Adrian Gray is standing proudly in from of his new depot building in Inverness. “I get the keys on Wednesday” he tells me, “the builders are snagging it just now”. Judging by the sheer size of the place, it’ll certainly take them a day or two to do a full final test on a project which started over four years ago when Adrian bought the land. At over 90 metres long, covering 14000 square feet of deck area and offices, it’s an impressive sight.
Adrian is managing director of his company, AJG Parcels. He’s 52, and comes across as a no-nonsense entrepreneur. Though rooted firmly in Scotland, his accent reveals traces of a childhood partly spent further south.
AJP Parcels’ main business is green field deliveries in the impossible bits of Scotland for the overnight parcel industry. That’s the top half of Scotland, and most of the west coast. “Most of our work arrives in double deckers from the Birmingham area, for delivery to the north and northwest of Scotland, including the islands”, he explains. “On the new depot site, these trunkers will load straight onto the deck from the three doors at the end of the building. The freight will then be sorted and loaded onto the 18 loading bays designed for long wheelbase vans along the side”. AJG employs 23 people to do the sorting. AJG’s couriers are all employed by the company, and all drive company vans.
To the rear, opposite the loading bays for the vans, there is space on the site for a parcels railhead. “I’m working on the rail operators. There are train operating subsidies available if you can prove you’ll be taking freight off the roads, which we can, but at the moment the subsidies are based on the weight of freight such as coal and timber, much heavier than our parcel traffic. When I get that resolved, we’ll move forward on that”.
The new depot, 448 miles north of Birmingham, will ease some of the pressure of handling over 3000 consignments a day at the current depot, a load which is also shared by a mini hub 134 miles to the south west in Arrochar. These distances go some way to illustrating the sheer scale of the task involved in rural distribution in Scotland. “It’s a real problem area for the networks” points out Adrian. “As everyone knows, their business model depends on being able to make money on the collections, and cover costs on the deliveries. But up here, there are virtually no collections. There’s no manufacturing to speak of, it’s all just tourism and farming”. Adrian’s aim is to take a problem area for the industry and turn it into a routine part of their operation. This requires emphasis in three areas; coverage, customer service, and technology.
AJG’s coverage, despite the huge distances, means that the networks can promise that a parcel collected in Land’s End at 4pm one day, can be in the Inverness depot by 10am next day, and delivered in John O’Groats that same afternoon.
Customer service means having a team of 10 customer services people sufficiently in touch with the situation to be able to answer queries, progress reports, and POD requests in real time. This is in turn helped by Adrian’s investment in his own IT systems to deliver POD information in to the servers of his main customers in the West Midlands within 5 seconds of the delivery being made. “Our scanner is programmed to recognise from each barcode which is the sending network, and to send the POD data to them automatically”, Adrian tells me.
An increase, nationally, in home deliveries from internet shopping has been reflected in AJG’s business in the last 12 months. “We’re doing about 70% of all the parcels traffic in the area we cover, and of that, we seen an increase to over 50% in home deliveries”. Of course, people not being at home is the biggest problem, in an area where the courier may have travelled 15 miles or more up the side of a loch to reach the village. “The shippers need to be talking more to the consumers on their websites” suggests Adrian, “to record their preferences for what we should do if we turn up when they’re out”.
This repeated emphasis on customer service stems from Adrian’s background in retailing. “I was managing a DIY superstore, when I decided I needed a change of scene” he recalls. “A friend in the courier industry offered me a managerial job, and when that came to a natural conclusion, my wife and I set up on our own in 1992. It was her, me, a car and a van”. Adrian set out to persuade the major networks to put work his way, and this gave the business the traffic it needed to provide the coverage. “Now we have quite a few local customers of our own, mainly in farming, which for us are the icing on the cake. It’s a balance, covering our costs with the delivery work, and working hard to secure profitable local business on top of that”.
Adrian is optimistic about the future of the industry and of AJG. “We’re benefiting from the growth in home shopping, especially, and from health of the Scottish economy, so the future is reasonably secure as long as we keep the service levels up and keep our technology and services in line with what our customers need”. With an eye to the future, alongside his plan for rail-based trunking, Adrian is also planning an air link from the West Midlands, as part of his investment program to improve service to the networks.
It all adds up to a philosophy of investment in constant improvement, and the depot behind Adrian is certainly solid evidence of it.