Descartes UK

In a year like no other UPN has continued to grow strongly

In a year like no other UPN has continued to grow strongly

In this issue of Truck and Track we catch up with UPN Managing Director – David Brown – to get his perspective on the challenges that both UPN and the Pallet Network Sector are facing and his thoughts on the future.

David Brown has been with UPN for over fifteen years now and has been Managing Director since 2015. Since joining UPN from the International De’Longhi Group in 2006, David has gained vast experience in the sector. 

In a year like no other with Brexit, Covid-19, an unprecedented driver shortage, and a huge spike in the demand for logistics support services across the UK and Ireland, UPN has continued to grow strongly both financially and in terms of reputation.

In a market sector which itself has grown in reliability and reputation, UPN has established a clear niche as a network driven for, and by its membership. UPN is also renowned in the sector for its bespoke high quality IT support systems that have enabled the company to build, retain, and develop a strong and stable member network across the UK and Northern Ireland.

“Team UPN” as it promotes itself, is now a cohesive and united nationwide network of ninety five high quality regional hauliers operating synergistically to provide an extremely reliable range of nationwide services.

Established in 2001 and now in its 20th year as the UK’s only privately owned Pallet Network, UPN has grown over two decades through a commitment to provision of “First Class Travel for Palletised Freight”. The company’s signature line has become its mantra and benchmark for its daily performance on behalf of palletised freight shippers across the UK. 

So David, it’s been quite a year hasn’t it with the challenges of Covid, of Brexit, AND of course most recently the Driver Shortage which is currently very high profile across all media everywhere. 

Let’s start with that - How is the Driver Shortage being handled by UPN members and indeed the sector in general, how is it impacting on your business and your members?

Yes, a perfect storm of issues has gathered to energise what is now a real problem for the logistics sector. What was a driver shortage of around 50,000 just two years ago has this year grown to probably around 100,000. The average age of drivers is increasing annually and most recently is thought to be around 52. 

There is just not enough young blood coming in. This lack of young and new drivers joining the industry has been further affected by the availability of HGV tests. Then there are the new HMRC IR35 rules that have served to remove many agency drivers from the market. Brexit has meant the loss of thousands of European drivers and the addition of more intensive border controls slowing the process of inbound and outgoing freight. Covid has created a further myriad of challenges across the country.

But really the driver shortage has been around for many years and it’s so clear that nothing has been done to improve the situation and encourage new people – male and female – into these roles and indeed into Logistics generally. 

“Nowhere near enough, has been done to attract the youth of today into Logistics”

School leavers are actively encouraged to join the IT sector, Finance Sector, Sales, Marketing, and Commerce, but nowhere near enough, has been done to attract the youth of today into Logistics a sector that actually has proved to have excellent career paths and a real history of “Home Grown Timber” – a life time career trajectory – often with the same company.

UPN has joined forces with the APN (The Association of Pallet Networks) and the other Pallet Networks to actively promote logistics as an exciting world with so many different opportunities and a real opportunity for a stable long term career.

We are all lobbying government and MP’s to focus on the current issues and trying to get them to invest in the logistics sector. We need HGV drivers to be added to the UK shortage occupation list to allow foreign drivers to come back to the UK to take up these roles. 

I believe that Government has been very slow to respond to these issues and is simply putting the issues back in the court of the logistic sector. Without Government focus and support pretty soon supply chains are going to slow down, shelves will be empty, and of course that will mean rising costs.

An impact on our members and indeed one that is also impacting right across the Logistics sector is increasing wages and special deals for new drivers. 

Whilst it’s right that drivers should be valued for the increasingly challenging roles that they fulfil these increases are pushing prices up to the consumer. 

It’s not the solution to this major shortage though; we need more drivers as well as better wages for drivers already on the payroll. 

UPN being one of the smaller networks is not currently as impacted as the larger networks but everyone is concerned as we are all now entering the peak period for logistics. Supermarkets will have a larger requirement and indeed they are already offering signing on fees and higher wages that network members simply can’t compete with.

Tough times indeed, and as you said Brexit hasn’t helped at all has it? 

How challenging was the Brexit transition for the sector and for UPN, especially your members dealing with Europe and across the Irish Sea?

The challenge was that the Brexit deal was done at the last minute. There was nowhere near enough time given to enable the logistics sector as a whole to educate customers regarding the new complexities of post Brexit requirements to ship goods between the UK and Europe. 

There was a huge lack of expertise and experience in the sector so a really fast learning curve was required. UPN centrally took on the Brexit Education Programme and worked closely with all our members to ensure that they had the tools and knowledge necessary. We set up new systems and clearance checks to ensure the smooth transition of all shipments. We also set up a comprehensive Brexit information area on our website as a further support resource.

