The first numbers that jump out of the Top 100 2012 are the rise in average turnover – up 8.5% to £162.4m and the even bigger decline in average profit – down 70% to just £1.4m. This means an industry that is essential to the UK economy is surviving – just – on margins of less than 1%. That is clearly not sustainable, as such a low level of profit makes it extremely difficult to invest in fleets and other assets needed to merely stay in the game, never mind move the industry forward.


Turnover Latest£162,467,912
Turnover Previous Year£149,630,499
Profit Latest£1,432,650
Profit Previous Year£4,779,970
Employees Latest1,956
Employees Previous Year2,016
Sales per Employee£109,313
Profit per Employee£3,964
Change in profit per employee-56.33
Return on Sales0.86%

The increase in average turnover is probably more due to takeovers and mergers than significant organic growth among the leading players. Kuehne+Nagel’s acquisitions added more than £100m in turnover, Yodel (still trading as Home Delivery Network in its last set of published accounts) virtually doubled in size with its acquisition of DHL’s Day Domestic arm, and Norbert Dentressangle’s spending spree helped to add £160m turnover. The low levels of profit will come as no surprise to many. Costs – especially fuel – keep on rising and, in a market that certainly feels like it is in recession even if the official numbers are showing weak economic growth, stiff competition means it is nigh on impossible to increase rates to keep pace with costs.

But it is not all doom and gloom. There are still plenty of good, well-run firms out there managing to turn a decent profit. And a key figure that better reflects financial health is return on capital employed (Roce). This is not included in the Top 100 because the move to off-balance sheet funding of assets such as vehicles and warehouses makes it hard to calculate for many operators. But a spot of number crunching on the accounts of CM Downton – the 2012 MT Haulier of the Year and undoubtedly a very successful firm – reveals that while it makes a much more respectable than average 7% pre-tax profit margin, its Roce is 15%. That is not just respectable in haulage – it stands comparison with some of the most successful companies in Britain, including Tesco and Easyjet (both 13%) and Barclays Bank (7% return on equity).

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