After more than 40 years in the industry, Peter Larner retires from his role as MD of Essex tanker operator Suckling Transport on 31 October. He tells the history of his world in five objects to Steve Hobson.

A quietly spoken, thoughtful man, Peter Larner has built a reputation for keeping a cool head when all around are losing theirs. When MT asked for an interview to mark his retirement – or more accurately shift from full-time MD and part-time paperback writer to full-time writer – his immediate and typically modest reaction was “only if you think it would be of any interest to your readers”.

Once convinced it would be, he told his life story using five treasured objects he keeps in a box on his desk.

The first is a medal presented by US secretary for defence Donald Rumsfeld as a thank you for arranging a night time delivery of fuel to a US Army airbase during the 2000 fuel protests that had brought the country to a standstill. The medal embodies Larner’s relationships with his customers and the wider public.

“It has the crossed flags of the UK and US on one side and on the other it says, in true John Wayne fashion: ‘You can’t duel without fuel’,” says Larner.

He says the 2000 fuel blockades – the only time Tony Blair’s government lost control of the country according to his communications chief Alastair Campbell – were a “strange time” when people felt empowered and able to make a difference.

“People decided to go and stand outside an oil terminal to protest about fuel prices for some reason,” he says. “Instead of picketing the houses of parliament they picketed an oil terminal – it made no sense to me at all. It did influence government – but only to make them think about how they could overcome a similar protest if it happened again, rather than addressing their concerns.”


Larner believes more could be done by the transport industry to lobby government, but says that ultimately operators have to just get on with the job rather than complain about fuel duty or foreign competition.

“I don’t think we influence government very much. The FTA does a good job though I am often seen as one of their biggest critics. Over the last 10 years they have almost become the political wing of the transport industry – and it is flattering when the secretary of state asks you in for a meeting so you are never going to say ‘no’ – I’ve been there and done it. Does it achieve very much – I’m not sure.

“If you are running a company, whether diesel if £1 a litre or £2 it is for you to recover that from your customers – it’s the same price for everybody. If my customers won’t pay the correct price I walk away. Part of the problem with this industry is that people don’t walk away from bad business. Things like managing bad debts and cashflow are my job, not the government’s.”

The second object is a small statuette of Nemesis, the Greek goddess of balance, justice, retribution and vengeance, which represents Larner’s relationships with some of the most important people in his working life – drivers.

“Every super hero always needs a super villain and with me it’s always been the drivers,” he says. “Truck drivers are unique people – they are not at all like bus or coach drivers who are far more gregarious. Because truck drivers spend all day alone they have plenty of time to think.”

Larner says people in the industry either love trucks or drivers – and he has no interest in trucks, or cars for that matter. “I love drivers – they are such interesting characters,” he says. “Some see it as ‘them versus us’ and want to push you to the limit. We have been in a very unionised environment for a few years and there is good and bad to that. It helps us a lot, as being in a union constrains them to a set of rules and some don’t like that.”

So why Nemesis? “Over the years you do remember the ones who cause the problems,” Larner says simply. “And I have never tolerated anyone breaking the rules.”


Drivers today require very different skills than 40 years ago, with modern trucks being easier to drive but their performance being constantly monitored via tracking and telematics.

“The first driver to impress me was Johnny Richards who like me was employed by Ross Garages of Penarth,” says Larner. “Johnny drove around the country for a week finding his own loads for his 45ft flatbed trailer, reporting back to me on a Saturday morning with his receipts and details of the rates he had agreed.

“The introduction of computers has meant we have gained technical knowledge – but that’s not wisdom. I can make a driver technically competent now because with onboard computers I can tell him exactly where he is going wrong even though I don’t know how to drive a truck. When I came into the industry they had life skills and lived off their wits.”

This might be one reason the industry now struggles to recruit good drivers – though Suckling does not have a recruitment problem.

“We are fortunate as people aspire to become fuel tanker drivers,” he says. “But there is a shortage. We train Army and Royal Air Force personnel to drive petrol tankers and when these young guys leave the forces hopefully they will come back here and knock on our door. Our average age is over 46 which is worrying. Part of the problem is that our insurers won’t let us employ under-25s – that gets us off to a bad start as we can’t have a youth programme.”

