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Profile: Champion Hire Ltd : Worthy Champion
Sheffield-based Champion Hire Ltd, which has five depots covering the North of England and the Midlands, is this year celebrating its 50th anniversary. Alan Guthrie traces the company’s fascinating development.
Champion Hire was originally established as ‘Hire it’ in December 1968. Since then it has grown to become a well-known specialist hirer of plant, tools and equipment to the construction and civil engineering industries. The company first opened as ‘Hire it’ based at 323 Abbeydale Road, Sheffield, when John Booth, who had previously run another plant business - Walter Ames (Plant Hire) Ltd - and Keith White, today Champion Hire’s MD, who had been a former employee of the same company, decided to form the new venture.
“Booth was working in Manchester during the five year period after Walter Ames had been sold,” recalls Keith White. “He was under contract not to start any similar plant hire business (mechanical plant) in the areas where Walter Ames had traded. During his time working for Atcost Engineering in Manchester, he saw HSS launch a depot there. HSS was then a subsidiary of SGB, the largest scaffolding hire company in the UK at that time.
“After three years working for someone else (Atcost), Booth wanted to get back to working for himself and thought that a business hiring non-mechanical plant would be a good route. Early in September 1968, he telephoned me and put the idea to me, asking if I would be interested in joining him, on the understanding he would remain working for Atcost until the end of his contract two years hence, and in line with his agreement in respect of the sale of Walter Ames.”
The original name
The company’s original ‘Hire it’ name, which was refused incorporation back in 1968, became the title everybody knew the business by, even though the company was incorporated in 1969 as Champion Hire Ltd. This was because the original ‘Hire it’ logo was used to precede the company’s name, as in “Hire it @ Champion Hire Ltd.” ‘Hire it’ stuck and 50 years later, the company says, many people still know it by the original name. It also points out that the resemblance of this format to email, which of course did not exist in 1968, is strangely prescient.
The name Champion itself was taken from another Director and shareholder, Horace Champion. Over the next 15 years until 1983, Champion Hire went on to open three more depots: Meanwood in Leeds; Whittington Moor in Chesterfield; and Carbrook Street, Sheffield. In November 1983, a new investor, Tim Hale, and Keith White purchased the company from John Booth and Horace Champion, who both retired.
Tim Hale says, “My previous background was in industrial market research. I had spent four years working as part of the Mergers & Acquisitions team for Sir Hugh Sykes, as he built up his business empire, eventually culminating in the flotation of Thermal Scientific plc. This inspired me to want to work for myself and, following the placing of a teaser advert in the FT, John Booth - Champion's majority shareholder at the time - made contact with me and we began discussions. Shortly after, through a mutual financial contact at the Royal Bank of Scotland, I was introduced to Keith White, effectively Champion's Operations Director. We hit it off well, found we had compatible skills, and to cut a long story short, we bought the business in November 1983.”
The business initially specialised in hire of small plant and tools to builders and private individuals. Over the following 35 years, it expanded significantly, with some depots moving to larger premises, and new locations being opened in Hull, Bradford, Nottingham, Doncaster and Derby, with a separate Head Office at Roman Ridge Road in Sheffield. Unfortunately, the recession of 2008 led to the closure of four of the nine depots during 2010.
“Opening new depots was always fraught with issues and having to close them was even worse,” recalls Tim Hale. “The horrendous events of the 2007/8 credit crash, which resulted in us having
to close the four depots and let some of our team go in 2010, was particularly memorable - or should I say, traumatic! On a more positive note, it made us more aware of our customers' requirements, and, ten years on, our profitability is higher now with five depots, than it was at the time, with nine.
“Working for Sir Hugh taught me that the best way to grow a business is to put together a good team, and let them get on with it. Step in to guide and help where needed, but essentially delegate and stand back. We have many long-serving staff and we are proud of that. Keeping skills up-to-date by training is an essential way of developing people and ensuring they have the relevant knowledge to help our customers. Without happy customers, there is no business.
“Moving to supplying more plant than tools has obligated us to use bigger vehicles, which brought its own issues; and the inclusion of increasingly more advanced technology in the equipment we hire has developed at a pace. Attitudes to Health & Safety have changed immensely (for the good) and, over the years, relationships with our main suppliers have become closer. To achieve a continuity of 50 years’ service to the construction industry is, I think, pretty much an achievement in itself. I emphasise the word 'service', as Champion is first and foremost providing a service to its customers. Indeed, several customers have been with us for 50 years too, for which we thank them.”
The company now concentrates on hiring a range of small and medium sized non-operated plant to the building, civil engineering and contracting trades, in the North and East Midlands. It specialises in hi-lift dumpers, excavators, powered access platforms, compaction rollers and plates, compressors, concrete cutting, drilling and grinding equipment, mixers, screeders and floor preparation equipment, generators ranging up to 60kVA, pumps, dehumidifiers and site lighting.
Strategic deals have been struck with many manufacturers and distributors over the years, and Champion’s reinvestment policy ensures that modern equipment forms the mainstay of the fleet. These include Altrad Belle, Hilti, Husqvarna, Kubota, Terex, Thwaites and Wacker, amongst others.
Champion believes that one of its strengths over 30 of the last 50 years has been the company's fully integrated, real-time computer system, which provides instant practical and management information for running the business. “When I first got involved with Champion, the business was not computerised at all,” says Tim Hale. “Everything was on paper, including some quite complicated on-hire/off-hire calculations used to generate invoices. We undertook an evaluation of what options were available to us and settled on a relational database system (RDBS) known as 'Pick' which ran on 'Zebra' hardware! The RDBS was being developed for the HOLMES Police Analysis Support Program, amongst other things, so we knew it would do the job. We employed a programmer and began to write our own suite of programs.
Competing with the market leaders
“Since that time, we have upgraded our hardware many times, but are still running our own bespoke software, even though nowadays it fully integrates into standard programs such as Excel, Word, Acrobat, Sage and the like. This real-time multi-depot software is no longer the innovation in the market place it once was. However, it does mean that Champion Hire is more than able to compete with the industry's market leaders.”
Looking ahead, Tim Hale and Keith White say that, “The last two years have felt very much like swimming against the tide. Brexit has cast a shadow over the British economy and we will all be glad when it's over. Following which, Champion Hire will be able to resume its positive progress. It is too early to think about new depots, but we do plan to keep our plant and tool fleet up-to-date and ahead of customer expectations, in response to new products and technical developments in the market. We also intend to specialise within some of the lines giving more depth and focus. However, without a good, positive outcome from Brexit, these ambitions might be somewhat more limited than we would hope. Perhaps ‘consolidation’ would be a more appropriate approach and ambition at this time.”
Whatever the future may bring, given its long pedigree and its proven management team, Champion Hire is in a strong position as it sets on the next chapter of its history. •