Felixstowe-based Maritime Transport finds the road to success

John Williams, group managing firector at Maritme Transport in Felixstowe.

John Williams, group managing firector at Maritme Transport in Felixstowe.

Felixstowe-based Maritime Transport is the largest privately-owned container transport business in the country. Ross Bentley met managing director John Williams to hear the company’s impressive success story.

Waiting in the reception to meet John Williams, group managing director of Felixstowe-based logistics firm Maritime Transport, I have time to appreciate my surroundings.

My eyes are drawn to the blue marble floor, the designer leather Egg chairs and a majestic, multi-coloured glass sculpture that hangs from the ceiling five floors up, lending the space an artistic and vibrant air.

The striking décor is not what most people would expect to find at the head office of a haulage company. It is, however, a fitting monument to the achievements of the management team at Maritime, now the largest privately-owned container transport business in the country and a real Suffolk success story.

In the fourteen years since John acquired the business in 2001 turnover has increased from £18million to north of £200m. The company now employs 1,750 people and owns 1,350 trucks responsible for an average of 13,000 jobs per week. Alongside a 17-acre site at Felixstowe port, which houses the office building and a lorry park, the firm owns over 22 other depots around the country from Southampton to Liverpool, Tilbury to South Shields.

The sweeping five-storey curved building on Clickett Hill in Felixstowe, home to around 120 staff currently but with space to accommodate up to 250, opened at the end of last year and as we walk around its impressive interior, it is clear that John is extremely proud of the structure. But it is when we reach the driver’s facilities that his eyes really light up. The plush washrooms and showers, and a well-equipped rest room with flat screen TV and wifi are intended to make sure the 300 or so drivers who use them every day are looked after properly and feel valued.

This respect for lorry drivers harks back to his days as a young man just starting out in the small, family-owned haulage business in Swansea.

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“My father taught me to always call the drivers ‘sir’, and that is the attitude I have to this day,” explains John.

“Truck drivers are not only the backbone of this company but of the economy as whole. They are out there representing the business day in, day out regularly dealing with very busy driving conditions. People often don’t appreciate the extnet of the supply chain and what is involved in getting goods from Asia, North America or Europe and then across the UK but it’s our day-to day job.”

John has come a long way from those early days in south Wales but has never forgotten the lessons he learnt during that time - when the new office building was officially opened it was his father, Tommy , who was asked to do the honours.

The story of Maritime Transport harks back to 2001 when John was a commercial director at the Hutchison Whampoa Group, the company that runs the Port of Felixstowe, and operations at Thamesport in Kent, Harwich and Rotterdam.

“Hutchison owned a transport company called Maritime Haulage with around 130 trucks, turning over £18m a year – they had five depots and were probably number six in the league of container transport companies at the time,” explains John.

“It wasn’t making any money at the time and they decided to sell it because all the trucks needed replacing. At that time in 2001 there was a shipping line recession and there was no appetite for Maritime Haulage. I eventually succeeded in buying it and completed the transaction on September 4 2001.”

The date of the deal is etched in John’s mind because it was only a week before the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. The terrible event threw all his plans up in the air.

“To fund the acquisition I had put my house up as collateral,” John continues. “I’d been to all the depots, met a lot of the staff and customers and I remember I was up in Liverpool with a client when I heard the news and saw the images - I really did not know what was going to happen. People were talking about a potential oil crisis - I had a lot of sleepless nights.”

However, John’s worst fears were unfounded and trade was unaffected. In fact, his company saw seven remarkable years of compound growth thanks to the ‘China factor’.

“A lot of sourcing was transferred to China, which had established itself as the workshop of the world, and we were getting flooded with containers arriving from the Far East,” John says.

“We were getting annual growth of 10-12%. In 2007 we saw 18% growth – it was just staggering. The ports found it hard to cope – they hadn’t seen that kind of volume coming. No-one had seen it coming. It was a boom period - we had acquired the company at a great time and we were welcomed into an expanding market with open arms. We used the time to grow and invest in the business. We bought all our trucks and built up an unrivalled network.”

This strategy put Maritime in a very good position when the recession came in 2008 and enabled it to make strides in the sector.

“The recession came quickly and again no-one saw it coming,” remembers John.

“We entered the recession cash positive, debt free and we owned everything. It was a deliberate strategy – not because we saw a recession coming – but we found ourselves in a remarkable position. Our competitors found themselves in a completely different situation - they thought the good times would keep rolling. Some private owners stripped their companies of profits, PLCs stripped their companies to pay dividends to shareholders. They were in a much different place to us – they were renting land, leasing trucks and borrowing money from the banks.”

Maritime’s healthy position enabled it to purchase DHL Container Logistics, the container operation for parcel courier giant DHL, in 2010. The business at that time had a £50m turnover and also owned 17 acres of land at Felixstowe and six acres of freehold land in Trafford Park next to Manchester United’s stadium – both sites were crucial centres from which Maritime could build its business further.

The activities at Felixstowe are the company’s biggest operation – home to around 250 trucks, as well as a destination for many of their lorries coming from other depots around the country. Business based or coming through Felixstowe represents around 35-40% of Maritime’s turnover.

The recession also hit the shipping companies, which in turn had a knock-on effect for haulage firms working in the container sector.

“Many of the shipping firm had pre-ordered ships, “continues John. “To deliver a ship takes two to three years and many of these arrived as the recession started to bite – they had created a 30% increase in capacity at a time when the economy was going down sharply. There were many ships from Singapore and Hong Kong parked up with skeleton crews - it was horrific.”

With the shipping lines losing millions of pounds they in turn squeezed all the suppliers in the industry in order to survive. It was this factor that, according to John, eventually forced Aegeus Transport Limited, the holding company for Roadways Container Logistics Limited, to admit they couldn’t continue with the business and enabled Maritime to acquire all its assets including 374 employees and a fleet of 241 vehicles.

The deal went through last August and Maritime is in the process of replacing Roadways trucks with new Maritime trucks. Some of the outgoing vehicles will be sold through Maritime’s own used trucks sales business called www.secondhandtrucks.co.uk. The business has also diversified into distribution with curtain-sided lorries, which service a different part of the supply-chain and distributes both nationally and internationally.

John adds: “From a container transport point of view we are now the market leader – in 2001 we were probably number five or six but now we are around two and a half times bigger than our nearest competitor.

Our scale gives us opportunities for efficiency and productivity and our drivers are crucial to enabling this to happen.”

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