There are some significant players in the area so hopefully we will move forward with that.

“We are trying to grow the warehousing and what we are looking for within our customer base are people to provide us with warehousing as well as transport activity. We see them going hand in glove but we are still a transport provider as well as a warehousing contractor and revenue from transport is significantly greater than warehousing.”

WH Bowker diversified into car and motorcycle dealerships in 1984 and now retails BMW, Mini and Porsche cars and BMW motorbikes across the North West of England. It closed its Harley-Davidson dealership in Preston after Covid badly affected sales but Bowker said the family firm is not averse to trying new things.

“We are not afraid to put our toe into a new market if an opportunity presents itself,” he said.

WH Bowker’s Selby depot is rail-connected and it currently runs two trains a week into the site carrying stone for a local customer. “We are handling 3,600 tonnes a week,” said Bowker. “That will continue and hopefully grow to three trains a week.”

Rail is however not seen as a solution to the problem of decarbonising Bowker’s operations.

“That is very difficult,” said Bowker. “We are in the process of trying a Volvo 26-tonne electric rigid to see where we can use it and what the future holds in terms of alternative fuels.

“Talking to my brother on the car side there are still major problems finding a charging point that works. The infrastructure is not ready for electric vehicles.

“I went to hear Volvo talking about electric refuse vehicles in London which are working quite well but the problem is getting enough power to the site.”

The firm is however spending nearly £1m on solar panels for its warehouses and dealerships to reduce its reliance on grid electricity and cut its carbon footprint.