H. Nickolls and Son Ltd

Why innovation and tradition make good bedfellows…

How H. Nickolls and Son Ltd., a business formed nearly 100 years ago, is turning to technology to preserve it for future generations. Managing Director, John Nickolls explains.

“The family haulage business has always occupied a special place in my heart. It was started by my grandfather in 1923 and we’re very proud of the fact that we’ve not only taken on the reigns but have been able to expand H. Nickolls and Son. But it hasn’t been easy. Far from it. Anyone in the same position will know just how challenging it can be. There are no shortcuts and no secrets to being successful. Most of all, it’s about working hard. The hours can be long and you have to be extremely flexible. So when you’re a driver down, you need to be prepared to leave the office at a second’s notice to provide cover – whatever the time of day. Your clients are absolutely relying on you, and you on them.

But, it’s important too to be able to take a step back from the day-to-day operations. It’s only then that you begin to see the bigger picture. Like any other business, we’re constantly evaluating our processes, looking at operational efficiency and, most importantly, checking that our clients – some of whom have been with us for decades – are receiving the best possible service that we can provide.

As a result, we’ve embraced technology. All of our mixed fleet – which includes 15 vehicles, ranging from 44 tonne artics to 3.5 tonne sprinters – use telematics. This means we can know exactly where they are every second of every day, as do our customers, which gives both us and them peace-of-mind. It has also increased efficiency because we no longer have to guess where our drivers are, nor do we have to rely on them to call us and tell them their ETA.

On this note, I sometimes chuckle when I remember the stories that my dad would tell me before telematics and mobile phones had been invented. He knew just about every motorway truck stop and was on first-name terms with many of the owners too. As there were no mobiles, if he needed an ETA, or to get an urgent message to a driver – he’d work out when the driver was due to arrive at a certain truck stop, call the owner and ask him to get the driver to phone him. Of course, it wasn’t a perfect science. It relied on the fact that his calculations were correct, that drivers always got the message – and that when they did – they always returned his call.

Back to the present day, we’re moving with the times and are equipping all our vehicles with something called integrated telematics, which we hope will make our fleet even more efficient and productive than it is now.  To achieve this, we’ve signed up to Haulage Exchange, a freight exchange platform, which has consolidated our telematics provider with its freight network. This will not only give us total visibility of our private fleet but of the Exchange’s virtual fleet too, which contains around 50,000 vehicles.

We think this newly-found visibility will come in useful in a number of scenarios. As a company serving Just-in Time manufacturing, for example, it’s not unusual for us to get a call from a business which urgently needs a factory component to be picked up from hundreds of miles from our Staffordshire depot and to be delivered a long way from our Staffordshire-base. We never want to turn down a job and will always try to help the customer as much as possible, but sometimes we’ve had to turn away the work, as, with margins so tight, it isn’t cost-effective for us to take it on. This can sometimes mean that we aren’t the first name on that particular company’s list when it advertises a more lucrative job.

However, now we belong to HX, we can take the job, post it on the HX – safe in the knowledge that whoever takes it on will deliver the goods on time. And what’s more, now we have integrated telematics, the customer has that added assurance too. That’s priceless.

We also think that the Exchange will reduce empty running and help us with load building. So, for instance, often we might have a job from Stafford to somewhere like Newcastle. When our driver has completed the drop-off, previously he has had two options – to find another job, or go home. Without the Exchange, if we were unable to find him another load, often we’d have no choice but to send him home in an empty truck. This, of course, is a tremendous waste of fuel and resources. We hope that by using the Exchange we can either send the driver north, west or east with a fresh load, or bring him home with a fully-laden vehicle.

However, it’s important that we learn to walk before we run. We’ve only just made the transition to the Exchange and while we’re confident that being able to utilise the Exchange’s fleet at a drop of a hat will improve our bottom line, we don’t yet know by how much.

As well as posting loads, we’re also taking loads from the Exchange, and I think this is another area where we can add value. Why? Well, in addition to general haulage, as a Stafford-based haulier, we’ve always served customers from the nuclear industry and electricity distribution networks too, which requires a lot of health & safety training and security clearance before you can win work.

So what does it entail? Well, take delivery to or from a nuclear power plant for example. Normally, we’ll transport generators or generator parts such as rotor blades or turbine components. The parts are very heavy and so we always use a 44-tonne flatbed truck to carry them. But even before we arrive at the pick-up point, it takes a lot of planning and preparation. The driver has to have the correct paperwork pertaining to safety training and security clearance. We also need to ensure that we’ve suitably liaised with the police, whose job it is to escort us out of the power station when the goods are safely on board the vehicle.

We’re hoping that we can win more of this work through the Exchange. We also think that the Exchange will benefit from us adding a skillset to HX that very few logistics operators have. That, for us, is an exciting step forward.”