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Fred Hoult – a canny lad

Apr 14, 2016
It’s a long way from apprentice fitter to Vice Lord Lieutenant of Tyne & Wear. But Fred Hoult made the journey and became one of the moving industry’s elder statesmen in the process. He worked hard, had some help from family and friends, and some luck along the way. Steve Jordan went to see him to hear his story.

Fred Hoult has been ’retired’ for some years now, if you can really call it retirement. He doesn’t have an office as such, so we met in a vacant office in his family’s business complex at Hoults Yard, a new development on the site of Maling Pottery in Newcastle, from where his moving company operated for 40 years.

It’s now a modern serviced office complex on a 10 acre site that has 73 companies taking office space and a further 17 companies occupying warehouse and factory units.  Part of the site has self-storage with 372 lettable units.  It’s a big place and a far cry from the company’s origins.

“My grandfather (Edward) was an estimator for the removals service operated by Bainbridges department store in Newcastle (now John Lewis),” Fred explained. “When the manager died, and he didn’t get his job, he was pretty fed up. They pooled all their money, including my grandmother’s co-op coupons, and bought four horses and two trailers. They started from nothing. There was no family money.” That was the beginning. It was 1919, a time for a new beginning for many.   

They were canny folk and worked hard.  “They were aggressively commercial,” said Fred.  Three of their sons joined the business: Edward, Jimmy and Frederick (Fred’s father).  “Uncle Eddie did accounts, Jimmy looked after the vehicles, and my father was the salesman and the driving force of the business. They were all very well respected in Newcastle.”

It was just after the First World War and the company was able to buy ex war department vehicles.  These were much more flexible than the railway containers generally used for long distance removals and enabled Hoults to run a regular door-to-door service to London. They took removals south and deliveries from department stores as back loads.  They built up good relationships with the top shops in London - Harrods, Heals, Barkers, etc.  – serving their high worth clients. “Shopping was different in those days,” said Fred.  “Smart society went to London to do their shopping.  We would collect from the stores and distribute goods all over the country.”  Eventually Hoults bought its own depot in London to serve the trade.

The company acquired Arts and General Carriers in London, a company that specialised in moving pianos and was soon moving around 150 a week in the 1930s.  The company prospered and in 1947 it was able to buy the removals department of Bainbridges: sweet revenge it would have been for Grandad Edward, had he lived to see it.

Two years later the company had the opportunity to buy Malings Pottery in Newcastle as a going concern and also for storage potential and vehicle parking.  The pottery had specialised in highly decorated earthenware but, during the war, it was only allowed to sell plain white utility crockery. By 1949 the pottery’s stores were full of unsalable, coloured products and was very run down. “The intention was to close the pottery,” said Fred. “But then a year after they had bought it the government lifted the restriction and they were able to sell all the coloured goods. They recovered the money they put down to buy the business in the first year.” After that Frederick became very keen, replaced the coal-fired kilns with electric and took on agents all around the world. Young Fred was tipped to take on the pottery but sadly his father and Uncle Jimmy died and the decision was made to close it before he left school.

Fred and his brother (Tim) were the only male heirs. “I was at boarding school and no academic,” said Fred. “I decided I would return to do an apprenticeship as a mechanical and electrical engineer with CA Parsons in Newcastle. It was a very fine company. If you had served your time at Parsons you could get a job anywhere.” On completion of his five years, he joined the moving business.

It was some years later, as the moving company was thriving, that Fred had a little luck of his own. While accompanying an American antique dealer on a buying tour, he came across a house that was for sale. “It was a beautiful place with nine acres of land on the banks of the Tyne. It was £18,000 which I couldn’t afford but thought was a good price. I put £3,000 down and borrowed the rest.  I sold it to Laurie Barratt of Barratt Homes for £45,000 with an option to retain part of the land and build another house. I sold this one for £45,000 too and earned enough money on both deals to gear up so I could buy the remainder of the shares in the company from the family.  I became the sole owner of Hoults Removals.” Meanwhile, his brother became a successful accountant.

Fred became a well-known face in the industry including a term as the chairman of the Overseas Group of BAR, was BAR president in 1976 and became a director of Eurovan. He took an early leap into self storage, well ahead of the trend, and used the premises at Maling Pottery to offer space to anyone he could. “Anyone I could get £20 a week from, I’d do it.”