Our members who act for us within Europe and in Ireland gave absolutely fantastic support for both UPN and all our network members. Collectively we worked tremendously hard together and I am pleased to say that within four weeks it was business as usual.

The cost of shipping within Europe has increased sharply and this has impacted on volumes but it is still a healthy part of our business. 

All this has been happening of course during the once in a lifetime challenge of the Covid Pandemic? 

How are UPN responding to the challenges that this unique unknown has set for us all?

As you know the world changed quite dramatically for all of us when Covid hit. Both personally and professionally everyone was feeling their way through a really difficult time and dealing with challenges that could not have been predicted just a few weeks earlier.

Initially we were very concerned as we entered a period of the unknown, how this would impact on our staff, volumes, and the membership. At UPN it was a case of keeping everything running well but making sure that health and safety was very much at the forefront in every respect.

We very quickly defined and implemented our Covid plan both on site and across our network applying the mantra – Hands – Face – Space – right across the board both on site, and on the road to ensure that we were able to provide our services efficiently and safely. 

We applied Covid protocols right across our network with the introduction of clear guidelines and an efficient system of contactless deliveries.

Our unique UPN technology, our SmartHUB Operational IT, our SmartPOD contactless POD, and our SmartClockIn sign in system have all really helped us to keep our staff and the public safe.

Our IT systems kept visiting drivers safely in their cabs. It enabled them to log their arrival on site automatically. Manifests could be downloaded directly to a phone, on site instructions again straight to phone and logging vehicles on and off site again could be done remotely. Not only did this keep the drivers safe but also our fork lift truck drivers as no physical interactions were required.

Our SmartClockIn sign in system enabled UPN staff to login directly without all queuing to use traditional clocking in machines again keeping them isolated from each other.

“Without our Logistics Key Workers, there would undoubtedly be turmoil and chaos right across the country”

As the concept of “Key Workers” evolved, so did the role of logistics workers as Key Workers. Alongside the NHS the Logistics sector including “Team UPN”, our network of partner hauliers, also became known as Key Workers all working through lockdown to keep UK PLC and our economy going.

The whole nationwide UPN member team of drivers, forklift staff, warehouse staff, and operations staff really stepped up to the plate to ensure that despite everything our service levels were maintained. They should be really proud of themselves at this extreme time, and very proud of the special way that they are meeting the challenges thrown at them by the pandemic.

Logistics is playing a crucial role in keeping the country running, the shops and supermarkets stocked, and the population positive, sane and safe. Without our Logistics Key Workers, there would undoubtedly be turmoil and chaos right across the country. 

By supporting our high streets, the booming DIY sector, and the inevitable increase in home deliveries, we have really helped in a significant way to minimise the mental impact of Covid on the UK and indeed keep the country sane!

We had massive swings in volume, both up and down, staff furloughs, illness, indeed over the past six months we have increased volumes by 50% across the board. I am really proud to say that despite what has probably been the most challenging year in our history, UPN service levels were upheld. 

UPN moved into its new SmartHUB just as the first wave of Covid was hitting its UK peak, how did that go?

Our planned date to move into our new site was the 15th May 2020 a plan that was 24 months in the making. 

We were at the final stages of construction when Covid hit and with the superb assistance of our support contractors we were able to continue development work right through the early stages of Covid safely to meet our target date. Our support contractors were fantastic, they worked extremely closely with us constantly reviewing the situation and helping to ensure we were in our new home on schedule.

Given the way that our volumes have increased over the course of 2021 it really was a godsend that we moved in on schedule. Our volumes rose to levels that we hadn’t seen in the past and hadn’t predicted this early into our move. We had the capacity to deal with increased volumes and we were able to maintain service performance.

How are things now, a year on?

What a 12 months! Brexit! Covid! Driver Shortage! Increased Volumes! We’ve risen to the change though both centrally and as a network. We’ve settled in smoothly into our new home which is a far superior facility to our previous location. Some great new members have joined our network; our volumes are up, our service levels are continuing to improve. The future looks very bright for UPN and our member network.

“Competition drives standards, service levels, and overall performance, which can only be good for service users”

Its UPNs 20th year in business, how do you feel that the sector has changed in that time?

The sector has changed massively; there have been huge changes in many respects. There are now eight networks each with their own distinct identity so it’s become much more competitive. It’s a good thing actually because competition drives standards, service levels, and overall performance, which can only be good for service users.

In the Pallet Network Sector there is a real focus on customer service excellence supported by high quality IT systems to ensure total client visibility. Pallet networks are a unique logistics sector; they are the greenest and operate at optimum capacity at all times unlike some other Logistics sectors which often run close to empty. 

