Respond, Disrupt, and Adapt
“The most challenging thing I do is being a parent. As a child you’re taught to do all sorts of things, but not to be a husband and a father; business is easy compared to that.”
Interview: Sue Wilcock
Pictures: Warren Page
Owner of Tru7 Group, Guy Nicholls, talks to Suffolk Director
Guy Nicholls is a big personality in the Suffolk business community and is the owner of Tru7, a family run group of businesses providing van, truck and plant rental, concrete, earthworks, aggregates, recycling, demolition and remediation services.
Businesspeople come in many different shapes and sizes, and the way they do business varies widely. And, for those that know Guy, most will agree his approach, and his language, is a tad unorthodox.
“I know I am very much like Marmite; people either love me or they hate me.” He says grinning.
“Over the years, I have learnt that a good businessman needs to wear many hats and you can’t treat everyone the same. To survive you need to be able to speak to people differently, whether they are customers, employees, family or friends, and it takes a long time to learn the skills you need to do that well.
“I don’t like wearing suits, shirts or ties, and it doesn’t matter who you are, or where I am, at work my uniform is a t-shirt, jeans and work boots; You take me like that, or not at all.”
Yet don’t let the dressed down look fool you. In the corporate world, Guy has a killer instinct for spotting a business opportunity.
“I love the cut and thrust of negotiating face to face and doing a deal, although I haven’t got the patience for planning and putting it down on paper; that’s not for me.”
So, where does this entrepreneurial instinct and drive come from?
“I learnt everything from my dad, Percy, who started a truck hire and sales business in 1927 in Ipswich. I was born in 1963 and from as far back as I can remember, all I wanted to do was spend time with Dad at the yard on Felixstowe Road, and going to the weekly vehicle auctions in Colchester. Dad’s company was called Prentice Aircraft and Cars, after he bought the yard in 1973 from Mr Prentice and was asked to keep the name.
“Every day after school, at weekends and during the holidays, I was always at work with him. I hated school and spent a lot of time messing about. I would do anything I could to skip lessons so I could be with him; much to the frustration of Mum.
“I left school as soon as I could and went to work with Dad, although initially he never paid me. His view was I lived rent free at home and that was enough.
“Our relationship was pretty volatile, and we argued most days, but I loved it.”
“He was always telling me that I was useless and no good, but he knew that was the best way to treat me, as it would motivate me, and put a fire in my belly to prove him wrong.”
“I lost count of the number of times I stormed out of the yard after an argument with him and then had to walk home as I didn’t have a car.
“One of the memories I have that I laugh about now, is when I was younger and working in the yard, I would get so grubby that Dad wouldn’t let me sit in his new Mercedes to go home. If I wanted a lift, I was told to “go sit in the boot” and he would then drive home with me holding onto the open boot lid.”
Like father, like son
“Dad died 24 years ago of a stroke, and there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think of him. I am like him in so many ways, but in other ways I am very different.
“For instance, I hate holidays and that comes from Dad. He would be totally miserable when he couldn’t go to work. Like me, work was his hobby and where he wanted to be all the time.
“But where we differed is that he got far more stressed about work, and he was much more argumentative!
“Yet, for all his hard exterior, Dad was also like me, in that if someone needed his help, he would be there for them. I learnt from him that you need to give something back, and so as a family and a business, we have always tried to do our bit to raise money for charity and good causes.
“When Dad was alive, we always donated a car annually to be raffled for charity. Over recent years, we have consciencely decided to support and give back to local projects and smaller charities that don’t have the big money behind them, and where all the money raised goes directly to the people that need it.”
It wasn’t long after Guy joined his dad full time at Prentice, that Fork Rent was launched as a plant hire and leasing business; also based at Felixstowe Road. Percy and Guy worked together in both businesses, but Guy managed the day-to-day operation at Fork Rent, assisted by his sister, Trudi, who by then had joined the family firm.
“Initially, Fork Rent started by supplying the larger building firms locally, then regionally and nationally. We were starting to build a great reputation. We were a little company in Ipswich, but we were holding our own against the big boys in the industry.”
In the 90s, the company took a giant step when it built a dedicated site beside the A14 on Farthing Road in Ipswich. Although Prentice and Fork Rent were still based at the yard in Felixstowe Road, it had branched out and developed Trucks R Us, which operated out of the new facility.
Guy based himself at Farthing Road, with Percy working at Felixstowe Road. Over the next few years, the company went from strength to strength, establishing itself as one of East Anglia’s leading suppliers of quality new and used commercial vehicles and plant to buy or hire.
Then in 1997, Percy suffered a major stroke and passed away, and Guy and Trudi took over all the businesses.
“At the time, I handled Dad dying a lot better than I thought I would. In fact, I get more upset about it now because he isn’t here to see what the business has become and what I have done with it.
