Hilary Devey entered her company’s 20th anniversary party with a person on each side holding her up. As the trio inched its way to the stage, it looked as if something was very wrong.
But then, surprising everyone, Devey stood unaided for 25 minutes and spoke passionately about the journey of Pall-Ex and its members. She had two broken bones in her back.
The grit and perseverance needed to make that speech reflects the dogged dedication Devey has maintained throughout Pall-Ex’s 20 years. From portable cabins in a former airfield to a £60m-a-year business with a purpose-built hub in Leicestershire, Devey has built an empire that she has never stopped fighting for.
“How I made that speech, I will never know,” she tells MT months later. “I was in agony. I wish I could rewind the clock and do it again, because it should have been a moment in my life that was joyous and monumental.”
As she drags on a cigarette in her plush home, surrounded by human-sized flower arrangements, it is hard to picture the Hilary Devey of 1996, who sold everything she owned to get her business off the ground. But the hard-working woman from Bolton has not lost her humility.
Devey started Pall-Ex with £112,000, cobbled together from the sale of her house, her car, “everything I could sell, down to the last bit of jewellery”.
“But it was an exciting time,” she says. “We laughed as hard as we worked.”
Devey has worked hard to maintain that spirited family feel throughout the network’s growth and regularly hosts dinner parties for members in her home. The network was launched with 29 members, 20 of which remain with Pall-Ex.
But Devey does not let the community spirit interfere with business. She once had to drop an underperforming member from the network, which shut down his business. “That was difficult,” she recalls, “but we’ve all got messy jobs we need to do. I did what I could to help – I found his daughter a job and sold his trucks for him.
“But business is business. It doesn’t mean I don’t go home and lose a night’s sleep over it – I often do. But I know what needs to be done and I do it.”
Heart and soul
To Devey, business means dedication; the former BBC Dragons’ Den star has no time for members dual-running with other networks. “I want them to be Pall-Ex through and through.
“Sometimes, particularly in the more peripheral postcodes, I understand they need the drop density and collection density to make even a 2% margin. Sometimes it’s a necessary evil.
"But we do tell them that if we find someone who isn’t dual-networking, then we will ask them to leave our network. We will always go for the single network focus because I invest everything I’ve got into them, so equally I demand the same.”
It’s no secret in the industry that Devey often suffers with ill-health, much of which stems from a stroke she suffered in 2009. Her well being, she says, is included in the list of investments she’s made in her business.
“I’ve destroyed my health. I had a major stroke, and I’ve never recovered – and nor will I. I’m going to have paralysis in my left side forever. All the millions of miles I’ve driven have destroyed my back and bones; I have poured absolutely everything into this business.”
But the fast-paced road transport industry has a knack of keeping people hooked and Devey, who turned 60 this year, is no exception. “I thought I’d be retired and out of it by now. But I’m more involved than I ever have been.
“This industry is habitual. It’s very hard to extricate yourself once you’re in it. Logistics is immediate. That means it’s challenging, it’s exciting and no day will be the same as the day before. Anything that you take on or go into will always come second to that.”
One thing Devey has no time for is discussing her experiences as a woman in the industry, and she is quick to reprimand MT for broaching the subject. “The reason we have a shortage of women in this sector is because there’s far too many people asking that question ‘What is it like to work in a man’s world?’.
“I expect respect and I give respect, it doesn't matter whether I’m a man or a woman. People should stop talking about it, then more women might get on board and see for themselves. It makes me angry.”
This isn’t to say Devey hasn’t been met with opposition during her career. “Of course I had the usual misogynistic comment when I set up Pall-Ex like ‘can you drive love?’. But I’d just say ‘no, I can’t, but I can damn well run a business better than you can’. It will always be a male-dominated industry. That’s the nature of the beast. But if you’re proficient at what you’re doing, then gender doesn’t matter.”
Tail between legs, MT hastily changes the subject to the acquisition of member hauliers; earlier this year Pall-Ex bought long-time members Shears Brothers and Bowden Transport.
But Devey says she has no intention of buying more haulage companies unless she absolutely has to.
“Who in their right mind would want to run a haulage company? With Shears and Bowden, we’ve struggled. We’re 300 miles up the road from them, and a lot of people can’t even run a transport business when they’re there! We don’t think we’re anything special.”
