Hilary Devey

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Bloody hard, is Hilary Devey’s initial, emphatic analysis of her time starring on the BBC’s hit prime time show Dragons’ Den, which has just finished airing. She is about to take her first holiday of 2011, after a hectic schedule on the TV series, as well as managing Pall-Ex, her other businesses, campaigns and work for charities such as Transaid.

Devey explains that filming involved gruelling hours across six seven-day weeks. She is also keen to point out that her fashion sense was considerably curtailed by the schedule, as each dragon has to wear identical outfits throughout the shoot for continuity purposes.

As the newest dragon she made quite an impression, with candid responses to the pitches, including the notorious riposte “You’d make my foot itch mate” which has become the title of a Facebook page in her honour.

Devey found the experience fun, but also very competitive, as it’s quite serious going up against the other dragons with real money – although they are all friendly off screen. “I get on incredibly well with them all, in particular Peter’s a real gentleman.”

And she says that she was sympathetic to contestants who struggled with their presentations, often suggesting that they take a breath and start again to do justice to the potential business, for the dragons’ benefit as well as the presenter.

“Yes I’m thinking commercially, but equally I’ve got a big heart and I’ve got a lot of compassion, because I understand that it takes a lot of guts to get up there.”

Devey’s experience of launching Pall-Ex clearly influenced her decision to become a dragon. Speaking at the announcement that she was going into the den, she said: “At a time when the banks are failing to invest in British small businesses, I am proud to be able to do my part to support the next generation of UK entrepreneurs. To set-up Pall-Ex in the mid-nineties, I had to sell my house and car to get the start-up capital necessary to fulfil my business ambitions, as none of the banks appreciated my potential. I would have loved the opportunity to have stood before the dragons.”

The level of exposure Dragons’ Den has given her is far more than she anticipated. But, Devey is taking advantage of being in the public’s gaze to raise the profile of what she still thinks of as her own industry. “When you think about it I’m a marketer by nature… and people don’t realise the battles logisticians fight every day.”

She is frustrated at how UK fuel prices have increased, particularly in comparison to other countries within the EU. She also says: “UK legislation is far more stringent than anywhere else in Europe… and the issue of trailer heights is absolutely ludicrous.”

Devey is campaigning hard against the European Commission’s proposals to limit the height of UK trailers, which are historically higher than on the continent. She believes that many hauliers are unaware of the ramifications of the proposals, which could force huge numbers of trailers off the road.

In fact, Devey has launched a petition in support of keeping UK trailer heights as they are, which Asda, Boots and Wincanton have all signed up to already. She also commissioned a white paper which found that enacting the proposed regulations would quadruple the number of HGVs on the road, increase costs by some £380 million, and increase carbon emissions by 60 per cent.

This environmental aspect in particular seems to contradict the EC’s own stated aims, and Devey is passionate that UK businesses should not have to bear the costs of botched policy: “If they’re serious about emissions, why didn’t they have the foresight to increase bridge heights?”

Devey is very conscious of how tough the market is at the moment, and expects next year to be no easier. Pall-Ex is still in growth, and she says this is down to a strategy of investment. “When we hit the last glitch I invested in IT and going global, and we came out of it better than we expected… 2012 will be tough, and my strategy for weathering that is further expansion in Europe.”

Pall-Ex is already running in Italy, across Iberia and now Romania. In the UK Pall-Ex now offers same-day delivery via Pronto, which is set for a global roll out.

It is difficult not to spot how some of Devey’s investments in the Den have been shaped by her previous business experience. For example her investment in the Duvalay portable mattress, which has a potential market among truckers who can use it in sleeper cabs.

Perhaps the atmosphere of creativity on the show has rubbed off. Devey has recently come up with an invention of her own which she is confident will eliminate the many complexities of hanging garment distribution. There is still an element of secrecy surrounding this development, but it is set for trials in January, and to be operational in June, using Pall-Ex’s network and IT structure.

In many respects, the logistics industry is a natural starting ground for an entrepreneur such as Devey, because logistics is so integral to any successful business. As she says, any product on sale anywhere will have been sourced, manufactured and delivered. “Any business model has to have the right product in the right place at the right time – and that is the basis of logistics.”

curriculum vitae
Hilary Devey learned the principles of business doing various jobs at her father’s pub. She went on to take up distribution roles at Littlewood’s, Tibbett & Britten and Scorpio, which is part of the United Carrier network.

1987-1994 Retail distribution sector role at TNT.
1994-1996 Acts as a distribution sector consultant for various companies.
1996 Pall-Ex is formed.
2003 March – opening of Pall-Ex’s £12m purpose-built hub in Leicestershire.
2007 Becomes a patron of The Princess Royal Trust for Carers.
2008 Devey features in Channel 4 TV programme “The Secret Millionaire”.
2010 Becomes an honorary Doctor of Laws at the University of Leicester.
Stars as “The Business Inspector” on the Channel 5 TV show.
Becomes patron of The Stroke Association.
2011 Launch of Pall-Ex Romania and the Pall-Ex Iberia hub.
Stars in BBC TV show “Dragons’ Den.”

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