David Wells 2016 (3)

It’s fair to say FTA chief executive David Wells has got plenty on his plate right now. Not only is the logistics industry stuck squarely in the middle of Brexit, but a range of what he calls “other big disruptors” are making these increasingly challenging times for his members.

However, as we sit down to talk, he quickly rejects the suggestion that the job he took on back in 2015 has turned into a bit of a headache.

“It’s exciting,” he counters. “For many of my members it’s worse than exciting, it’s scary. But my mantra is don’t get stressed about things you can’t control. What I can control is doing my best for them.”

So when it comes to dealing with the government over Brexit, he doesn’t feel like he’s banging his head against a brick wall?

“I’ve had the privilege of going into Downing Street and meeting government at the highest level,” he insists. “Did I set out in my career saying that’s what I want to achieve? No, but on behalf of my members I’m trying to do the best I can.”

As you’d expect, Wells puts Brexit top of the agenda during our meeting - “the rest of the domestic agenda has basically stopped,” he says. But with his views here well documented, he’s also keen to guide the conversation onto what he feels are bigger, longer-term issues affecting hauliers.

“About 80% of freight movement in the UK goes by road but big disruptors are coming,” he explains, “and we need to be ready for that - new technology, digitisation, electric vehicles, driverless vehicles... Brexit is a short to medium-term issue. But the others are more fundamental because they impact on infrastructure and what facilities you need.

“Brexit is about borders and tariffs - friction to trade. They’re significant disruptors in the short term but these other technologies have the potential to disrupt the industry in a much more fundamental way. Our bigger members are able to plan for them but the smaller ones don’t have the capacity. We need to help them.”

Healthy competition

In such fast-moving times it’s also interesting to hear Wells’ opinion on the other big industry trade association – the RHA. Are the two bodies comparable and how well do they work together?

He quickly laughs off the idea of a major rivalry but admits there are “differences in scale and culture”.

“There’s a healthy competition,” he says. “[Chief executive] Richard Burnett has been good for the RHA. He’s brought energy and dynamism and moved it on. He’s also stabilised their membership, which is growing. He’s visible and delivering for members. He joined in 2014, nine months before I took over here.”

But Wells describes the FTA membership as “more corporate” and reveals that this year’s turnover will be around £32m whereas the RHA figure is “about a third of that”.

What that means, he explains, is that he can afford 30 people in his policy team.

“We have specialists in a lot of areas – decarbonisation, Brexit, O-licensing. We have two people based in Brussels, regional committees and people who manage those regions. We have a lot of strength in depth. We have consultants on sustainability, we have a driver training business, qualifications...”

'Not just Yorkie men’

But what both organisations also need to focus on, he admits, is changing the perception of road transport and bringing in new blood.

“We have a job of work to do to help the public understand that the industry is an exciting place to work and that truck drivers aren’t just about Yorkie men, they’re about customer service,” he insists. “They’re about delivering a vital part of the UK economy.

“People think the logistics industry is about trucks and warehouses but there’s more to it than that. The retail industry is changing at an astronomic rate. This country leads the world in terms of its logistics industry and its creative solutions to delivery demands. The public sit down on Amazon Prime and want it the next day and it arrives. But the connectivity and the stock management to get that product to the door is highly complex."

Wells returns to the idea that the industry is undergoing significant change and will need to adapt to the new demands this is placing on operators.

“The future will be about a much more integrated supply chain and operators will be much more multimodal – mode agnostic,” he predicts. “That’s why we strengthened our multimodal offering with the acquisition  of an air cargo security and dangerous goods training business, Training Team. It helps us engage with members in that space.”

But what will also dominate the haulage landscape going forward is “digitalisation”, he says. Essentially, what use can the industry make of the data it’s got and what value can it drive out of that data?

“We have data around drivers, vehicles, warehouses, safety…” he says. “How can you use that to make your business safer, more efficient, more sustainable?

“So digitisation of data is a big topic. And also, what use can the industry make of the increases in robotics and artificial intelligence [AI]? We’re starting to see robots that can do picking and packing. They can unload a vehicle, take the pallets off. Where does that end?”

The obvious answer is that it will end in job losses, and Wells readily admits new technology creates challenges - but the industry needs to retrain those employees and make them productive somewhere else.

“You can almost include autonomous vehicles within the robotics environment,” he continues, “because it’s the same sort of technologies. Our position on them is if it’s safe you do it - but there are big hurdles to be overcome. It’s difficult to see how you’d take a driverless vehicle into central London."

Driver shortage

Ironically, a more pressing issue for hauliers right now is the growing driver shortage which Wells admits is “concerning”.

“In the last five years the industry has made up the shortfall by recruiting eastern Europeans,” he says. “But some have gone back because of the weakness of the pound and Brexit uncertainty.

“And the other issue is that the demographics of the industry are changing. The average age of a truck driver is about 47. If you don’t recruit people the average age goes up.

“There are hardly any women drivers - it’s 3%,” he says. “And younger people don’t want to do it, they want a 9 to 5 job. It’s not the deregulated industry it used to be. You’re now measured on hours, how efficiently you drive the truck, how fast you can deliver. You’ve got all the congestion, cyclists; these are big challenges.”

The skills challenge isn’t confined purely to the haulage industry, of course - a point Wells readily agrees with. He describes former and current government policy which pushes everybody into university as “a mistake” which has led to an unbalanced workforce.

“Sadly it’s filled a lot of young people’s heads with the idea that they can take on the world and be the next Bill Gates or Richard Branson. Well, you could but you've got to work at it to get there.

“And on top of that, the facilities for drivers are almost non-existent. The government has been closing lay-bys. If you go to a service station you see HGVs parking down the slip road. There’s nowhere to go. So is it an attractive, Wifi-connected job with a balanced home life? The answer is no.”

Turning to emissions, Wells reveals he’s been badgering the government to think more creatively about meeting its carbon objectives. Maybe by allowing longer trailers, for example.

“What gets in the way of that is people aren’t prepared to put their heads above the parapet and say, politically, that it’s the right thing to do,” he explains. “They say it’s not a vote winner so they’re not going to do it.

“But if trucks won’t become longer, if they go electric, they’ll definitely become heavier - because of the battery pack that’s required to drive the things.”

Like many, Wells feels much more needs to be done before electric trucks are a realistic option for every haulier.

“Range is an issue, charging points are an issue, and availability,” he explains. “You need quite a high power ampage supply to charge an electric vehicle quickly. Is that power supply available to industrial estates and warehouses and depots? No it’s not. That’s part of the challenge the government faces in driving people towards electric vehicles. The supply infrastructure just isn’t there.”

But ultimately, despite the challenges that lie ahead, Wells is clearly enjoying the job more than ever. A big Spurs fan, he reveals he’s even started keeping tabs on lower league football teams in an effort to forge stronger bonds with his staff: “The president of the FTA is now the owner and chairman of Walsall,” he laughs. “He talks non-stop about Walsall! I’ve started following them on YouTube so I can work out what mood he’ll be in when he rings me up."

“I’ve got a great team and I’m really proud of them,” he concludes. “The FTA is a great organisation. It’s a great industry to work in. It’s never dull and no two days are the same. It’s a fantastic job.”