Driving force

Posted on 13 Feb 2009 by The Manufacturer

Before September 2008, Hilary Devey was best known as the tenacious founder and owner of pallet distribution company Pall-Ex. But her persona has assumed a new dimension since her appearance last year on Channel Four’s The Secret Millionaire. Becky Done talks to her about her remarkable success in a male dominated industry and how she sees the future for manufacturing and logistics in the UK

Hilary Devey was in her late thirties when she single-handedly founded pallet distribution company Pall-Ex. Working around the clock to ensure it would be a success, she pitched relentlessly to hauliers nationwide in an attempt to sign them up to membership of her pallet network. She has since confessed that, at the time, she could not afford to count failure as an option – so she understands better than most the hard work and determination required to build a successful business. Today, Pall-Ex is well positioned; but the challenge for many firms right now is survival in a crisis.

One of the biggest similarities between manufacturing and the transport industry is that they are both male dominated business environments. The immense success of Pall-Ex in this context has made Devey a shining example of business initiative and courage. But it is clear there is still a lack of comparable role models to encourage young people into her industry. Does she perceive this as a problem? “Yes, I do,” she says, “but I also believe that the fact it’s a male dominated industry shouldn’t prohibit women from going into it.”

Why is the line dividing male and female — including what they expect and are expected to do — still drawn so heavily in certain industries, including manufacturing? “I think probably more is expected from females because by human nature we have combined roles as wives, mothers and daughters, etc — so I think therefore we need to be more tenacious and make more sacrifices. But hopefully, people like myself who are working in totally male-dominated environments are role models [which means that] some of the youngsters coming up now will think, ‘she did it, why can’t I?’”

Devey would like to see more female entrepreneurs contributing to the changing face of UK plc: “I still don’t think there are enough female entrepreneurs in the country,” she says, “and if you compare it with our European counterparts, the figure is something like, [only] nine per cent of public board positions are filled by women in England, compared to the mandatory 40% in Norway. It comes from the cradle and it’s all down to education — in Norway they don’t differentiate between male and female. It goes right back to education and schools.”

A regular award-winner in business, Devey was named Vitalise Businesswoman of the Year in October 2008. What did the award mean to her? “I was immensely proud and it was obviously recognition for what I’d done. It was the second time I’ve won it so it was hugely unexpected. Some youngsters [are writing] to me saying, ‘we now feel we can do it because you’ve done it’. It means a lot to me.”

She may be a role model for women, but it’s clear that her influence is not limited to women. Last year, Pall-Ex’s commercial director Tony Mellor was shortlisted for Mentor of the Year at the Women of the Future awards for his work encouraging young women of potential. It is this culture of inspiration at Pall-Ex and beyond that Devey hopes will help to change the public perception of the transport industry.

Her appearance last year on The Secret Millionaire, Channel Four’s hit show featuring millionaire entrepreneurs going undercover to help disadvantaged communities, will have gone some way towards achieving that. But the show also revealed much about her personal life, including her troubled relationship with her son, who became addicted to heroin in his teens. Does she think that more role models are needed for young people, as well as for women?

“Absolutely,” she says. “This is where she believes the government is getting it wrong. “We had a body called Skills for Logistics which was government sponsored, and it was highlighting the deficiency of human resources and the skills shortage in the logistics industry. This year, the government withdrew the grant, which has upset me greatly — really they ought to be ploughing [money] into it, not withdrawing it. The same goes for manufacturing. Obviously, this is not going to do any good is it? I think Skills for Logistics was doing some good work in attracting young people and women into an industry where there is a skills shortage — and manufacturing is no different. If that body is not there, then you are relying on the kind of functions like awards which, again, is penalising the private sector.”

The spotlight shone on Devey’s private life by The Secret Millionaire is oft-craved by celebrities, but seemingly far less so by business people. The latter seem happy to raise their profiles, often in the hope of boosting business, but they rarely allow such no-holds-barred access to their personal lives. The Manufacturer was curious to hear Devey’s motivation for taking part in the programme — and to understand why she chose this as a vehicle for publicity. A common criticism of the show is that the millionaires featured could easily donate to charity anonymously. Already a supporter of several charities, I wondered why she chose to broadcast the process?

“Mainly because I am a philanthropist, and you never actually get to see the individuals or the benefactors; you never get to know them personally,” she replies. “That had huge appeal to me because [when] you give to charities, you don’t know if you’ve made a difference to someone’s life. You get a newsletter that tells you that you have, but you don’t actually see it. Actually seeing it, first hand, was hugely satisfying.”

Did appearing on the show have a discernibly positive effect on business? She hesitates. “No, not really, because Pall-Ex didn’t figure prominently in the show at all. I think it’s probably helped some of our depots selling,” she adds, albeit cautiously, “because if they say ‘the owner is Hilary Devey, did you watch her on Secret Millionaire?’ they can identify [with us]. But I wouldn’t say it’s had a huge impact, no,” she says, her guarded response suggesting that she is not seeking celebrity for celebrity’s sake.

Millionaires participating in the show are required to completely immerse themselves in a back-to-basics environment for the duration of filming. For those used to luxury living — Devey calls the Edward VII wing of Rangemore Hall in Staffordshire home — this undoubtedly requires a certain fearlessness. Was it this quality that prompted her to risk everything to start Pall-Ex?

She explains what led her to take her chosen path. “In my twenties, I started to work for Tibbett & Britten, which was the only hanging garment carrier in the country at that time. I was selling transport to clothing manufacturers, and therefore it was perhaps not a male-dominated role like haulage is. From there I graduated into logistics and immersed myself in a transport environment. It’s fast-moving, I enjoy it and every day is different.”

Fast moving can be a euphemism for unpredictable. And surely one industry most vulnerable to spiking fuel prices and sporadic manufacturing patterns is the logistics industry. “The main challenges at the moment are keeping our heads above water and steering the business through very difficult times,” Devey confirms. “We’ve educated our people in the belief that we are experiencing a downturn, as is everybody. If manufacturers aren’t manufacturing and retailers aren’t selling, then it is common sense that we won’t be delivering. Thankfully Pall-Ex is a strong business; we own our property, it has a strong balance sheet and we will weather the storm. Even so, I think it needs careful monitoring and controlling of costs. We have monthly meetings now where we say to our people: ‘if you can find a cost saving of £100, we’ll give you £20’.”

Devey advocates innovation as a survival tactic — take as examples Pall-Ex’s bespoke IT system and purpose-built hub; both the first of their kind in the industry. Has innovation and diversification been key to the company’s growth? “It’s hugely important,” she says. “We never become complacent, we never stand still, we’re a quality-driven business and we need to diversify. I don’t think we should diversify too much, but certainly positioning ourselves in Europe during this difficult time will be good for us. I don’t think that people at the moment in time will be interested in investing in something totally different, but we are adding other services to our portfolio that we think engage with the current economic climate.” She agrees that manufacturing, because it is consumerdriven, seems to be suffering more than other sectors: “Yes, I believe that is the case, because people just aren’t buying.”

If The Secret Millionaire proved anything, it is that Devey’s tenacity has equipped her with an ability to ride out the lows and capitalise on the highs in business. Her knack, it seems, lies in embracing challenges wholeheartedly, and throwing every available resource, both personal and professional, into meeting them head-on.