Pall-Ex MD Kevin Buchanan, fourth right, and the Pall-Ex team pick up the trophy from Hiab MD Rogier van der Linde, fourth left

Winner of the Team of the Year award was Pall-Ex, which has undergone a period of change and renewal bringing it back to the top of its game.

When MT headed to Coalville, Leicestershire, to visit Team of the Year winner Pall-Ex, there was a sense of a business that has momentum. We spoke to group MD Kevin Buchanan, who joined three years ago after a long tenure at Palletline. In doing so, he accepted the not inconsiderable challenge of putting Hilary Devey’s long-established pallet network back where it wanted to be – at the forefront.

There have since been new faces at the network as part of efforts to renew itself, including second interviewee Adrian Bradley, who moved from Fortec a year ago to take on the crucial position of director of operations.

Although Pall-Ex was delighted to win Team of the Year in 2015, it is clear this latest recognition means even more to Buchanan and Bradley, who see it as vindication of the teams’ hard work since. It has been a Herculean push that has drawn on those in operations, health and safety, IT, office, network and field roles.

“We hadn’t made the sort of progress I knew we could – and that we wanted to make – until Adrian arrived,” said Buchanan, in an office overlooking the network’s cross-dock hub.

As outsiders coming into an established business, Buchanan and Bradley came to the

same conclusion regarding the changes that needed to be made. “There was a general problem in Pall-Ex – it had stopped challenging itself,” said Buchanan.

Bradley added: “Taking responsibility for themselves and knowing what looked good were the things I identified [for the staff]. There were a lot of people who had been in Pall-Ex a long time – good people who were really motivated. What we brought to the business was a vision of something more. It was about standing back and understanding where you want to go.”

“We got into a culture where decisions were only ever made upstairs,” said Buchanan, “and there hadn’t been enough appropriate empowerment at the various levels throughout the business. We had unwittingly slowed the development to just a few people, which is not healthy. Now we’re much more agile.”

With owner Devey’s blessing, Buchanan, Bradley and the operations team came up with a plan. Business objectives were set and they filtered into departmental objectives, which in turn became individuals’ goals. “And that’s the way we work now; it hadn’t been like that for some time,” said Buchanan.

There is a team of approximately 90 at the hub, and 130 including those in the field.

“Everybody in the business is pushing to the same goal – service quality. That in turn drives the profit,” said Bradley.

Changes included: a redesign of the hub (based on team feedback); introduction of a hub planning workbook; a cloud auditing tool; revisions to the scan and tracking system (to alert forklift drivers to the priority of the load, for example); and the introduction of the network’s first hub

improvement manager (Richard Leedham) to troubleshoot specific projects.

“We now make more money from moving fewer pallets because we have less waste,” said Buchanan.

Indeed, the network’s awards submission put this at bottom-line savings of £500,000 a year, underlining that good teamwork pays.

Right first time

One of the things Bradley quickly realised was that space at the hub wasn’t being used as well as it might be. “We rehandled about 20% of the volume through multiple movements extracting it from the night sort. There were some areas we didn’t utilise in the building that gave us more floor space. So we implemented a system where it was a single handle for each pallet,” said Bradley.

“With economy and next-day service you want to prioritise your next-day freight to be handled at night,” added Buchanan. “But you have an element of freight, probably 20% to 25% of total volume, coming in at night and you need to put it somewhere, and if you don’t put it in the right place you end up putting your economy pallets on the trucks instead of the next-day pallets. That process had been diluted over a period of time so it was no longer efficient.”

Bradley continued: “Every depot now has multiple bays linked to service, for example next day and economy. So every pallet goes in the member’s outbound bay and we have a planning department that communicates with our members on traction and usage. We know every night what we are going to load to make sure every next-day pallet leaves the building on time. Then we use the economy as capacity fillers where we have space, or it’s implemented into our day sort. Forklift damages, extra couriers and insurance claims are all significantly reduced from where we were last year.”

Team of the YearPallex

The recently renewed forklift trucks, which had scanning equipment, have been reconfigured thanks to the IT team. Consignments feature barcodes, but traditionally if a barcode got defaced or the order was changed they could give misleading or incorrect information. Now a forklift driver will be told if the pallet is priority or economy on the screen in front of them. As that information comes from the master system, it is always up to date.

The hub planning workbook is a refinement of industry best practice, but Bradley, who spent 15 years at UPS, measures production and links it to the volume forecast (based on 20 years’ of Pall-Ex data).

“Ultimately I have a plan for the next year that tells me on any given night – to within 100 pallets – how many people I’ll need at the hub,” he said.

Basing resourcing on data rather than gut instinct has also helped when it comes to agency workers. Pall-Ex looks to bring in and keep the best agency workers on a temporary to permanent basis. The visibility provided by the workbook has enabled it to get workers in and train them up ahead of crunch periods.

While Pall-Ex has always had a way of reporting discrepancies at pallet level, Bradley wanted to introduce a load-quality tool or process for trunk vehicles.

“It [the cloud-based auditing tool] looks at the overall quality of the load on a trunk. Then if it needs to it can be specific at pallet level. It looks at how it was loaded, how it was strapped, and the quality of freight in regards to our master agreements,” said Bradley. “We want to be known as the premium brand – the quality provider. One of the key things in that is to have less damage, fewer insurance claims and to be more reliable than our competitors,” said Buchanan.

He explained that the auditing tool is more effective in flagging up issues, especially with depot and business owners that aren’t typically on the shop floor when loading occurs. “Have you seen the way your customer’s pallet is packed? It’s never going to get there. So, can we come with you, talk to your customer and discuss the requirement in a different way so it transits through the facility better?” said


Rewarding hard work

While money may not be everything, it can be an effective motivator. Pall-Ex has created a pot of cash and – from August this year – said to the team in the hub that if they could reduce the error level by half, they could have it.

“So instead of saying here is your pay rise, we said we’d like to give you more than that but we want you to do this. They got excited about it, and it’s delivered,” said Buchanan.

Generally the network is now a happier place. “It’s fair to say we went backward from a morale and cultural point of view for a bit before we went forward. We had a business that worked in the same way for some time.

“Then we came in and said, that’s not good enough, we need to change and be better. And that was difficult for people who had been here for a long time.

“So we had people out of sorts, and some chose to leave and not stick with it. But now we have an environment where they feel it is within their grasp to earn more money, and to change things. We’re getting people coming to us with ideas of how things can be better. So self-improvement and empowerment has become a powerful thing, not just across Adrian’s team but the whole organisation,” said Buchanan.

He added: “Human beings are funny things. No one comes to work to do a bad job and most people are proud to say ‘I work at the best pallet network in the world’. We won a Motor Transport Award for being the best at what we do.”


  • Outbound scanning improved 33% (target 30%)
  • Inbound scanning by 50% (target 30%)
  • Decrease of 16.6% in hub discrepancies raised or lost or damaged pallets (target 15%)
  • Manning cost per pallet reduced by 11p (target 10p)


Adrian Bradley says it has been a team effort. However, he also has some key personnel in the day and night operations at the hub. These include Richard Southern, general hub manager; Richard Leedham, hub improvement manager; night hub manager Chris Mason; Toby Iliffe, hub co-ordinator; Tommy Richards, night shift senior supervisor; and Shane Wheatley, night shift senior supervisor.