He became interested in moving pianos into Europe.  At that time the RORO services to Europe were just starting so he polished up his school French and went around saying: “Je suis Fred Hoult, le removal homme.”  He famously put mezzanine floors in his vans so he could move more pianos at a time and the business grew.  He also worked for the government freight agents to provide a much more efficient system of returning service personnel’s goods back to the UK.  Hoults had three depots in Germany.

Pickfords at the time was a pain in his side. “Their principle was any price that Fred Hoult quotes just undercut it: that’s hard going,” he said. “I didn’t think the company was directed well and I think historic events have proved me right. The National Freight Corporation (NFC), of which Pickfords formed part, had something like 750 properties on their books and so many of them were city centre that anyone could have made a success of it. They had the world at their feet. I don’t think they ran the removal business well and so it was difficult competing against them.”

It’s p
erhaps no surprise then that Fred chose to sell Hoults in 1983 to Pickfords. “Originally I thought it might be a career move but I didn’t enjoy working with them,” he said. “I was probably not very easy to manage either as I was used to running my own show. But it seemed to me that very few of the businesses they bought at the time prospered long term.”

While selling the business he also sold some of his property including a site in London and one in Glasgow.  All three sales were going through simultaneously. “I had a frenetic time, I remember coming home and saying to my wife I don’t know whether I’m a millionaire or I’m bust.”

Hoults was a successful company.  Asked what made it so, Fred said that it was the people who made the difference.  He’d been able to recruit well.  “I was a crap interviewer but within a fortnight I could tell if someone was any good.” Among his prodigies were Bob Wyper who became commercially very successful and Geoff Watson, joint owner of Doree Bonner. He greatly admired Jean Jacques Borgsted, Jim Thompson and Ian Wilson.  “Paul Evans is brilliant too,” said Fred.

All of this is a window on Fred’s character.  Asked what he enjoyed about the moving industry Fred won’t say the customers, the vans, the high office or the international travel.  “I enjoyed being with the people,” he said. In his youth he played rugby for Gosforth and liked nothing more than mixing with people from all sides of life on equal terms after the match. “It made me feel as though I was part of the town.”

Since leaving the moving industry Fred has not been idle.  He’s bought and sold a farm, bought and sold a Vauxhall dealership, was chairman of a wire works, was chairman of the Freeman hospital in Newcastle, and set up a central purchasing system for the NHS.  These were big jobs that he was invited to perform. “You shouldn’t complain about the way officials do their job if you are not prepared to have a go yourself,” he said.

Fred has been a tax commissioner, is still a magistrate and a school governor, was High Sherriff of Tyne and Wear in 1986 – looking after the Royal Family and visiting dignitaries, and eight years ago became the Vice Lord Lieutenant of Tyne & Wear.  In that role he represents the Queen in the area.  “It’s prestigious and enjoyable,” he said. “I get the chance to spend time with people who I wouldn’t normally meet. The Royal Family have a great knack of bringing the best out of people.”

Today, Charlie Hoult, Fred’s son is MD of the business with his daughter Anabel as chairman. His other daughter, Louise, is a GP in Oxford. Charlie has overseen the complete transformation of the old pottery in recent years, not least with the street art all around, painted by famous artists glad to have a legal wall on which to display their talent. There is also a chance that the dynasty might continue if any of Fred’s nine grandchildren choose to get involved. If you ever meet Fred, and want to wind him up, just mention inheritance tax then stand back and watch his face turn puce.

For Fred there are plenty of things other than work to occupy him.  He’s always been a keen sailor and still has a small boat on Holy Island.  He came to our meeting fresh from a tennis lesson … a lesson mind you!  He said that at his age the rallies are not very long so he finds it helpful to have a coach fire balls at him for a while.  It is also good for him to help recover his fitness after a recent quadruple bypass. “I like winning,” he said. “I don’t like people to get the better of me; but it’s not an obsession.”  Hmmm!  I’m not convinced Fred.

Photos:  Top: Fred Hoult outside the serviced offices at Hoult’s Yard; top right, in his role as Vice Lord Lieutenant of Tyne & Wear; middle left, The old clock tower at the Maling Pottery site; middle banner, The old pottery now provides legal walls on which famous artists can display their talent; bottom right, with his son Charlie, now MD of the family business.

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