Edward Stobart: Businessman who established the family haulage company as one of Britain's most popular brands

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The Independent Online

Edward Stobart turned a small, family-run Cumbrian haulage business of eight lorries and 12 employees into the country's largest independent logistics company and one of the industry's most recognisable brands. Stobart had a vision of an ultra-reliable operator with smart and disciplined drivers; his attitude to business was built on an ethic of straight-talking, hard work and determination. He epitomised the self-made millionaire businessman, although he remained quiet and self-effacing, shunning the limelight.

The freight transport expert Geoff Dossetter said Stobart "captured the public's imagination" by using colours and naming his vehicles, which "humanised the trucks". The lorries, with their distinctive green, red and gold (now white) livery have thundered across Britain's motorway networks for more than 30 years, spawning "spotter" fan clubs and merchandising.

Edward Stobart was born in Hesket Newmarket near Carlisle in 1954, the third of four children to Eddie and his wife Nora. In 1957, his father founded an agricultural contracting business selling fertiliser equipment, acquiring lorries to do so. Academically poor and with a speech impediment, Edward (as he was known to differentiate him from his father) left school at 15 with few prospects. However, upon joining his father's firm it became clear he had business acumen, an interest in the haulage side and an apparently inexhaustible capacity for work.

His father recognised this and in 1976 divided the business with Edward, by then 21, controllingthe transport arm with the Eddie Stobart name. At that time truckers and their lorries were often viewed by the public as a rum lot and Edward wanted to change this perception. "I saw a lot of potential right from the beginning," he recalled. "British haulage was very unprofessional and I thought, why can't we have good-looking trucks on the road and why can't we have smart drivers?"

Stobart Jr soon began to stamp his authority on the business. With an almost obsessive fervour he worked round the clock and led by example; driving trucks at night after working in the office all day or cleaning them after the drivers had gone home. He insisted that his vehicles, which he always bought new (and at considerable personal expense), were kept in immaculate condition inside and out. He made it company policy for drivers to wave back and honk their horn in the traditional style when spotted by a member of the public; insisted that all drivers wear a shirt and tie, the precursor to a smart uniform. "The tie wasn't the important thing about the uniform," Stobart said. "It was the discipline." It was part of his vision and wanted his staff to have a pride in themselves and their company.

Stobart's honesty, drive and work ethic impressed customers and by 1980 the company had outgrown its Cumbrian base and so it moved to a new 64,000 sq ft warehouse north of Carlisle close to the M6. This allowed for an integrated storage and distribution service, and the company continued to grow thanks to the deregulation of the 1980s, and Stobart had the vision to exploit the changing times. The decade saw the development of motorway infra-structure, along with out-of-town supermarkets and retail parks, and lorries became the fastest and cheapest way to transport freight. By 1985 the firm had expanded from eight to 26 lorries with annual sales of more than £1m.

In 1986, Stobart brought in anew management team, includinghis 25-year-old brother William to run the traffic department. This allowed him to concentrate on strategic development, culminating in the opening of a second depot in 1988 in Burton-on-Trent.

This move cemented the company's national standing and by the turn of the century it had over 1,000 lorries, 2,000 employees and owned 22 depots nationwide, with £135m turnover. The game of Stobart spotting had developed thanks to Eddie Snr giving the lorries female names; the first four were Twiggy, Tammy [Wynette], Dolly [Parton] and Suzi [Quatro]. More recent ones have included Ffion, after William Hague's wife, Paris Hilton, Trinny and Susannah and Fiona Phillips. There are reported to be over 25,000 dedicated "spotters".

In the new millennium, the company diversified into merchandising with trucks from Corgi, cartoons andeven a television series, a business worth £3.5m. However, expansion proved too rapid, and with rising fuel costs in 2001 the company posted its first loss.

After more than 30 years at the helm, in 2004, Edward sold his 55 per cent stake – now part of the Stock Exchange-listed Stobart Group – to his brother William and his business partner Andrew Tinkler of WA Developments. The new bosses successfully halted the company's decline, while embarking on a number of high-profile sports sponsorship deals. In 2005, and again in 2007, Eddie Stobart was recognised as a UK Superbrand by Superbrands Ltd.

Although officially retired, Stobart moved to Stratford-upon-Avon to run a small agricultural transport business but it failed in 2009. The Stobart Members' Club declared, "Stobart Spotting will continue and the legacy of Edward Stobart will live on."

Edward Stobart, businessman; born Hesket Newmarket, Carlisle 21 November 1954; married firstly Sylvia (four children), secondly Mandy (two children); died Coventry 31 March 2011.