Ipswich: Fork Rent delivers a lift for employment

Fork Rent chairman Guy Nicholls with director Trudi Nicholls, left, and managing director Elaine Mil

Fork Rent chairman Guy Nicholls with director Trudi Nicholls, left, and managing director Elaine Miller. - Credit: Archant

Suffolk-based plant hire company Fork Rent has expanded rapidly in recent years and is now planning to relocate from its current home in Ipswich to a new base in Kesgrave. DUNCAN BRODIE went to see the Fork Rent management team to learn about the secret of the firm’s success.

Plant hire business Fork Rent has carried on growing over recent years, despite the recession, and is now preparing to enter a new era.

The firm, currently based in Felixstowe Road, Ipswich, along with sister company Trucks R U, is seeking planning permission for a new headquarters on former quarry land at Kesgrave.

Fork Rent was launched in by 1972 ? originally under the name Guy’s Hire ? by Guy Nicholls, now chairman of the company, and he was later joined in the business by his sister, Trudi, who is also a director.

Their father, the late Percy Nicholls, had launched a truck rental business, out of which Trucks R Us developed, in the mid-1960s, and the brother and sister team took over both businesses when he died, about 16 years ago.

Fork Rent, which has increasingly become the main focus of the business since the late 1980s, has grown steadily, first by supplying the larger building firms locally, then starting to work with national builders on their sites within the local area and, now, working with many of them regionally and nationally.

In 2011, Guy and Trudi brought in Elaine Miller as managing director, to support the further development of the business which, despite on the ongoing recession at that time, was already achieving significant year-on-year growth.

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The reason for this growth, says Guy, is that while many competitors cut back on investment in response to the tough economic climate, “we rolled up our sleeves and got stuck in”.

Trudi adds: “They have battened down the hatches and stood still; we have invested in new machines and have gone after new business.”

Besides keeping the age of its fleet young, rather than attempting to extend the life of equipment with the attendant problems of reliability, the Fork Rent has also adopted a policy of investing in specialised and high-specification units, so as to offer customers the best possible tool for the job.

Elaine, whose background is in logistics, notably with the former Russell Davies and Hanbury Davies companies, says: “We always buy from the best manufacturer for that piece of equipment and we never buy the standard model.

“This saves the customer time and money and helps to maintain the value of the vehicle when we come to sell it at two years old. Others keep machines three to five years or even longer.”

Elaine says that, when she joined in 2011, Fork Rent was already a fundamentally successful business but it had grown to a size where it could not be run as a family business any more.

It needed to become more “corporate” in its approach, in areas such as struff structure and IT investment, while retaining the “can do” approach of a smaller organisation.

“Guy and Trudi realised they needed someone to do that,” she says. “We have been going through a change management programme over the last two years and we have managed to continue growing and push the business on further in the time.”

To which Trudi adds: “So it’s just as well we did it.”

Growth since 2011 has seen the company’s workforce grow from 35 to around 80 and the number of telehandlers, the mainstay of its fleet, from 900 to more than 2,000, enabling it to trade with more customers than ever before.

An investment in IT has also enabled it to offer an improved service, in the form of data on key performance indicators which can be shared with customers, showing how the machinery on offer can make them more efficient, as well as being used for Fork Rent’s own internal management.

Besides telehandlers, its fleet includes excavators of all sizes, suitable for uses ranging from digging garden ponds to building roads, together with rollers, sweepers, access equipment and utility vehicles, plus attachments. The total fleet numbers more than 3,000 vehicles.

Customers with which Fork Rent now has preferred supplier status include major names such as Balfour Beatty, Barratt, Taylor Wimpey, Persimmon and Wilmott Dixon. Fork Rent, in turn, is now the largest customer in Europe for JCB, and last year placed one of the biggest single orders in JCB’s history, for 900 machines worth more than £53million.

So big a player has Fork Rent become, in fact, that it has collaborated with some equipment manufacturers to help them develop improvements, such as air conditioned cabs, further helping to improve the offer to customers.

The planned relocation to Kesgrave ? to an eight-acre former gravel working off the A1214, more than three times the size of its existing home in Felixstowe Road ? involves the construction of purpose-built offices and workshops which will also accommodate the Trucks R Us business.

The proposed design features separate office and workshop areas, linked by a continuous roof, together with landscaping, although sunken nature of the site will itself limit the visual impact of the development.

“Green” features of the design include a timber screen to cool the office building, selective glazing to maximise natural daylight and rooflights to provide natural lighting in the workshops without overheating. Both locations are owned freehold, with the Ipswich site likely to be sold for residential development, subject to planning permission being secured for both it and for the new Kesgrave HQ.

Besides offering the space to accommodate future growth the new facility will also make operations easier, with the present site suffering from a relatively narrow frontage while extending a long way back from the road.

However, even if planning consent is received, the move from Ipswich to Kesgrave is still a year to 18 months away. In the meantime, the company also has plans to add to its network of depots.

It already has sites at Warrington in Cheshire and at Hullavington, near Chippenham in Wiltshire, and expects to add depots in London, the Midlands and the North East over the next two to three years.

Ipswich, however, will remain very much the “epicentre” as the Suffolk success story that is Fork Rent goes from strength to strength.