Time trial at French barricades: How UK delivery firms coped in the drivers' dispute

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BRITISH businesses - and their customers - are growing used to the benefits of Japanese-style just-in-time deliveries. A spare part for your car by tomorrow? Certainly, Madam. Fresh avocados and melons for your dinner party? Of course, Sir.

Anyone who travels Europe's motorways will pay ready testimony to the amount of international trade trundling up and down them. With companies operating just-in-time systems, precise and punctual delivery is vital. There is not enough buffer stock to keep supermarket shelves or production lines replenished without such punctuality. Less stock means lower costs, but higher risks. Naturally, businesses have contingency plans - but how did those survive the recent French lorry drivers' dispute?

Better than might be imagined, despite the pictures of British lorry drivers bogged down in it all.

Marks & Spencer, for example, was highly vulnerable. As a direct importer of fresh Mediterranean produce, and an exporter of the complete range of goods stocked by its French stores, it had traffic going both ways. Yet the company reported no disruption at all. Quick thinking resulted in lorries being re-routed through other countries or along unobstructed minor roads in France.

And in Britain's motor industry, where just-in-time systems probably have their firmest grip, the effect seems to have been limited. Although Peugeot-Talbot of Coventry, for example, did lose production at the start of the disruption, it managed to limit this to two shifts - 400 cars, or around pounds 4m sales.

Potential losses at Ford were far higher, as the company readily admits. Fast reactions again saved the day. The company hired two of Stansted- based Air Foyle's giant Antonov An-124 cargo planes to keep its European production lines going. Ford also ran a special train across France twice a day - which was caught up in a separate dispute, when farmers blockaded the line at one point. Ford did not abandon the use of trucks completely. The Dutch haulier responsible for all the company's transport in and out of France was able to keep a flow going through careful planning and good intelligence.

Mark Yeomans, Coopers & Lybrand's European distribution expert, says some of the firm's clients pay 2 or 3 per cent more to use what he describes as 'creative' transport companies, able to find their way around difficulties. As a consequence, one such client, in north-eastern France, was entirely unaffected by the strike.

Other clients, in anticipation of such problems, have employed a strategy of cross-border warehouses that can conveniently serve a variety of national markets.

The French dispute servs to encourage creativity and flexibility rather than particular contingency plans.

KPMG's Ian Walker says that risk assessment is the name of the game: 'You need to find out how likely the scenarios are before you plan for them,' he warns.

(Photograph omitted)