When asked which piece of legislation has caused him most concern over the years, surprisingly perhaps Larner cites the Equality Act 2010 which banned discrimination on grounds of age and effectively means employers cannot force staff to retire.

“This is a real problem,” he says. “I could end up with a driver who is 90 years old driving a petrol tanker and I don’t think anyone really wants that. Yes, there is an HGV medical – but my mum could pass that. We are trying to establish a company default retirement age of 65 but we have to treat every case on its merits.”

This will be helped by the arrival of compulsory workplace pensions, as Larner argues that few people really want to work on past 65 unless they have poor pension provision.

“Why would someone want to work beyond 65 – the answer is often that they haven’t provided for themselves,” says Larner. “We have been trying for years but still around 10% of our workforce aren’t in the company pension scheme. We have to convince them it’s the right thing to do.”

Family affair

The third object in Larner’s box is a letter from the late David Woodcock, the third MD of family haulier Jess B Woodcock & Son, which Larner joined in 1973. Larner “stumbled into the industry” in 1969 after a brief career as a sports journalist, his first job being with McVeigh Transport in the East End of London.

While the boss of McVeigh George Ealden was a great early influence, Larner describes Woodcock as his “mentor” and is full of praise for the family firms where he has spent most of his working life.

“I liken the family haulage firms like Brain Haulage, Drapers and RJB Neil to the big ranchers in the Wild West – they were famous people,” he says. “Many of them started after the First World War when the first motorised vehicles came back. When nationalisation came, the BRS vehicles were painted green and red, which why after that a lot of liveries were green and red – no one wanted to repaint them, so they just painted Jess B Woodcock on the side. That was before my time but I understand the history of how we have got to where we are.”

Larner joined Suckling in 1987, succeeding Woodcock as MD in 1994, and the letter was written by Woodcock when he retired in 1999. “I have always kept my family life separate from my work life, but it showed to me you can treat your business as a family,” he says. “That was proved to me right at the start of my career when a driver came in on a Monday morning, threw me up against a wall and hit me for taking away his Saturday overtime. It was a lesson I needed to learn because I didn’t appreciate what it meant to him – they were family and I needed to understand what was important to them.”

Suckling was owned by truck sales and repair business Harris Daf until May 2013, when it was acquired by another family firm, Silvio Bertani Group (SBG), an Italian petroleum tanker specialist that also has operations in Spain and France. Larner will be succeeded as MD by Jesus Ciria, a Spaniard from a long established tanker operator acquired earlier by SBG.

Larner is grateful for the autonomy he enjoyed under Harris and is confident Suckling will prosper under its new owners.

“A lot of people think I own Suckling because I have always called it ‘my’ company and maybe I am its surrogate mother!” he says. “We weren’t a core activity for Harris so they just gave it to me and told me to get on with it.

“SBG is a family firm and Mr Bertani still works in the business with his daughter. They have a similar culture to ours and I get on with them very well. The change of ownership isn’t why I am leaving - I was always going to retire now and maybe that’s partly why Harris decided to sell.”Peter-Larner


The fourth object is a candle, which reminds Larner to shine light on the good ideas and innovation that come from his team – including drivers - and also serves as a reminder of the occasional generosity of complete strangers.

“I was on holiday in Italy in 1995, and was visiting Switzerland,” he says. “This was before the euro and all I had was lira. We were walking around an old monastery on top of a mountain and I wanted to take something back to remind me where we had been. I went to buy a candle but they wouldn’t accept lira. A German couple insisted on buying the candle for me and it taught me you cannot have lived until you have a done a good deed for someone who cannot possibly repay you. I can’t bear to be in anyone’s debt but I love that concept.”

Larner has had plenty of experience of having his ideas initially rejected and so is much more willing to listen to suggestions from his own team.

“The government asked the FTA to define an environmentally friendly truck,” he says. “They said they couldn’t so I launched the Eco Guardian project and it was a great success. Then came TankShare, the Zero Incident Project and the 1mKm Challenge. There are lots of companies whose employees are having good, innovative ideas but unless the culture of your business provides fertile ground on which those seeds can be sown, it’s pointless.”


