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Moving north of the border

Jan 09, 2013
An insight into moving in Scotland.

The Mover’s
Editor, Steve Jordan spoke to Oliver Greaveson from Britannia Greers of Elgin, Speyside, to get an insight into how his team deals with the many challenges of being a removals man in a wintered Scotland.

For companies struggling to cope with the congested cities and roads south of the boarder, the open spaces and spectacular landscapes of Scotland would seem like a breath of fresh air. But although Scotland is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful countries in the world, running a removals company - especially in winter - is far from easy.

"At this time of year we only get around six hours daylight a day so it’s important to get an early start if you don’t want to work in the dark,” said Oliver. “We fit all our vehicles with winter tyres from about the beginning of December until March. They’re narrower and give a lot more grip than the standard tyres, that makes them much easier to drive on when the roads are covered with snow and ice. We keep the standard tyres in the warehouse and switch them back when the weather improves. It takes very little time and because the annual mileage is spread across both sets of tyres the overall cost is about the same.”

It’s not just the roads that are affected by the treacherous winter weather, getting to the front door of the property can prove difficult too, especially when the owner hasn’t done any snow clearance before the move. “We often have to clear the snow before we can start the job,” said Oliver. “You’d be amazed how many people don’t prepare for us coming.  We always carry salt and snow spades to clear a safe pathway and that can take quite a long time, sometimes the snow can be several feet deep.”

Moves to the Scottish islands present their own problems for the removals teams and the weather can cause mayhem to schedules, especially during the winter months. Conditions can change very quickly and a calm sunny day can turn into a raging storm in the space of half an hour. All large vehicles have to be secured to the decks of the ferries using special lashing points at the front, middle, and rear - such is the severity of the stormy waters. Sometimes crews can be marooned on an island for days, so it’s important to make contingency plans. Food is always carried on the vans as shops can be few and far between and may not be accessible because of the snow and ice.

Crossing water is always an expensive business for removals companies, but in recent years fares to many Scottish islands have actually come down.  For example, Greers used to pay about £1700 to take a van over to Shetland, but now it’s around £900. Increased competition and the downturn in the economy have hit margins and forced operators to find ways of reducing their costs. Bad news for the ferry companies, but good news for their customers.

Scottish roads are for the most part very good, but because of the often mountainous terrain and long meandering lochs road closures can cause lengthy diversions. “We keep a close eye on the weather during the winter and advise the crews on the best route to follow,” said Oliver. “We also keep the customers informed as to when the crew is likely to arrive. If they have to take a detour to avoid a blocked road it can sometimes take several hours.”

Despite the freezing weather, working in Scotland’s Speyside does have its compensations. The area is famous for its Malt Whisky Trail and is home to over half of Scotland’s malt whisky distilleries. A ‘wee dram’ after a hard day’s work on the vans no doubt brings cheer to many a weary removals man on a cold winter night.

Britannia Greers’ boss designs revolutionary new truck

Oliver Greaveson is a man of many talents and before joining Britannia Greers in the 1970s worked as an engineering draughtsman for ICI.  Always keen to find new solutions to practical problems Oliver applied his inventive mind to removals vans and came up with a unique design that would simplify loading and improve payload.

His revolutionary concept provides all the benefits of a curtain-sided vehicle without sacrificing security, while a clever system of internal dividers allows part loads to be carried safely. The five dividers, or gates, are hinged from posts and supported by wheels to prevent them dropping.  When not in place they can be swung out to become side walls within a special steel reinforced outer curtain, providing increased security. 

Five years ago Oliver had a prototype vehicle constructed by Sparshatts and has since built a second vehicle using lighter materials to further improve payload.  The original vehicle is still in service and is currently being upgraded using the same materials.

The base vehicle is a 26 tonne Scania 3G 320 Hi-Line with Euro 5 engine; payload is around 13.5 tonnes. Other features include a diff-lock – essential for traversing icy Scottish roads – and an external Anderson Connector to power flood lighting for loading after dark. A digital battery guard gives the crew early warning of a low battery to avoid starting problems.

Left: interior of the truck showing dividers.  Photos courtesy of David Gordon, KnockNews.

RB Steel the benefit of own port haulage

Unlike many moving companies, RB Steel of Scotland has chosen not to use contract haulage for the collection and delivery of containers to and from port.  James Steel said that it was too expensive and less convenient for customers. 

“We regularly collect and deliver to Grangemouth, Greenock and Rosyth, and even use our own transport for Felixstowe,” he said. “Handling the transport ourselves gives us much better control on all aspects of the delivery.  We also avoid demurrage on the vehicle as we don’t have the usual 3-hour limit.  That means we can take our time with the loading and delivery and make sure the customer is happy.” 

