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Executive Report : WM Plant milestone
Alan Guthrie visits WM Plant in Carlisle, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary and is continuing to develop its operation.
WM Plant of Carlisle joins the worthy ranks of hire companies that EHN has written about recently which have the rare distinction of having achieved their 50th anniversary. Today, this single-depot business has plenty to offer besides their hire expertise, including servicing and repairs, as well as sales, with a growing number of dealerships.
The business was started in August 1969 as B R Ward Plant Hire by its founder, Barrie Ward, at the age of 21. After graduating from Sheffield University with a degree in Fuel Technology and Chemical Engineering, he bought a second-hand dump truck and got a job working on the new section of the M6 between Penrith and Carlisle. His plan was to do this temporarily before following a career in the burgeoning oil industry.
The hire lasted for 18 months. During this time, Barrie identified the potential in hiring out small, non-operated plant at the same time as offering his driving services. Several Stihl ‘Cutquiks’ were purchased with worn out engines, which were overhauled at night after work and put out to hire on the same site. “On the termination of the dump truck hire, enquiries were coming in for more non-operated plant, and equipment was purchased including more Stihl Cutquiks and 08S chainsaws, mixers and even second-hand JCB backhoe loaders and International loaders, all hired on a non-operated basis,” Barrie told EHN. “Customers’ own machines, especially Cutquiks and Master heaters, were also serviced and repaired.
“The key factor”
“This experience made me realise that, in hire, the amount of turnover you can achieve is not simply based on the number of hours you can work in a day: the key factor is rather the size of your fleet and the number of machines you can get out on hire.”
Barrie had been working from a workshop in the village of Aglionby but it became clear that larger premises were needed. A plot of two-thirds of an acre was acquired on the new Rosehill Industrial Estate in Carlisle, on former farmland, and work started on the construction of what was to become the current depot.
The original building of 3,600ft2 was self-built and funded by the business, which kept running at the same time. Today, the premises cover some 10,000ft2. “We have never funded our expansion
through bank borrowing, financing the business by investing profits back into it,” said Barrie. “We grew steadily, adding more people in the process. We have ten personnel, many of whom are long-serving. At a recent team meeting, we calculated that five members of staff sitting at the table had a total of 181 years of service in our business.”
On the completion of the building in 1974, Barrie was joined in the business by his stepfather, William Meadows. William was working for a local farm equipment dealership, Rickerby Ltd, as a Manager of its Construction Machinery Department. A limited company was formed with equal shareholdings and hence the name Ward Meadows Plant Ltd was born, trading as WM Plant.
Its first supplier was Thomas Niven and Son, a Carlisle timber merchant which was the importer for Stihl products in the UK. This was run separately from the timber mill by a staff of three - Mr Niven Senior (admin), Mr Niven Junior (spares parts stores) and a mechanic. “Machines and spare parts could be obtained immediately with 100% availability on visiting the premises,” Barrie told EHN. “It was said that this was not the case with posted orders from other parts of the country.”
In 1996, Bill Meadows retired and moved to Australia. Barrie bought his shares in the company and premises, making him the sole shareholder.
Diverse hire fleet
Today, WM Plant offers a very diverse hire fleet, ranging from small tools to 1-tonne Kubota mini excavators. The customer base is equally broad, including homeowners, tradesmen, contractors and local authorities, and they are spread across a large area that covers Cumbria and extends into south west Scotland, north Lancashire, and occasionally as far as Newcastle. “Much business comes via word of mouth from satisfied customers,” said Barrie. “Our view is that you only have one chance to deal with a customer enquiry, so you have to do it right, and that means having the right staff with the right work ethic.
“Something that we think sets us apart is that we always ask customers about their experience in hiring from us when they bring the equipment back. We invariably get a positive response and that helps build a relationship. We have ‘mystery shopped’ some other hirers in our region and we have occasionally been appalled by the level of service we encountered. We take time to demonstrate equipment, give advice and ensure we react quickly if a breakdown occurs.”
Barrie’s wife, Jill, who works in the business, says, “We never shy away from our responsibilities and we try to look after our customers as you would your best friend. One of our biggest strengths is that we offer everything under one roof, from hire and sales, to service and repairs, so people know we can provide exactly what they need. We all get a huge buzz out of serving customers.”
The company is always on the lookout for innovative products that can be added to the hire fleet. “Niche products give you a competitive edge,” said Barrie. “For example, we recently bought a Bandit 38hp tracked stump grinder, and we produced a leaflet to point out to customers the benefits of using it, such as removing the need to dig by excavator, facilitating work in confined spaces, removing the obstruction to grass maintenance, banishing pests, eliminating the use of chemicals, the fact that the chips can be used as mulch, and leaving a level surface afterwards. We have also had great success with Cormidi tracked high-lift dumpers, which have controls in the middle that can be operated with one hand. Innovations like these lead to more hires and a greater return on investment.
WM Plant has a growing number of dealerships, the oldest of which is Stihl, spanning the whole 50-year period. “Stihl GB provides us with great service and availability,” said Barrie. “Support is always there, from staff training and technical help, to attendance at our open days and assistance with display units, photographic wraps and signage.
“We have expanded our internal showroom to give 30% more space. This was necessitated by taking on new dealerships such as for Timberwolf forestry equipment, Rock heavy-duty log splitters and log saws, and Hi-Sun 4x4 all-terrain vehicles for forest and estate use. Another important reason for the expansion was the ever-increasing sale of Stihl products and the growth of the range, especially in cordless tools. This has effectively doubled the floor area previously available for Stihl, which is now displayed in an atrium with eye-catching photographic wraps on the high walls. The area is completed with comfortable seating for customers and their families, with complimentary tea, coffee, quality biscuits and magazines.
“Our main challenge, apart from business rates and unreasonable competition, is the internet. We address this by offering benefits to the customer that cannot be obtained if purchasing online, such as knowledgeable staff, try-before-you-buy schemes, trade-ins, no obligation demonstrations on site or at home, spare parts, repairs, a chainsaw clinic giving customers free advice on their cutting problems, finance and, most importantly, all machines are assembled, tested and adjusted prior to sale, at which point full handover instructions are given.
“Looking ahead, the future is very positive. Footfall continues to increase and our daughter, Rosie, and her husband, Michael, are now involved in the business. The internet and local competition might put strain on margins, but we strive to maintain our standards of service by ultra-efficiencies in the business.” And this once again proves that there will always be a niche for a good local independent offering service. •