Remaining resilient in volatile times

Stuart Wring, along with his brother Martin, started Wrings Transport as we know it, 28 years ago. We asked him for his view on how other transport company owners can stay on a steady path as the challenges stack up in tough economic times.

From the desk of a Managing Director

After almost four decades in the industry, Stuart has seen the cycles, the ups and the downs, the good times and the bad, the steady and not-so-steady periods. Stuart sat down with us to share why resilience is important and what he has learned about life and leadership in logistics.

Know what your business will and won’t do

Stuart says a colleague once commented on his approach, saying, “You may not know what you do want, but you definitely know what you don’t want.”

Most transport company owners are passionate truckspotters, so it’s easy to be tempted to buy the latest and best trucks available. But it’s important to know who you are and where you fit in the industry – from owner-drivers and independent hauliers and TA members to big national and multinational global  businesses – because there’s a place for everyone.

Over time, says Stuart, he has identified that there’s also a customer base for the type of haulier you are. And getting the balance right will help you see that, while you can buy the big fancy lorries, they won’t necessarily earn you more than an ordinary truck if they’re not what your business needs. Always try to balance your fleet with the amount of work you have and use subcontractors for the peaks and the troughs.

What’s important is that your vehicles are working, that they’re making money, that the business has money, and that it’s a good operation. That is what could preserve your sanity and enjoyment of the job in the long run.

Knowing who you are also reduces time wasted and agonising over the wrong deals. It’s not always about quick growth or the number of vehicles you have for the sake of status. The wrong deal could be a risk not worth taking. When a huge opportunity or deal for business growth presents itself, knowing who you are is what will help you stay on course and not be led astray by ego decisions. Knowing when to step back and purposefully decide not to expand may be what’s right for who and what your business is at a particular time.

Have daily visibility of your business numbers

Having overall visibility of the business is critical to staying calm when pressures build. It helps you know what you can afford, so you only buy what you can make money from.

During the earlier years in the business, Stuart and his brother worked very hard to grow the business, taking on every job offered to them that they thought they could achieve. At that stage he had little involvement with the financial side of the business. But after his brother retired, and with time, maturity, and experience, the recognition came that it was no longer feasible to sit at the traffic desk, drive a lorry, and do as much as possible himself. Instead, looking over the entire operation became his focus as he shifted his time from working in the business to working on the business.

That’s when he started taking an intense interest in the financials, gaining a clear understanding of every aspect of the business and what the business was doing. Now, he checks on the banks every single day. He advises, “Check on cash flow, check on debtors list daily to see if any bad debts are building up, know what’s in the accounts, see how quickly invoices are being raised. Know how the flow from the job being completed to the invoice being emailed to the customer is working. Halfway through the month, go check your transport management system to see how many jobs on there are still uninvoiced. All of these are things you can do without speaking to anyone, and if there’s a bottleneck, backlog, or query, you can easily pick up on that.”

On dealing with fuel issues and costs, Stuart’s advice is that hauliers should know the fuel economy of their vehicles and convert that to what they’re paying for it. Businesses have to know that what they’re charging their customer is covering what it costs them. They can either go about it in a scientific way, or simply make sure that what they’re putting in the tank isn’t costing more than what they’re getting paid for the job. The hauliers that don’t know their costs are the ones that fail. He adds, “At Wrings, we know our costs, we have our monthly review meetings, and have month-end shutdown on accounts.”

An accepted practice between hauliers and customers is that fuel prices fluctuations get passed on to customers, using a fuel escalator. At Wrings, their fuel escalator is one month behind the month of trading, so they’re only ever a month away from recovering increased fuel spend.

Don’t forget wages, which are catching up with fuel as drivers are in demand and earning higher figures. Business owners have to know what it’s costing them to run their trucks and that it’s a fair deal where everyone wins. Profit margins are slim, and one wrong deal could have a significant impact on the profitability of the month. Sometimes, protecting the business could even mean parking up a vehicle rather than sending it out if the cost of doing the job isn’t worth it.

Ultimately, financial control and visibility is everything, because without money and cash flow, no business can survive.

Check in with mentors

Stuart has a handful of people he knows he can ring up and talk to when he needs advice. He says after 28 years in the business, he still looks up to his elders for advice and to learn from their experience.

You can pay for mentorship, that’s true, and it can be really valuable. But, says Stuart, “also pay attention to the people around you. Someone might cross your path and say something that has a profound impact on you for years to come without them even realising it. It could be a previous boss or a colleague. Even a customer can be a good mentor if you can build a friendship with them.” Wisdom can be anywhere; you just have to be open to hearing and learning from those around you.

