As Precision Pallets & Cases celebrates its 10th anniversary, Director Rick Leach talks to Simon Cronin about how he salvaged the company from a much older business and built a national reputation for quality and service.
Although Precision Pallets & Cases is only 10 years old, its roots stretch back to a business that was founded in the darkest days of World War Two. The original company was started by a joiner who was unable to fight, so set up making ammunition boxes for the war effort. After the war, the business transformed into the Factory Reconstruction Company, which helped with post-war reconstruction by rebuilding Manchester’s bombed out factories and mills. In the 1960s, the company began manufacturing pallets full-time and moved from its base in Eccles to Oldham, which has been its home ever since. In the 1970s it became an approved supplier to the Ministry of Defence, which it still carries out work for to this day. The company remained family-run until 2005 when it was sold as there were no more family members willing to run the business.
By the time Rick Leach joined the company in April 2012 it had seen better days. He was, with his extensive background in exports / shipping, brought in as a consultant to help reverse falling orders. By August, the company had gone into receivership. Funding was found to start the business up again under a different name, but four months later it went into receivership once again. After the Christmas break, Rick and his colleagues returned to work to find the company no longer existed and the administrators were due in at any moment. It was then that Rick took the brave decision that, rather than look for another job, he would try to save the business himself.
He explains: “I still didn't really know anything about pallets at this point. I had a brief conversation with the then Production Manager and asked if we could possibly cherry-pick a couple of customers, start something small and see where it went from there. I managed to gain a meeting with the administrators and cobbled together a very rudimentary business plan on the back of a postage stamp. They agreed there and then that I could buy the assets and the goodwill.”
A New Venture
The new business was formed five days later and started trading 10 days after that as Precision Pallets & Cases Ltd with a limited staff of just four (from the previous 24). Having persuaded the administrators, Rick then had the difficult task of convincing the existing customers that the new company could continue to meet their needs.
He adds: “In that short window of time between the administrators walking in and the new business starting production, I jumped in my car and drove round to all the existing customers I could get to. I think at the time we had about 100 to 120 customers. I explained to them what I was going to do and that I was personally funding the buy-out. I went to 108 customers in a week and thankfully 108 of them came with us. We started to trade a few days later with a customer base of 108.
“Some of that customer base immediately said yes, we’ll come with you, no problem. Some said we'll come with you, but you can only have half the business. Some said we'll come with you, but you can only have a quarter of the business until you establish yourself because you're unknown, you've got no backing, you've got no finances, you've got no idea.”
Rick was under no illusion about the scale of the challenge he was taking on in setting up the new company and freely admits: “I’d never had any business acumen, and I’d never had any desire to own my own business. I'd never previously been involved in manufacturing, and I'd never really been involved in production. But I knew that it was an opportunity that would probably never present itself again.”
Starting a new business is daunting enough, but Rick also had a young baby and a house in mid renovation: “I was working eight hours in the office and was going out onto the workshop and spending eight hours plus physically manufacturing the pallets. I was working 16, 18, 20 hours a day for the first few months, juggling finances and juggling family life because I had a one-month-old baby at home at the time. My home was undergoing massive renovations as I’d ripped my house apart. There was no roof on my house. If you asked me what went on in that first seven to eight months in the business, I've got no idea. We just survived.”
Building a Reputation
Over the next three years, Rick and his staff worked tirelessly to build their reputation and establish themselves as key suppliers to all their original customers. Since then, their customer base has increased year on year, with the company going from £400,000 turnover in its first year to nearly £3 million last year. Even during the Covid pandemic, the company increased production and took on more staff. The number of staff has grown from the original four to 20.
Today, the company is a specialist manufacturer of timber and plywood pallets, cases and crates. It also offers a ‘just in time’ service to customers whose warehouse space is at a premium. Every order placed with the company is unique. The expert team designs the pallets or cases to the customer’s specifications, providing them with a perfect-fit solution for their delivery needs. The manufacturing process can accommodate anything from one-off orders to high volume requirements. The company regularly produces pallets and cases up to, and in excess of, six metres in size and have supplied pallets and cases over 10 metres in length. It supplies every sector and industry throughout the UK and Europe has even shipped to clients in South America.
Over the years, Precision Pallets & Cases has received a number of accolades. In 2015, it won Start-up Business of Year at the Oldham Business Awards. In 2019, it won the ‘Business Valued Between £1-5million’ category at the Oldham Business Awards and was Regional Runner-up in the Make UK Awards of the same year.
Rick believes the secret of his company’s success is its high level of customer service, which has seen it grow and retain customers. He says: “We've never had a bad year in last 10 years. Every year we have grown year on year consistently for the last 10 years. So, we're obviously doing something right. We haven't really done any hard sales. We've not undertaken any marketing. We've not made any sales calls. Most of our new customers come via recommendations, they come to us via referrals. I can’t think of one customer in the last 10 years that we have lost on service. We receive enquiries the length and breadth of the UK and overseas.”
Quality and Service
The quality of the product is also key part of the company’s strategy: “It’s instilled in every employee that it's about quality, not quantity. We want everything that goes out of our door to be a representation of our workmanship. I explain to the lads on the shop floor that the next person who sees our product could be the CEO of Virgin Galactic in America because our products go all over the world.
“Some businesses will just manufacture something and not worry about the consequences afterwards. What we try and do is change that mindset. Quality is paramount. We don't want anything that we manufacture coming back. We don't want to rework anything. We don't have to have to go out on site and inspect something because it's failed. I believe that’s where our business model differs from our competitors.”
While staff are expected to meet high standards, Rick says they receive respect and good wages in return. In an industry synonymous with low pay and piece work, the company was one of the first to sign-up for the Living Wage scheme.
“We've always paid our staff above and beyond the Living Wage. They’re all paid more than they can earn in this industry anywhere else in the North West, if not nationally. This helps with staff retention in an industry that generally has a high turnover of personnel. We have valued employees that have been with us in excess of 30 years.” Rick adds.
Many customers place their orders late, so the company often has to turn them round at speed to meet tight deadlines: “We do have a lot of last-minute customers,” Rick explains, “Despite the fact that the product they manufacture could take months to work its way down their production line, the last thing they think of ordering is the pallets or the crate to ship it in. We receive a lot of emails that start with the word ‘help.’ Customers say, can we have this today? Can we have this tomorrow? Can we have this urgently? So, we've always had that flexibility to accommodate those last-minute requirements.”
Looking to the future, Rick believes his company is well-positioned to grow further, based on the reputation it has won over the past decade and its investment in new machinery. When it comes to the wider UK economy, Rick is also optimistic about the future of British manufacturing in general.
“The majority of people we supply are manufacturers or exporters,” he says, “We have seen the volumes of UK manufacturing increasing. We’re seeing all the volumes from our customers increasing year on year, so we always see that as a positive. Hopefully this is a sign that UK is returning to a worldwide manufacturing presence.”
You can find out more about Precision Pallets & Cases at www.pallets.co.uk.