The fifth and final object is a recipe for seafood risotto, a reminder of the importance of switching off from work.

“As I became engrossed in my work, I found it difficult to relax when I got home,” says Larner. “When I was asked by Motor Transport to complete their 60 second interview several years ago one question was when was I at my happiest. It was when I was at home on a Friday night, cooking seafood risotto for my wife and I. Cooking requires your full attention and by absorbing myself in one activity I managed to forget – for a while – my work.”

Now that he is retiring from his role as MD and industry champion – Larner has served on a number of RHA and FTA committees for over 35 years – he can focus full-time on his other career as a novelist. With five books already published, he says: “At some time in their lives, most people think a song lyric has been written for them. Whenever I hear the Beatles’ lyric ‘he’s got a steady job but he wants to be a paperback writer’ I can’t help but think they are writing about me.”

You can’t touch me, I’m part of the union

Larner has had long experience of dealing with trades unions representing drivers, and has strong views on the drop in standards of union officials. This was typified by the tanker driver dispute of 2012, which left many operators mystified about what was the real issue.

“Part of the problem was the quality of the full time officers,” he says. “I was brought up with officers in the 1970s when there was a lorry drivers strike and the winter of discontent – much more serious problems than this generation will ever see, I hope. Diesel prices went up 40% that winter – these were crazy times but we got through them because we had good full-time officers. They were professionals and a pleasure to work with.

“Today you have weak officers and they allow the drivers and shop stewards too much power but they are not skilled enough in negotiations to be given that role. We are lucky to have an exceptional officer in Tony Devlin to work with but too often pragmatism and prudence seem to have been lost in the last few years.”

Suckling’s drivers voted against strike action in 2012 after Larner wrote to each one urging them to think carefully about taking industrial action.

“I don’t think the union explained very well what the dispute was about,” he says. “I wrote personal letters to all our 150 employees to say ‘if you understand what this is about, perhaps you can tell me, and make sure you do know what it is about before you vote’. They voted against which was pleasing for me because we have a good relationship with our drivers.”

As part of the resolution of the dispute, four working groups were set up, though not much positive has come out of them according to Larner.

“One of them was about pay even though everyone said the dispute wasn’t about pay,” he says. “The union asked us to conduct an independent benchmarking exercise so IDS did that and the working party closed off. I do use that benchmarking so it was useful even though the union doesn’t appear to have done anything with it.

“Another was on pensions, though again it was not as a lot of people thought a campaign for final salary pensions. The union required that we had pensions that were transferable without penalties, and we did that.

“The others were on health and safety and training, which got put together and out of that came the Downstream Oil Distribution Forum (DODF) which involved Acas, Skills for Logistics, the government and the hauliers. That has become a permanent forum and its main outcome has been driver passports for tanker drivers. That is useful though it’s not a massive step, as trying to impose a generic set of rules on individual work places is quite difficult.”

Safety – good but could do better

While UK roads are statistically among the safest in the world, Larner has been a long time safety campaigner and argues the transport industry could do more to cut accidents.

“We haven’t even started – there are loads of things we can do,” he says. “The way we approach our training is fantastic now with the technology we have. We have computers in the cabs and with our skills builder programme all the data goes into a spreadsheet so we can identify skills shortages and correct them. The information is all out there but I question how many people use that technology.

“The benefits of creating a good safety culture are enormous but it is very hard to do.”

While the O-licence system sets basic standards of operational compliance and safety, Larner worries about the levels of enforcement.

“Governments believe that if they introduce a law it will make something happen, but in practice it doesn’t. You can’t introduce a law unless you are prepared to police it,” he says. “You have to change the culture – if you introduce laws the bottom 5% of the industry will just ignore them. You have to persuade them there are benefits in being safe.

“We have eliminated speeding, no matter what. We have a line that we will not cross for whatever reason – it is me that ends up on a corporate manslaughter charge and I am not having it. The O-licence says I will not permit offences, and to me that means I have to take a proactive view to make sure my staff do not permit it. I police it and I enforce it.”