But what has been immensely valuable is being part of the Transport Association. For Stuart, it has totally changed the business for the past 15 years he’s been in the TA, having had the opportunity to meet and interact with peers and like-minded people over the years. What members get from that is incredible, and he says his business wouldn’t be what it is today if he had never joined the TA back in 2008.

When they meet, which is six times a year, it provides a great barometer and cross-comparison across the UK of how everyone’s doing. If there are trends or pressures, you can see whether they’re regional, national, divided between the north and the south, or whatever the case may be. These could, for example, be issues around staff and HR, health and safety, mental health, supply and demand of vehicles, supply of drivers, or fitters.

Having trusted mentors, whether individual or as part of an association, is what gets you through the challenging times. It gets you through everything, really, even the good times when important decisions need to be made. It’s about understanding that there might always be a different perspective and ways to go about solving your challenges.

Appoint the right people to support you

While Stuart knows how to do every job in the business, a motorbike fall and subsequent pelvis fracture saw him land up in hospital in 2008. Having to do the payroll from his hospital bed made him reflect and realise that he was going about things wrong. “You can’t want to do everything and then risk having everything come crashing down when something unforeseen happens or you simply have to be out of the business for a period.”

He realised then that instead of trying to do everything himself, it was critical to get the right people in place to take care of the things he didn’t have to be involved in daily. For Stuart it was maintenance, HR matters, compliance, and more. Also important was to empower willing right-hand people to assist with the matters that require his full and focused attention and leadership.

Plan for now and the future

To balance your work and your life purpose, it’s important to reflect constantly on where you’ve come from, where you see yourself going, how the business is coping in the present, whether the staff are happy, and how to look after your team.

Only the person at the very top has a view over everything in the business, understanding all the departments, the financials, the past, the present, and the future plans.

While planning for the present is essential to honour current commitments such as leases, hire purchases, salaries, etc., it’s also important to know when to start focusing on succession planning. Planning for the future is as important as planning for the now.

It could mean recognising and accepting limitations that are out of your control, like growing older and a potentially becoming less effective at what you’re doing compared to how you were before. It could be about who will take over the business when you decide to retire. It may even mean getting things in place to sell at some point in the future.

Stuart says, “You have to be realistic about these things. The thought of selling a business you’ve put a big part of your life into might seem quite sad to some people. But in life, everyone has to come to terms with the fact that nothing lasts forever.”

Pay close attention to mental health

In years gone by, people were simply told to man up and get on with the job. Now, it’s an important topic that all business owners have to be aware of and deal with properly or it will only make things worse for them. It’s about protecting your employees and protecting yourself.

You’ll probably never know how many of the people you employ are really suffering – but you can tune in to the mood in the business, listen, and hear how office staff and drivers are interacting to get a general sense of how people are feeling. And it’s worth having measures in place to address individual employees’ mental health as well as the overall mindset, especially in trying times.

Something that is often overlooked in all of this, but equally as important to address, is the mental health of the business owner. Being at the top of a company can be an emotional rollercoaster because of all the things you look after. The highs are great and extremely rewarding, but the lows can be really tough and you have to get out of them as quickly as you can.

Part of that ability is realising (and remembering) that even if some jobs have gone wrong, you’re going to be okay as long as everything is out working, and you’ve set your business up correctly. Taking the time to get your house in order saves a lot of mental energy later, so it’s well worth the effort.

When you employ any number of people, and bear the weight of that responsibility, it’s especially important to have someone to check in with, such as a trusted mentor, to make sure you’re also projecting that you’re okay. If the CEO is volatile, what message does that give? What toxic operation would you have then? When everything around you may seem out of control, you have to remain the calm one at the top – and that often is more about conscious discipline than a natural, default reaction.

Taking a pragmatic approach to leadership, Stuart very much acknowledges that there will always be pressures in business, for even in life, nothing is perfect. He says, “The low times are just as important as the euphoric ones. You have to have the lows to make you want to get out of them. In the process, your business decisions and practices often evolve and become far smarter. But then you also have to receive the highs to make business and life worthwhile.”

In closing, to strengthen resilience while navigating the ebb and flow of the challenges that transport operators face, Stuart recaps: “Know what you won’t do to remove the stress of making a square peg fit into a round hole; be hyper-focused on the financial numbers to protect profit margins; know who you can call on for trusted advice or mentorship in different functional areas; get into a network or association of industry peers; empower the right people to work in the business so you can know it will keep running smoothly if life forces you to take time out; and finally, pay attention to mental health, not only of the people you employ, but also your own.”

The Future of Road Haulage Report

This article is part of our recently published report, The Future of Road Haulage. Offering a comprehensive industry trends analysis, insights, and advice from industry thought leaders, The Future of Road Haulage equips businesses with the knowledge to make informed decisions and stay ahead in a rapidly evolving landscape.

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