From left, Tesco head of transport Nick Dunn, host John Bishop,Tesco regional engineer John LaRosa, Tesco fleet engineer Caroline Milnes, Tesco regional engineering manager Keith Waite, Hankook Tyre UK sales director Brett Emerson and MT editor Steve Hobson

Tesco fleet engineer Caroline Milnes might have had little truck experience, but she and her team are obviously doing something right.

Tesco fleet engineer Caroline Milnes’ winning entry for the Technical Excellence Award proves success does not depend on bulky or over- elaborate presentations; Milnes' succinct four-sided entry told the judges all they needed to know.

“Tesco’s entry was brief and to the point,” said one judge. “They have not hidden behind a glossy presentation,” added another. Our judging panel praised the team for “seeking contributions from all parties” and said the entry was “very informative with a brief breakdown of methods and figures”.

Milnes leads a Tesco Engineering team of five within Tesco Distribution, managing a fleet of 6,000 assets at 28 UK depots serving the Tesco UK estate of more than 3,500 stores. These range from small Express convenience stores to larger Extra stores with petrol filling stations.

The fleet breaks down into 4,000 trailers, of which 700 are double-deckers, 1,342 tractor units, mostly 4x2s, and 470 rigids, plus the fuel fleet of 121 tractors and 122 tankers. Since winning the award, Milnes has also taken responsibility for Tesco’s grocery home delivery operation, which uses 4,700 Sprinter and Daily vans based at six customer fulfilment centres around London and 350 larger Tesco stores throughout the UK.

Remarkable story

The story of how, at the age of 33, Milnes came to be looking after more than 10,000 vehicles for the UK’s largest supermarket is remarkable even by the standards of the logistics industry, where most managers seem to arrive more by accident than design.

“I joined Tesco five years ago in the climate change team in corporate affairs,” she said. “I worked with the environmental manager for distribution and after a year he moved into a transport operations role. He asked if I wanted to come over to distribution to take on that role, and because I found it an interesting area I did.

“I was only doing that job for about six months when the head of engineering asked if I wanted to become his fleet engineer. My first reaction was ‘are you mad? I don’t know one end of a truck from another’! He said ‘it’s fine, don’t worry, you can learn’.

"I was up for the challenge so I did it. I learned a lot and was doing that for over a year when he went off to manage some other projects and I was given the opportunity to take on his role. I’m still here, so I must be doing something right.”

The fact Milnes was able to make this transition with no engineering background was testament to the faith Tesco placed in her as well as her ability to learn on the job.

“One of the things about Tesco is that there are opportunities to get on and if you’ve got the right management skill sets they are transferable,” she said. “For me, it was a challenge. Someone said ‘have a go at this job’ that I knew nothing about and I threw myself in the deep end.

“Now, I like that there is something different every day. You can make some real changes and I enjoy working with our suppliers. We’re a fairly small team and one of the key building blocks, which enables us to achieve the levels of performance we do, is we work well with our suppliers. I love building those relationships.”

Driver feedback

Milnes has created a forum to get better feedback from some of her most important customers – Tesco’s 2,000 drivers.

“We have a driver forum every quarter, and we’ve had great feedback from that,” she said. “For example, we went up to Mercedes to look at a demo vehicle it had built for us. We had one of our driver trainers involved from the start, because we’ve learned it’s better to get them on board from the beginning rather than pick up the pieces afterwards.”

Feedback from the driver forums was that Tesco’s 400hp tractors hauling fully-laden double-deck trailers were under-powered, and as a result Milnes uprated 35 units to 450hp, improving productivity and cutting fuel consumption by 10% on some routes.

“It turned out not only to be better for the drivers, but we returned better fuel consumption,” she said. “We listen carefully and take their feedback on board. They are not so keen on some of the technological advancements like Microlise telematics and using the driver tablet but we work with them to give them the tools they need to do their job.”

Vehicle life

Tesco Distribution works its vehicles hard to make sure the operation remains efficient while delivering the high service levels the stores demand. Average vehicle availability was 98% in 2016. Although Tesco Engineering no longer runs its own workshops, most of the large DCs have on-site vehicle maintenance units (VMUs) run by third-party maintenance providers.