“Dad always wanted to be “reckoned”, to have a reputation as a straight upstanding businessman, who did things right and paid his bills. It really mattered to him. It wasn’t until after he died that I discovered from people in the industry how we, and he in particular, were thought of as a business. Although we were small in size and employees, we were regarded as the best for supplying high quality, high specification equipment and service throughout the country.”
Carrying on the legacy
After Percy’s passing, work continued as normal, although Trudi and Guy worked even harder. They wanted to prove that they could take what their dad had built up and make it better and stronger. An added bonus was that Guy now had total freedom over the deals he made and the stock he bought.
Everything was going well. The business was growing. Then the financial crisis of 2007-08 hit.
“I was sitting at home with Julie, my wife, drinking gin and tonics, thinking “F***, what are we going to do?” We’d just done this massive deal with Barratt Homes and just taken finance on 400 machines.
“Then call it divine intervention, but I suddenly thought “What would Dad do?” and I knew he would be saying “recession, what recession? Roll your sleeves up and work a bit harder.
“I went into work and got the drivers of the low loaders together and told them that when they were out delivering to site, to take a look and report back on who was supplying the plant and equipment. One of the guys who had worked with me the longest asked why, and I told them that they were going to get us through this, and the way we were going to do it, was by taking on the competition.
“We became more aggressive in our approach. We checked out the competition and their prices, and then approached their clients for the business. We also had a lot of luck with the bank rate, and as borrowing money was cheap, I ordered 2,000 forklifts that year.
“You have to have some balls to do what we did, but my advice to others would be, don’t worry about upsetting your competition, they’re not your friends and you should never be afraid to take them on. The only time when you can come unstuck is when you think you’re better than you are, so know your limitations.”
“A fly will irritate an elephant. Business is not a dark art. It’s about knowing your job, working harder than your competition and doing a better job. It doesn’t matter what size of business you are; the only difference is where the decimal point is.”
“We took a chance and I said to Trudi, “this will go one way or the other”, and over the next three years, the company trebled in size.”
In 2013, the company sold the yard on Farthing Road and moved everything back to Felixstowe Road.
The sale of Fork Rent
Then in 2014, a meet up that Guy had with the ex-CEO of a major national plant hire company, set the wheels in motion for a much bigger conversation about selling Fork Rent.
“At that time, we had one of the biggest fleets of telescopic forklifts in the world and this plant hire company used us as their source.
“I wanted to meet the ex-CEO, as I was intrigued by how he had built the business from starting out as a local tool shop in Lancashire. We met in London, and he mentioned that one of his favourite restaurants was The Talbooth at Dedham, so, I invited him up for lunch.
“When we got together, our chat turned to what he was going to do next, and he told me he wanted to buy a new business, but not necessarily in tool hire. I casually mentioned whether he would be interested in buying Fork Rent. He didn’t think for one moment that I would want to sell, but I explained that my son, Jake, wasn’t interested in taking it over, and there was no one else in the family interested in carrying the business on.
“It led to us starting a negotiation around October/November of 2014, with their side spending a lot of money carrying out loads of research and investigation into our customers and the business. I wanted to get the deal done by my birthday in April, but they kept delaying for various reasons and asking for more and more information. So, I told them the deal was off.
“In the meantime, another big plant company had been in touch who were interested in buying us. We put a non-disclosure agreement in place, meaning that neither of us would divulge sensitive information to other parties. They then went and broke the agreement by talking to JCB, so we backed out and I decided to go back and restart the conversation on the original deal.”
On the last day of August 2015, the sale went through and Fork Rent was sold for a multi-million-pound sum to a team of American investors.
“Luckily for me, I had no earn out clause, so I could go my own way. The only thing I couldn’t do was operate as a competitor for two and a half years. That was OK with me as I already had plans for what I was going to do.”
The purchase of Sinks Pit
In 2011/12, Sinks Pit at Kesgrave had come up for sale. It was a 44-acre old quarry site with nothing there, just mud and some piles of aggregate.
“They wanted more money than I was prepared to pay, and Fenn Wright, who were the agent, said that I needed to put in my offer as a sealed bid by a certain date. I weighed things up and decided not to go for it.
“A couple of weeks later, I was at a dinner and I bumped into the agent. I asked whether they had sold the pit, and I could see by the look on his face they hadn’t. A few days passed and I got a call to ask whether I was still interested.
“I arranged to meet the Estates Manager representing the owner at Felixstowe Road and he turned up early one morning. He had stayed overnight at the Salthouse Hotel having travelled down from Manchester the evening before.
“He asked me whether I was serious about buying the land and told me they were desperate for the money. He also told me he was travelling back to Manchester straight after our meeting, so I quickly realised that I was the only person they were talking to.
