profile; Eddie Stobart; Eddie and his clean machines

Patrick Tooher meets the man who provided his truck company with a sparkling image and inadvertently launched a cult game nationwide
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The Independent Online
THERE are not many things to do on the long drive up the M6 to Carlisle. Past Preston you can begin to admire the Lakeland landscape and the new-born lambs. You might marvel at the hungry rooks dicing with death on the hard shoulder as they peck at the remains of local wildlife flattened by 10-ton articulated lorries. Or you could play "Eddie Spotting".

The cult game boasts a fan club of more than 20,000 and involves identifying the distinctive green, white and red lorries bearing the gold letters of Carlisle-based Eddie Stobart Limited, Britain's biggest independent road haulier.

Fans, who include musician Jools Holland and comedians Cannon and Ball, vie with each other to spot as many company lorries as possible. One Eddie devotee from north of the border claims to have seen 43 Stobart trucks on a trip from Edinburgh to London. "A motorway journey is not complete without seeing one," she says. The truck-spotting fad is not unique to Eddie Stobart. The red and yellow lorries bearing the legend Preston's of Potto or the bright red tankers and trailers of French rival Norbert Dentressangle have also attracted a dedicated band of followers.

But none of them has overtaken Eddie Stobart in popular folklore. Unlike many of their intimidating, hedgehog-squashing counterparts, Stobart drivers are a breed apart. They look smart. Their trucks are clean. They smile and wave at children. And they don't cut you up.

To meet the demands of the growing legions of "Eddie Spotters", an official fan club was set up. Members receive a magazine, Stobart Express, which features "The Diary of an Eddie Spotter's Wife" and the cartoon adventures of Steady Eddie, a user-friendly truck based along the lines of Thomas the Tank Engine.

A separate promotions company sells picture prints of trucks, Stobart T-shirts, lighters, key-rings, car stickers and the inevitable Eddie Teddies.

Yet the man behind the phenomenon is no marketing guru or swanky image consultant. In fact, he has never even run a salesforce.

If anything, 41-year-old Edward Stobart seems rather uncomfortable with his cult status as he sits in the boardroom of the new company headquarters five miles outside Carlisle.

A small, neat man with a trim beard and the hint of a Tintin quiff, he freely admits to being shy in public. A pronounced stammer adds to an air of awkwardness that an endearing Cumbrian accent cannot hide.

He and his younger brother, William, are the sole shareholders in Eddie Stobart Ltd. Their father, also called Eddie, gave the company its name in the 1950s when he started an agricultural contracting business, buying and selling fertiliser and spreading it for local farmers.

The younger Eddie left school at 14 to work for his father. His job was to find employment for the trucks that were often idle in such a seasonal line of business. In 1975, aged just 20, he took the Eddie Stobart name and began to turn it into a dedicated transport company. A year later, he moved into a new depot in Carlisle, and by 1980 the company had grown to 25 vehicles and 35 staff.

Eddie Stobart gradually moved away from working for other hauliers to concentrate exclusively on dealing direct with manufacturers such as Spillers and Metal Box. From delivering empty tin cans to breweries and drinks manufacturers it soon took delivery of their full cans, too.

Food and drink now form the largest part of its business and it has become Britain's largest haulier of soft drinks with 540 lorries in 18 depots dotted across the country. Pre-tax profits for the year to November 1995 hit just over pounds 3m on sales more than a quarter higher at pounds 52m. Stobart is a millionaire many times over.

Despite calls for the introduction of road tolls, higher fuel taxes and juggernaut-free routes to prevent gridlock on motorways, Stobart sees this explosive growth continuing. "I expect Eddie Stobart to be twice its present size in three and a half years' time," he says.

He is unmoved by the prospect of increased competition from a privatised railway. Road transport, he notes, takes goods off the end of a production line and moves it straight to the customer while rail still has the problem of delivering down the final leg to the ultimate destination.

Eddie Stobart is considering expansion in continental Europe and may hit the acquisition trail for the first time, though there are no plans to seek additional funding through a public flotation of shares.

One reason for not going down the stock market route could be Stobart's understandable reluctance to let go of a business he has built up from scratch. Another might be an innate wariness of money men in general. "Businesses go wrong when an accountant is put charge. Our finance department is just another department. The most important one is personnel, making sure we've got the right people."

With hindsight, Eddie Stobart's break-neck expansion owed much to the huge increase in road freight traffic at the expense of rail during the Eighties and early Nineties. Stobart admits there never was a master plan.

"Customers just ring up and ask for a quotation. I've never knocked on anybody's door, but I have had to go through my own business school. Textbook management is black and white management. It's not flexible enough."

Eddie Stobart's flexibility derives from taking orders round the clock for just-in-time delivery slots in a industry notorious for wafer-thin margins and undercutting on price.

"We are one of the cheapest operators because we are run efficiently and properly. Quality and standards pull the price down. Washing our trucks and insisting our drivers wear a uniform actually reduces costs. It is only silly people who say they can't afford to do that."

It is this service-with-a-smile factor that Stobart believes lies behind the company's success - and the Eddie spotting craze.

"Image is very important in anything you do in this country," he says. "You only get one chance of making a first impression. Basically, you have got to have manners and be courteous at all times. Drivers must look the part."

Which means goodbye Yorkie bars and lumberjack shirts; hello collar and tie and smart green company blazer.

"Transport has had a shifty image for such a long time," he argues, warming to his theme. "The average truck driver or small operator was basically a tramp. Service in the industry needed to be upgraded so we put in standards which others are now following."

Maintaining these whiter-than-white standards has not always proved easy. Two years ago Stobart himself was fined pounds 325 and banned from driving for 21 days at Penrith magistrates' court for speeding through roadworks on the M6. Eddie Stobart has a safety limit of 56mph for its drivers, but police said Stobart was driving at 86mph in a 50mph zone.

Equally embarrassing was the sacking of an Eddie Stobart lorry driver who broke the company's strict dress code by taking his tie off while on duty during last year's heatwave. His claim for unfair dismissal was settled out of court. When the halo slips Stobart takes it personally. "Getting rid of someone means a failure for the company. It raises questions about training and management," he says.

Sponsoring Carlisle United, the local football team, has not been a resounding success, either. The club, promoted as champions last year, languishes near the bottom of the Second Division in Stobart's first season of sponsorship. "I'm not a football fan, I don't go to many games," he says. "But I wanted to do something for the city. Unfortunately, we've not been playing well."

Stobart has a passion for motor racing and owns a Ferrari, but other recreational pursuits do not rank high on his list of priorities. The new HQ is a renovated hotel conveniently located next to an 18-hole golf course. But Stobart won't be getting his handicap down on a Friday afternoon - he doesn't play golf.

Asked if he might be popping over to Hexham later for a National Hunt race meeting, steady Eddie is adamant. "No. I only gamble on the business."

His biggest ambition is to go into hotel management where he sees another gap in the market. "It's like road haulage; you are dealing with the general public. But the big chains lack high standards. You can go to a pounds 20-a-night bed-and-breakfast and get better service than in a pounds 150- a-night hotel. I'm not a snob but I like to be treated properly."