Pallet Networks are now seen as a complementary service working for companies in conjunction with or replacing the standard 3PL service offerings. Pallet Networks are highly responsive and flexible and it’s probably this USP that is seeing the sector become the fastest growing sector in UK Logistics. 

UPNs growth over the years has been very consistent, has this been a deliberate decision and how have you been able to maintain such a steady stable growth trajectory?

Absolutely, this has been a very deliberate and considered decision. A growth approach of steady stable development as a network has been a key to our long term success. It has enabled both UPN and our members to evolve smoothly as a nationwide team of collaborators.

We work with, and for our members, to build our business by helping them build theirs, its real partnership. UPN is quality focused not volume driven. Service always comes first.

Talking about the importance of IT in the Pallet Network Sector, UPN is renowned for its bespoke IT support systems which are the envy of some of your competitors, how did this focus on bespoke IT support evolve?

It was clear that the sector wasn’t offering IT solutions that were keeping pace with what was required, and UPN saw an opportunity to establish a clear point of difference by moving into the forefront in this area. 

It would have been very easy to go to the market and utilise systems that were already out there but we decided that this approach would only give the same support as our competitors and for us this simply wasn’t good enough. 

We took the decision very early on to be in control of UPN IT support by having our own bespoke internally designed and developed IT systems. We recognised that good IT platforms would be the key to a successful network but it was important to have the right offering to our members and customers.

We worked closely with members and customers to design and build IT support systems that gave them exactly what they needed. An excellent example of this was live track and trace and signature capture, UPN were the first network to offer signature capture at point of delivery.

We continue to invest strongly in this area continuing to come up with new ideas to keep us ahead of our competitors. Seeing some of them now adopting our ideas can only be a compliment to us.

Each of the eight Pallet Networks seems to have its own identity, focus, and objectives. How do you see UPN in this context? How would you define UPN as unique?

We are now the only privately owned network exclusively involved in member focussed pallet networking. UPN do not have outside investors driving for returns and for profit. Our owner, and our management team have been in the sector from the start and we still hold those early values that networks were built on.

Our focus has always been on our membership working closely in partnership with them and growing our business in conjunction with them not through them. 

The APN (Association of Pallet Networks) has highlighted that growth in the sector has been unparalleled in 2021. How has UPN grown and what do you see as the key growth factors?

It’s great to see the Pallet Network Sector seeing such tremendous growth. This is testament to the offering and service we and our members all provide to our customers. UPN actually saw by far the most significant percentage growth of all the networks which demonstrates the confidence customers have in our services. 

Home deliveries have been a huge growth area. More and more people have been working from home and spending their free time, and money not spent on holidays doing DIY and gardening. Without us delivering the goods this would not have been possible. 

Your senior management team at UPN is highly experienced in the sector – tell me a bit more about how this is helping your evolution as a network?

I want to continually ensure that our members have the right level of support and our excellent senior management team certainly provide this. 

With what is probably the strongest management team in the sector with the most extensive pedigree of relevant experience, our membership and customers have a really solid foundation of industry expertise to draw from.

Experience only comes with time and we are fortunate that our management team at UPN have so many years of service under their belt.

A strong cohesive member network is crucial to stable growth, how are you building strong relationships with and between members within the UPN network

UPNs members are our customers, we must always remember that. At UPN we are continually and actively working together with our members in a true partnership with each and every member. 

We positively encourage dual marketing highlighting the strong partnership bonds between us. Our dual branded fleet liveries are testament to this with our fleet menagerie ever growing right across the UK and Ireland.

“The key to a really successful Pallet Network is clear, strong, and objective two way communication”

Pallet Networks are quite unique in their make up as we are bringing independent companies together but need them to work collectively and not as individuals. That is why we established “Team UPN” to build a strong powerful nationwide team ethos of communication, support, and true collaboration.

The key to a really successful Pallet Network is clear, strong, and objective two way communication, it is crucial that we listen to our members, involve them as much as possible and definitely not dictate to them. Regular regional and national meetings enable UPN and our members to share ideas, discuss developments and ensure that we are all moving forward as a cohesive network. 

Indeed many of the fantastic IT support and services that UPN offer today have been as a result of these meetings, but as I said there is no point in having meetings if you don’t listen.

The Pallet Network Sector has been around now for just under thirty years, how do you see the sector evolving over the next five / ten years?

Pallet Networks in the UK have now definitely reached the “mature” stage but with new markets opening up outside of Europe will provide further opportunities for those networks interested in developing within these arenas. 

From our part as we see new technology being developed, we will look how this can benefit our network. This is an area that UPN is continually looking at to ensure we stay at the forefront in our sector.

The important thing for us here at UPN is that we maintain our core ethos and that is to continue to provide an ever improving high quality service for our UK customers and our members.