Iain Speak

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Bibby Distribution’s chief executive is a man on a mission and he reckons the time is right to push for growth. He explains the strategy to Johanna Parsons.

The one word Iain Speak uses to sum up the current strategy at Bibby Distribution is growth, and so far, it seems to have been working. In recent years the company has grown and made acquisitions putting £94 million on the top line. It has grown from 60 to 100 locations, doubled its fleet, and taken on an extra 900 staff.

But Speak is not phased by these figures, and displays a forthright commitment to moving onwards and upwards. “We’re positive, realistic, our feet are well and truly on the ground but we’re
on a mission. There’s not really anything standing in our way.”

Bibby was founded in 1807 as a family company, and is still owned by the Bibby family. “The challenge… is to identify where we can make investments that will deliver long-term growth, so it’s
completely different to a plc where it’s all about creating value for shareholders now. Our strategy is about creating value for shareholders in the future.”

Tangibly different then, to Speak’s previous employer, TNT. There he was commuting to Amsterdam, tasked with establishing a logistics business, and spearheading its venture into “multi-country logistics”.

With Bibby, Speak’s role is less driven by immediate results and more by continuing a legacy – a responsibility that is no doubt made easier to bear by the healthy state of the balance sheet.

Over the past few years, all the main business activities of the Bibby Group (Maritime, Financial Services, Distribution, etc.) have been able to invest in opportunities without input from the group. So finding itself in the rare position of not needing to support its own businesses, the Bibby Group has been looking for fresh areas for growth.

Bibby’s growth mission hasn’t wavered in the recession either. In fact, the timing couldn’t have been better. Although trade has been tough, and it’s had to be vigilant in terms of credit control,  the recession has generally been favourable for it.

“We entered the recession debt free. So we early on thought this is actually an opportunity; it’s now become a buyer’s market.” He says that in the boom years it was difficult to keep up with the
larger plcs that were commanding huge finance agreements with the banks, driving up prices.

“They could afford to pay such high multiples because facilities from the banks were readily available.”

But now times are harder, and they are still servicing the debt taken on for those acquisitions, whereas Bibby is free to take full advantage of its capital. So its private status stands Bibby in good stead financially, but Speak reckons its scale can also be an advantage for customers.

How far the economies of scale translate for the larger 3PLs is a moot point, but for many clients Bibby’s service and style of business is more relatable.

“We try and retain all the good things about being a familyowned, independent business and at the same time, recognise that our scale allows us to compete at a higher level alongside the
larger plcs.”

Beyond the actual services they offer, Speak says Bibby can also devote more time and care per customer.

It has consciously developed its approach to tailored customer service with a scheme titled Project Accelerate, under which anyone in the company can be trained as a continuous  improvement champion. Speak was determined that this would be more than just a notion in the board room.

“We wanted to make it real, rather than just mission statements and posters on the wall.”

It has so far trained 70 volunteers from all levels of the firm, each pushing through ideas to improve their own, and even clients’ operations. In one instance, a champion noticed a client was keeping the costly metal stillages that its products were delivered on for its own storage. By coming up with a new storage idea, she saved the client some £350,000 per year.

“For us there’s no immediate value there… but the customer now hopefully views us… as having really good people who care, and a level of sophistication far beyond trucks and sheds.”

Speak says the next challenge is where to grow now. He is not over-keen to emulate the plcs march towards international coverage merely to put “dots on maps”. However he does not rule out overseas expansion, specifically to strengthen Bibby’s freight forwarding capabilities.

“If we were to move overseas with our core logistics offering, we’d probably be more likely to move to somewhere outside of Europe to apply our growth model to a new territory. We wouldn’t go for operational synergies.”

So the success of the growth mission is pushing it to change and move into new territories and challenges.

“We’re going to be generating an increasing level of financial headroom and at the same time we’re going to be running out of companies to buy.” A dilemma many would welcome.

curriculum vitae

Held various operational roles in the parcel sector before moving into logistics. 1984-1985 Made the move into the logistics sector with TNT.

Moved to Holland in the role of senior project manager with TNT.

Appointed managing  director of TNT Logistics Netherlands.

Promoted to European commercial development director of TNT Logistics Europe. Acted as managing director for implementation of a major joint venture.

Joined Bibby Distribution as divisional director.

Became development director of Bibby Distribution with responsibility for strategic and business development.

Became chief operating officer at Bibby Distribution.

Took the role of chief executive of Bibby Distribution.

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