“The upshot was that I put in a cheeky offer to buy the land, as seen ‘warts and all’, and they accepted.
“I couldn’t believe my luck. I had a picture in my mind of exactly how I wanted the pit to look and what I wanted to do with the land. I wanted to create a base, a headquarters and office; something that was impressive, and which looked the business, where I could transfer the operation from Felixstowe Road.
“Then over the next 18 months, the sale of Fork Rent took place and my plans changed.
“Trudi had left after the sale in 2015, and with the intention of it being my hobby, I started a new business called TRU7 based at Sinks Pit.
“Along with my right-hand man, Tony Marshall, who did all my sales and business development, and a handful of staff who came with me from Felixstowe Road, I set about building the new office and running a relatively small operation with five tippers and 100 machines through the Trucks R Us and new Tippers R Us businesses. I was also doing some recycling.
“Tony has been with me for over 20 years, and we work well together as we like different things. He likes getting out and meeting people offsite, entertaining customers. I like staying at the yard, getting home at 6.30pm and chilling out; I’m a creature of habit.
“I was just biding my time until the two and a half years were up. As long as I didn’t compete with the old Fork Rent business, I was fine.
“After 30 months, at 7am on 28th February 2018, I launched TRU Plant with 500 machines. I love playing games and in the run up to launch day, I had been putting out loads of posts teasing the competition on social media. By the time we launched, I was getting hundreds of thousands views on my posts.”
The new company was also starting to diversify into other areas and three months after TRU Plant started, TRU7 bought Clarke Demolition based in Ipswich into the group.
“They were a great little company doing good work, but they couldn’t spell profit, so we stepped in to help. It was about spotting little things and eventually we started to turn things around. I didn’t know anything about demolition, but when I was out on their sites, I could see where there were opportunities to make money. £100 here, £500 there, it all added up and the business was soon making a profit.”
Since 2018, the business had gone from strength to strength. With all operations based at Sinks Pit, TRU7 Group has now added TRU Grab and TRU Agg to its stable of businesses that operate in the construction, demolition and recycling sectors. Even more recently, TRU Mix and TRU Earthworks have launched; the latter being headed up by Guy’s son Jake, who joined the family business in May 2017 as Operations Director.
“When Jake decided to come into the business, he initially spent time shadowing Tony and I for a short period. He now runs the heavy equipment side of the company, managing over 100 digger drivers. The father, son relationship is great, and unlike me and my dad, we don’t argue at all.”
“What I’m particularly proud of is that we are viewed as having changed the industry. As a small outfit operating out of Suffolk, we have built a reputation for quality and great service.”
“This has been deliberate, and we had ways that we wanted to do this. We make sure that our machines are the best specification and well looked after. For instance, we were the first to have air conditioning in our diggers and forklifts as standard. We buy new machines every year and none of our vehicles are more than 18 months old. We also treat our employees well and in return they are loyal to us.”
Personally, Guy has been married to Julie for 33 years. They have two children, Holly and Jake and three grandchildren.
“I started going out with Julie when I was 16. We were together nine years before we married at Rushmere Church. Our first house was in the yard at Felixstowe Road, where we had the kids. We then had a house built on Bucklesham Road, before we converted an old farmhouse in Brightwell which we moved into 15 years ago.”
When Julie can get Guy to take some time out, they enjoy holidays at Lake Como in Italy.
The COVID effect
When the first lockdown was announced Guy had no choice but to shut down all operations.
“I could see that something major was coming, but on 23 March 2020, I didn’t have a choice and I actually cried when I shut the yard. Throughout the lockdown period, none of the directors got paid, and the rest of the staff were put on furlough; I just wasn’t prepared to take the risk with people’s health.”
Yet today, the business is stronger than ever.
“Post COVID, the indicators are that business will be more buoyant. I have 90 Scania lorries on order and won’t be able to get anymore this year, as all the production lines are working to capacity.”
TRU7 Group has an annual turnover of over £70 million and runs 1700 machines, employing 230 people.
“This year, I want to finish the yard and take on another 50 to 60 people. As well as building a concrete plant, I want to build a facility with teaching simulators, where we can train apprentices. We have jobs that are highly paid and I want to give opportunities to young people who aren’t necessarily good academically, but are willing to work hard to make something of themselves.
“I am really positive about the future and as well as staying happily married, I just want to push the business forward. The only thing that tends to keep me awake at night is not doing a job properly, as that is really important to me.
“One thing I would say to other businesses in Suffolk is to go for it. What with Sizewell C and the Felixstowe Freeport, Ipswich is going to be light years ahead of Colchester and Norwich when it comes to the opportunities that lay ahead.
“There’s loads going on here and once the pandemic is behind us, we will be flat out.”