RB Steel is one of the leading trade groupage operators in Scotland and the only Scottish member of EUROMOVERS.

Below: RB Steel uses this 18-tonner for port collections and deliveries.

Thoughts on doing business in Scotland
Comments from David Woodhouse, Chairman of the BAR Scottish Area

David Woodhouse is Executive Director for Matt Purdie Ltd operating out of the company’s East Lothian depot and the Chairman of the BAR Scottish Area.  The Mover asked him to give his thoughts on the current trading conditions in Scotland and any other burning issues that are peculiar to the region. 

David said that trading conditions in Scotland are difficult.  “We’re finding the level of enquiries erratic with some weeks good and others not so good,” he explained. “We’re trying to hold our rates to allow a fair margin for profit but we constantly come up against some ‘silly’ prices for removals from both BAR members and non-BAR members.”  As an example David said that he had recently quoted a job from North Yorkshire to Kilmarnock involving extremely poor access at both load and delivery addresses.  The volume quoted was just under 3,000 cubic feet and the quote was based on 2 x 7.5 tonners and a 3.5 tonne Luton and four men over three and a half days.  “If I’m to believe the customer when I followed up on our quotation, a well known UK national moving group quoted more or less exactly half our quote!”  He also said that overseas enquiries are down and there is little in the way of commercial moves as companies are less and less likely to move staff or upgrade to newer premises.

Standards matter
Despite difficult trading David said that maintaining a high quality service was still important as a way of keeping an edge over the competition. “We’re seeing more and more customers wanting to move with us as a result of creating a good impression at the time of the survey.  With our approach, being the only Scottish mover to hold all UK and overseas moving standards, operating a fleet of modern trucks and highly trained staff, we quote what we feel is a fair price but invariably there will be cheaper quotes and we’re asked to try and match them.”  David said that he was often under pressure to reduce his prices and that this trend was more pronounced than he had known in the past.  “We might budge a little on the quote depending on the job but ‘haggling’ is more and more common – something I’ve not seen so much previously in my near 35 years in the industry.”

Scottish BAR Area
The BAR Scottish Area holds five meetings a year and has always enjoyed good, regular attendance even though the geography of the reason often requires attendees to undertake a 250-300 mile round trip to get to the meetings.  He also paid tribute to the Area’s hard-working secretary, Georgina Berry from Richard Healey Removals near Glasgow, who gets some interesting and relevant speakers to the meetings.  “We are also well supported by BAR – the last two meetings have seen Timon Thorncroft travelling up from London to act as our Area’s delegated Directly Elected Director wanting to get feedback from members in our Area,” David explained.  “We’re especially thankful for the support of our affiliates who, almost without exception, attend BAR meetings.” 

Holding up despite difficulties
David said that he was both “surprised and confused” that more moving companies haven’t gone bust since the recession started to bite.  “I’ve seen economic dips in the 1980s, 1990s and early in 2000 when the foot and mouth epidemic hit my family business in Mid Wales badly - but movers tend to be resilient creatures; they (as Matt Purdie & Sons has done) diversify into other areas of revenue stream and we all seem to muddle through.  All I can say is that we all seem to work harder and harder each year and make the same small margins as we have had since this recession started.”

Euro Trucks adding expense
According to David the introduction of the next level of ‘Euro emission’ trucks is causing a bother as the trucks get more and more expensive to buy in the first instance.  “We’re not finding huge improvements in fuel economy on the many trips we make from Scotland to the south,” he explained. “We can only hope that the governments in Scotland the rest of the UK and into Europe know what they are doing and we get some first-time buyers able to get, and more importantly afford to take, a mortgage with some confidence and start to see some growth from the bottom up."

PHS Teacrate in Scotland

PHS Teacrate’s Livingston service centre was first opened in January 2002 and by 2003 the centre was servicing more than 200 customers.  In 2006, a second adjoining unit was acquired to allow the business to expand into the space it required.  This 30,000 square foot facility services the whole of Scotland offering next day delivery as standard and is strategically located on the Edinburgh-Glasgow corridor.

From its Livingston centre, PHS Teacrate has supported many prestigious projects in the Scottish region including the supply of removal crates for the Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood in October 2004. This was a huge undertaking with around 6-7,000 crates being used.  PHS Teacrate has also supported a number of large scale hospital moves including the Royal Infirmary Edinburgh, the new Stirling Hospital, Monklands Hospital in Airdrie and the Aberdeen Hospital.

The Livingston team is headed up by Depot Manager, Andy Green, and between them they have many years’ experience in crate hire and packaging supply as well as a wealth of local knowledge.

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