Tesco Carrier Transicold drawbar

“On busy weekends, especially sunny bank holidays, you want every piece of kit on the road,” Milnes said. “It needs to be available so we have the support structures around when we do servicing and MoTs.

“For example, Fridays are a busy day for rigids, but on Sundays they are not so busy so at some sites all the rigid servicing is done then. It’s about working that partnership to know exactly what you can do when, and having the 24/7 on-site support. We are in a very competitive marketplace and we know we need to take cost out of the operation.”

The company is running its vehicles longer if they are on lower mileage routes.

“Previously we would lease all our vehicles, and after five years they were gone,” said Milnes. “Our vehicles in Livingston are doing 100,000 miles a year but a vehicle in Dagenham is probably doing half that. Keeping them for the same amount of time didn’t make sense. So that’s one of the things that we’ve been looking at to reduce cost.”

The changing mix of the Tesco estate is posing challenges to the distribution operation, as most store openings are small convenience stores that are often hard to service.

“Where possible we try to use the biggest trailer we can,” said Milnes. “But in reality, with all the new stores that are opening now, it’s great if you can get in with a large rigid because they’re getting more difficult to deliver to.

“So our rigid numbers are increasing. When we first started opening convenience stores, it was the 10m trailer. Then it became the 8m trailer, then a rigid with an 8m body and now it’s a rigid with a 6m body.”

Competitive tenders

While the majority of Tesco’s store delivery fleet is Mercedes-Benz, it also runs some DAFs, and the fuel fleet is all MAN or DAF.

“We hold competitive tenders every year,” said Milnes. “Obviously it’s not just the purchase price of the vehicle. We look at the whole-life costs, especially in terms of fuel efficiency, and safety features. When Euro-6 came out we did a full fuel economy and reliability test. So we’re constantly reviewing which manufacturer we purchase from.

“We have a unique spec which can make things a bit trickier. But we do keep an eye on residual values which is why you will see the large Actros in front of an 8m trailer. It looks silly but we don’t want to buy specialist lowheight cabs. The residual value doesn’t make it worthwhile.”

Most refrigerated trailers are made by Gray & Adam while Lawrence David is the preferred supplier of curtainsiders. But Milnes has placed orders for some curtainsided trailers with Montracon this year. She is also dipping a toe in the water with moving decks on the latest double-deckers.

“They’re all fixed deck, but we’ve been trialling a floating deck,” Milnes said. “When we started we had three different types of lift on them, but that was causing a lot of problems, so we put lifts in all the DCs and certain stores and just had fixed-deck trailers.

“That model has served us well for a long time. But the floating deck is more mature, the technology has improved and that could open up new stores that we can deliver to with a double-deck rather than a standard 13m.”

Milnes has halved the number of trailers fitted with tail-lifts in order to reduce damage, especially from sideswipes when manoeuvring in tight spaces.

“Historically we would put a tail-lift on every 13m trailer,” she said. “But we worked with the transport operation and decided only 50% of the 2016 acquisition of 13m trailers needed tail-lifts. But all the rigids still have them.”

Just over a third of the Tesco fleet is Euro-6 and Milnes says there was a “slight improvement” in fuel economy over Euro-5. She added: “The latest batch of Mercedes we bought last year with the second-generation engine has seen a big improvement over the old Actros.”

Based at one of Tesco’s national DCs in Daventry, Milnes is only a stone’s throw from Gasrec’s gas refuelling station, and Tesco is again looking at gas vehicles after the failure of its dual-fuel fleet.

“We have got rid of 35 dual-fuel vehicles,” she said. “Dual fuel didn’t work for us. We have trialled the Scania and Iveco 4x2 gas tractors and had a look at Volvo’s forthcoming 460hp gas vehicle. They look a lot more promising than the dual-fuel vehicles.”

Milnes and her boss, Tesco director of transport Nick Dunn, agreed winning the Technical Excellence Award was “very exciting”.

“It was huge recognition for the team on the evening and an even bigger recognition internally when we got back to head office,” said Dunn. “Also among our peers, people who you’ve not seen for a while, will mention it to you. It is a very powerful forum.”

Milnes added: “It brought a smile to my face the moment it was read out. It’s good recognition because we’re a small team, very close. They all work so hard and give 110% every day.”