As the third pallet network to open in the UK, Pall-Ex has seen much change in the sector, which Devey says has highlighted pitfalls she is wary of falling into. “We’ve got to be careful because pallets are falling into the same den that parcels fell into – lowering the margin to such an extreme that it ceased to be worth operating.
“I walked away from a huge account with Ceva Logistics that Palletways took. And I walked away from DHL’s business, which another network took and forced its members to do at a much reduced rate.
"We’re not volume monsters, and I don’t believe in crapping on anybody. We might not be the biggest volume player, but would I want to be? Not really. If they want volume they go to Palletways. If they want quality, they come to Pall-Ex.”
Avoiding huge pallet volumes extends to Devey’s view on hubs. Palletforce recently opened a 620,000ft2 super hub; a beast compared with Pall-Ex’s 250,000ft² site.
But size isn’t everything, Devey insists. “It’s not that biggest is best. They’re big greedy monsters, these hubs, and you need to keep them full.” Her purpose-built hub, she adds, is the thing she’s most proud of from Pall-Ex’s 20 years of life.
The last four of those 20 years have seen Devey and her team “clean up” and restructure the business after a former management team drove the business into debt and lost customers.
“Had that team continued, Pall-Ex wouldn’t exist. We’re still clearing up their mess. They cost me a lot of money, they cost the business a lot of money. We lost focus and we lost members.
“We’ve written off a lot of bad debts that needed writing off. All the mess has been swept out into the open and all the write-offs have been done, and we’re set going forward.”
As is the story across the pallet network sphere, Pall-Ex sees growth in B2C deliveries as its key focus and the network has spent £1.4m on IT in the past year. “I want our technology to be as good as DPD’s – and this time next year, it will be.”
A future anchored in home delivery, though, triggers the question of pallet weight limits and what is safe for a driver to unload – an issue Pall-Ex has been vocal on.
“There should be a 1-tonne limit. I can see another fatality looming if we don’t grasp the nettle, so Pall-Ex is grasping the nettle, but it should be legislation across the transport sector.”
Another difficulty for the pallet networks as they strive to expand, according to Devey, is the declining number of hauliers in the UK and a mature market of networks working against each other to gain and retain the strongest membership. “There are so many networks and they’re all competing for the same slice of pie.”
In this vein, she doesn’t think there is space in the market for Principle Pallets, the possible new entry to the market headed up by former Fortec directors Neil Hodgson and Marcus Fischer.
“I don’t see a place for them. Not just because of the age and maturity of the market, but because the hauliers aren’t there. There’s no need for another network. I wish them [Hodgson and Fischer] all the luck in the world, but I don’t think they’ll hack it.”
Unlike many of the big names in pallets – Palletforce CEO Michael Conroy in particular – Devey doesn’t think market consolidation is the way forward. “I know Conroy would like to buy someone. But how is he going to do it? There are still only about 126 post codes in the UK. And if he buys a network, he’s got members in those areas. So I don’t know what he would do.”
Whether or not the market consolidates, it must still face a foe common to the whole transport sector: Brexit. Devey, who was a vocal Remain campaigner, says everyone is going to take a hit when the UK leaves the EU, but businesses have to get on with it.
“Yes, I was a Remainer. But I’m not a remoaner. I don’t think half the people who voted to leave know why they did it.
"Brexit will affect every business. Perhaps not this year, or even the year after, but the year after that you will see a slowing in manufacturing and investment in the UK. In two years the ramifications will come home to roost. But that said, the UK is a proud and strong country, and we managed before we were in the EU. So why shouldn’t we be able to do it again?”
But with a strong and expanding market on the continent and a stable financial performance in the UK, Pall-Ex trucks look set to remain a common sight on the country’s motorways.
Speaking to Devey in her immaculate London townhouse, it is clear money is no issue for the 60-year-old. And with her dedicated involvement and control over her empire, it is no wonder Pall-Ex has never been floated on the stock market to put Devey at risk of interference from shareholders.
But as she looks towards slowing down, MT asks whether this is something we might see in the not-too-distant future. “Never say never,” she says with a wry smile. “Never say never.”