The uphill struggle that small freight companies face

David Rae

A champion for those who cannot speak out!

We recently spoke with Lesley O’Brien OBE FCILT, the joint managing director at Freightlink Europe. Lesley prides herself on speaking out for those in the freight industry who don’t have a voice. 

A subject very close to her heart is how small freight companies can survive in a world dominated by large logistics companies, extensive regulations, and expensive and long-winded staff onboarding as well as having to keep up with the relentless pace of all the changes.

How has the industry changed since you first started?

 “It was a really different world back then; we’ve just moved on. As an example, when you look at the Code of Practice for Safety of Goods on Vehicles, that really hasn’t changed, but 40 years ago we just ignored all of that. I can remember standing on the back of a trailer, wearing marigold gloves, no PPE and just assisting drivers with loading.  I shudder thinking back.  We just got on with the job which is what I tell drivers not to do now. Health and safety must come first.”

Championing women and small freight businesses 

“What I like to think is that I champion those who haven’t the opportunity, time or confidence to have a voice and speak out, predominantly the smaller companies. Because I’ve worked for the large multinationals and family businesses, I realise that they can be worlds apart.”

 “Working for the multinationals, I had someone doing my HR,  someone doing my health and safety,  someone doing my recruitment, someone doing my IT. When you return to the family business you are wearing all of these hats and taking them on and off, it can be really challenging.”

 “If you ask the trade associations, they will tell you that the vast majority, I think around 80% of vehicle operators, have 15 vehicles or less.  We are one of the most regulated industries after the chemical industry and have an abundance of regulations to follow.  Yet at the same time we are operating on the smallest of margins. Often less than 3% net margin, but still expected to invest in Euro 6 vehicles to enter low emission zones, Direct Vision Standard equipment,  cameras and a wealth of staff and driver training.   All this requires time, expertise and cost, which more and more the transport industry is expected to absorb as rates are continually driven down, as the last link in the ‘food chain’.”

‘’In many small family businesses the business owner is trying to run the business, jumps in the cab when there is no driver, invoices on a Saturday and lays under the truck carrying out repairs on a Sunday.   Clearly that is not how it should be – but for some, it is the reality’’.

Who speaks out for these hauliers?

 “How many of these small family businesses can afford the cost of investing in new equipment or paying to go into cities and towns with low emission zones? Does the Government and councils realize what they are doing to SMEs who often survive on second hand vehicles, who bought them thinking that they would get another few years out of them. Then, all of a sudden, low emission zones are introduced.  They can’t afford to buy Euro 6 vehicles and the second hand vehicles they bought in good faith have depreciated overnight.. Who is going to speak out for these operators?”

 “I think that the voice of an operator often has more impact than the trade bodies, who clearly represent our industries, but for the operator it can be a living hell.”

 “I feel an obligation as I’m really fortunate that I can afford to take the time out, but many can’t take that time out to go to a meeting, to speak to someone or represent our industry..”


Where are the areas in the freight industry that need the most work still?

 “Obviously, driver recruitment and training. That is a nightmare.”

“Hopefully, following the recent driver CPC consultation there will be some changes to the regulatory training which could encourage more to return to the industry.   The current 7 hours in a classroom is a long time for a trainer, never mind a driver and which of course can make  the training less effective.”

 “With regard to use of driver recruitment agencies, the bigger operators have massive buying power, can dictate standards and training requirements and will snap up all the best drivers.  The smaller companies have the same requirements, but less buying power.   With less resources, and an inability to outsource there are still the same expectations to assess and train drivers before they go on the road.   When a driver rings in sick at 6 am obtaining a driver, then carrying out an induction, which could take a day is an impossibility and yet we need to ensure that our drivers are safe on the road.”

 “The situation is going to get worse with the industry’s aging workforce because as fast as we are bringing drivers into the industry the older guys are retiring.  Or those entering the industry get disillusioned by the lack of respect or facilities our drivers have to endure’’

 “Moving forward we’ve got new technology and electric vehicles, and this will frighten a lot of our older drivers and smaller operators.  I think we’re in a time of change. Many drivers may leave, and many operators may say, we’re on such tight margins, we can’t afford new vehicles and ask when will second hand electric or hydrogen vehicles become  available?”


Is there anything that you’re working on right now?

 “Freightlink Europe is proud to be a founding member of the DVSA earned recognition scheme.”

 “Whereas many operators subscribe to FORS, I don’t like FORS with a passion. There are FORS operators who have lost their operator’s licence because they haven’t been compliant with the operator licence regime as the FORS standard is no evidence of compliance with Operator Licence standards.   I’ve therefore fought off going for FORS.”

 “We recently got a new contract where we thought that we would have to introduce FORS silver. I was delighted when the DVSA Earned Recognition team advised that a new add-on module had been accepted by the DFT/TFL as FORS Silver equivalent.”

 If you would like to more about the DVSAS Earned Recognition team then please click here.

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