Road runner: Keith Elkington Q&A

When installing an item of catering equipment on site, rarely is much thought given to how it got there in the first place. One person who understands the rigours of transporting heavy duty kitchen kit up and down the country is Keith Elkington, owner of Keith Elkington Transport, which clocks up a million miles a year on behalf of the trade.

How did the creation of the business come about and what led you to focus exclusively on catering equipment?

At the end of the 80s I was looking for a change and started doing contract driving, just hiring myself out to companies. Then, in 1990, I brought my own van and started looking for work. One day I went into a company called Winterhalter Gastronom Ltd in Luton, spoke to the warehouse manager and started to do deliveries for them. Because of their vast customer base I delivered to nearly all the dealers and distributors in the UK, as well as many end-users.

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As a specialist catering equipment transport business, what aspects make you different from an ordinary transport provider?

The thing that makes us different, I guess, is the experience and knowledge. Any delivery company can put a piece of equipment in a van and take it from A to B — it’s what you do with it when you get there that’s important. Experience gives us the knowledge to get equipment into site safely. Knowledge gives our customers peace of mind that they are dealing with a company that has done this all before. It’s also very important to understand everything you can about the customer’s business.

I go to nearly all the large catering shows and I read all the industry magazines and e-newsletters so that I know all I can about the industry because you never know when an opportunity will present itself. I think another difference is that we are a genuine family business. Everybody has a vested interest in what happens to the business now and also in safeguarding it for the future. Oliver, my son, has a very wise head for a 23-year-old. He is in charge of the operations and has been responsible for setting up our online portal, and I am very proud of the way he has taken to the business and helped the company push forward. He started as a van driver at 17 so he knows the business from top to bottom.

Richard, my son-in-law, runs the warehouse side; Hannah, my daughter, is responsible for all clients’ stock that we hold in the warehouses; and Nick, my nephew, has been with us six months and has already proved to be an asset looking after the IT side, mobile phone contract, vehicle tracking and computer maintenance as well as data input. We have a good back-up team from Diana in accounts, Gill, office admin, and the warehouse team, Mark and Rob, and, of course, all our drivers and labourers.

How has the business changed in the years you have been involved in it?

I think everything now is a lot more open, there’s quite a lot of sharing of information now, probably in part down to the fact that it’s an incestuous industry with nearly everybody working for two, three or even four different companies within the industry over their career.

What role is technology now playing in the logistics management and transportation process?

Obviously we have always had software to deal with job allocation, but we now have software called ‘BOX’, which is an online portal allowing our customers to view every detail about any stock that we hold. This includes all the information about consolidated project stock, warranty goods and returns, and also ex-stock that may be for sale as we are able to add photos. We trialled it with one of our customers for a year and they loved it, it made it so much easier for the admin people to check up on things, to see if stock had arrived or what the serial number was on an individual piece of equipment. We have now made it available to our entire customer base.

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Most people would probably judge the quality of a transport provider on its ability to get product delivered on time and in the same condition it was collected. Is there more to it than that?

Until probably eight years ago we did just transport things from A to B, but in more recent times we have started to offer the whole package — one because that’s what our clients were asking for and two because there was an opportunity to enhance our services and become more entwined in our clients’ businesses. Having a good understanding of your clients’ needs, some of which they don’t even know themselves, does make the whole process flow a lot easier. Because we work for so many companies within the industry we are able to smooth out potential issues.

For instance, a distributor orders a piece of equipment to be delivered on a certain day and at 8 O’clock the previous evening it gets a call from the site saying the floors aren’t finished or the electrics haven’t been upgraded and the delivery needs to be postponed. The project manager can’t ring the manufacturer to cancel as they went home at 5.30pm, but he can ring us 24 hours a day if need be. All our clients have all of our mobile numbers and we’ll hold off the delivery. It’s all simple stuff, but the knock-on effect is immense: the manufacturer doesn’t get abortive delivery charges, equipment doesn’t sit on site with the risk of damage or it going missing, and the site sees the process working as it requested.

How do you see yourself fitting into the business models of manufacturers?

