Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Edward Stobart

He reinvented the image of the road haulage business
    Edward Stobart in 2000. 
    He insisted his vehicles should always be immaculately clean.
    They celebrated his business with pop songs, a fanclub of tens of thousands, souvenirs from Corgi toys to oil paintings, and there were cartoons and television series about his huge, lumbering juggernauts. Yet Edward Stobart, who has died aged 56 after suffering heart problems, was the antithesis of a big, brash, Yorkie-bar trucker. A small, neat, self-effacing man, with a pronounced stammer, he had a vision of an ultra-reliable operator with smart and disciplined drivers, working to tight margins that enabled him to transform a handful of lorries doing local fertiliser runs into a 1,000-vehicle logistics business by the time he sold Eddie Stobart Ltd in 2004. He was born at Hesket Newmarket, near Carlisle, the third child of EP "Steady Eddie" Stobart and his wife, Nora. His father, a lay preacher, started an agricultural supplies business in 1957, selling fertiliser equipment and acquiring lorries to do so, later adding a farm shop. The young Edward – always called that to differentiate him from his father – showed his commercial savvy in his teens by buying railway sleepers and cutting them up to sell for firewood. He left school at 15 to join his father's business, where he took a particular interest in the haulage side. Six years later, when his father divided the business, Edward took the lorries and the Eddie Stobart name, and soon relocated with eight vehicles to Carlisle. Stobart was obsessive about the business, driving trucks at night after working in the office all day. He insisted his vehicles should always be immaculately clean and introduced uniforms for his drivers, first green overalls and then collars and ties. "The tie wasn't the important thing about the uniform," he said. "It was the discipline." It was part of his vision. "Transport had had a shifty image for a long time. The average truck driver or small operator was basically a tramp. Service in the industry needed to be upgraded, so we put in standards which others are now following." He recognised the excitement shared by young children and their fathers for large shiny vehicles. Stobart gave his lorries girls' names – the first four were Twiggy, Tammy (Wynette), Dolly (Parton) and Suzi (Quatro). Later, one would even be named after William Hague's wife, Ffion. He instructed his drivers to hoot back when other vehicles waved. As the fleet grew, families played the game of counting the number they spotted and chorused "Eddie Stobart" to the tune of the Hallelujah chorus. The fanclub's key giveaway was a list of the complete fleet, and on offer was the opportunity to pick the name for a new truck. "The secret," said Stobart, "is never to have an empty truck. If you take lemonade down somewhere, bring water back up." He specialised in major contracts for big manufacturers and retail chains, particularly food and drink, taking advantage of computerisation and the huge expansion of road haulage at the expense of rail in the 1980s and 90s. From eight vehicles in 1975, he moved to 35 by 1980 and 540 in 1987, when he opened his first Midlands depot. By 2000, he was turning over £135m with 800 trucks. He and his brother William were estimated by the Rich List to be worth £60m. But his expansion was too rapid, and in 2001 the firm recorded its first loss. Three years later, Edward sold his 55% stake to WA Developments, where William was a partner. The new bosses successfully rebuilt the business so that it now has more than 1,500 trucks. Edward moved south from Carlisle to Warwickshire. His marriage to Sylvia, once the company secretary, with whom he had adopted four children, had come to an end, and he had a new partner, Mandy, who became his second wife, and with whom he had two children. He turned to constructing vehicles, starting up an agricultural vehicle business, Stratford Commercial Vehicles, which built horse-boxes. In 2009 he lost almost £1m on the ill-advised purchase of the failing commercial vehicle business Boalloy Fastruck Bodies, and last year he was banned for 20 months for drink-driving. Stobart is survived by Mandy, his children and his parents, two brothers and a sister. • Edward Stobart, haulage contractor, born 21 November 1954; died 31 March 2011

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