We have become the link for several large European equipment manufacturers and their customers, and we are happy to take this role on for them. It means that they don’t need an expensive warehouse and office set-up. We’ll take delivery of the equipment then organise with the dealer where and when they want it. With trust there is no need for the manufacturer to worry about the final part of the jigsaw. I would hope that all of our clients value the honesty, integrity and willingness that we have to always do the best for their business.

I think in the future our role will be more closely linked with the industry and I would hope that we can become a one-stop-shop. There’s the delivery of equipment, the full warehousing package, installation, site surveys, special equipment lifts, labour supply, recycling of redundant equipment and pick-and-pack with roll-outs.

The cost of fuel has risen sharply in recent years. How do you manage this and to what extent has this led you to increase the price of your services?

Fuel is a bit of a necessary evil for anyone involved in transport, the only things that we can control are the in-house things: driver training with the emphasis on fuel efficient driving and the most modern fuel efficient vehicles with the latest Euro 5 and 6 engines. Also, efficient and effective route planning ensures the vehicles aren’t covering any unnecessary miles. All our vehicles are tracked so we can tell exactly where they are at any given time as well as other information.

What’s the biggest challenge for your business these days?

The biggest challenge for us at present is recruiting good reliable people. For every one job advert we place we will get around 400 applicants, but unfortunately from those we will only find maybe five or six who actually have the experience and work ethic that we require.

How much competition do you face from other transport providers? Are they aggressively targeting the catering equipment sector?

There will always be competition from other transport providers. A lot of equipment is delivered by the manufacturers’ in-house transport and we are seeing a rise in some of the larger transport companies having a look to see if it fits in with their operation.

When it comes to logistics, what makes catering equipment different from other industries? Are there specific things you need to bear in minding when handling and transporting an item of catering equipment versus another kind of product or commodity?

There are the obvious ones like everything being made of glass or stainless steel — the two things that are the easiest to damage. It’s really all about having the right equipment to do the job, the constant training and the sharing of knowledge and experience within the workforce. If we were just box shifters then it would be a relatively easier job and could therefore be done by any company. It’s the stuff that doesn’t come in a nice secure box that other companies shy away from, but we will take on more or less everything.

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Are there any items of catering equipment or refrigeration that you don’t have the capacity to deliver? Or that you refuse to deliver?

There’s nothing really that we can’t do or haven’t done, but I’m not a lover of wine storage cabinets, they never seem to go smoothly. I like the challenge of the big pieces of equipment, like cooking suites. We have five clients who use us for their suites and big pizza ovens. I like to project manage those.

Last year you mentioned the possibility of opening a warehouse facility in Manchester to better serve the north-west region. Is that something you have done or has the strategy changed?

The strategy changed a little regarding the north-west because we had to open our own depot in Scotland that was owned and run by KET. Previously we had rented part of another transport company’s warehouse and subbed the work to them. We now have around 5,000 square feet of warehouse space and the same vans and lorries up there that we have down here.

We hold a stock of glasswashers and dishwashers for a major warewashing company which allows them to react quickly to customer needs. We consolidate project stock and also we have become a base for the Scottish installation technicians. The Scottish depot comes down as far as Cumbria and the north-east, which is around 180 miles from Bellshill, and Milton Keynes covers up to those points, which is again around 200 miles. Between the two depots we have the whole of the country covered.

How do you see the role of a transport provider in the catering equipment sector evolving in the future?

I think as we move along more and more dealers will stop doing the transporting of equipment to site themselves. Some are still hiring lorries from the local rental company, loading them up and getting the warehouse guy to drive to site. Most seem to be unaware that they are in fact breaking the law and are laying themselves open to a heavy fine. To transport your own goods in a commercial vehicle over 3.5 tonnes you require a Restricted Operators licence.

We are ideally placed to help these companies and it’s much more cost effective. We already have this service working perfectly well for many clients, so we know that it will work for others. They can just slot into the system that we already operate.

Transport by numbers

22 Members of staff work for Keith Elkington Transport

16 Vehicles in the fleet

10 Brands KET works with

40 Distributors KET works with

10,000 Items of catering equipment a year delivered every year

1m Road miles covered on an annual basis

30 tonnes Cardboard packaging recycled each year

60 tonnes Wooden pallets recycled each year

75 tonnes Scrap machines recycled each year

18 tonnes Refrigeration sent for recycling each year

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