Changing the guard at Roadway House
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The retiring secretary and the incoming secretary of the Road Haulage Association talk to Arthur Sherlock-Mesher of their realised and attempted aims
THE YEAR'S END gives pause for reflection on the future and on lessons of the present and past. Before he retired, two months early, on Christmas Eve, I persuaded Eric Russell, secretary of the Road Haulage Association, to muse on both.
During much of the past 30 years he has been the power behind the throne and the association's lynchpin.
He joined the RHA in March 1953, as meetings secretary and I well remember trying at that time to wheedle information out of him on wages negotiations. In September, 1959, he became acting chief executive officer and a year later was appointed deputy secretary-general, a title shortened to secretary in 1965.
With the accumulated experience of three crucial decades at the centre of the road haulage industry, what, I asked, did he think of its future? He foresaw little change in its pattern. The tendency towards specialisation would continue. The average haulage unit would not become significantly larger because the economies of scale did not apply to the movement of goods as they did to manufacturing or retail distribution.
As always, however, road haulage will continue to balance on a political knife-edge. Mr Russell takes the Labour Party's threats seriously.
"Even though its policies on many points, particularly on nationalisation, are vague," he said, "there are clear indications that its object will be to restrict road haulage, prop up the railways, increase government intervention in the organisation of freight transport, and foist a committee — a quango — on the industry to supervise its work."
Clearly there is still a vital need for a strong association to fight hauliers' battles. How has the RHA equipped itself for the continuing struggle in straitened circumstances?
It has undergone great changes in the past few years. Membership has declined dramatically because of the recession and the association has had to adjust its attitudes and practices accordingly. The organisation has been effectively streamlined. Services to members have been increased in number and quality.
More specialised staff are now employed and management methods and equipment have been improved. A new computer has been installed at head office to centralise accounting — a development that a few years ago would have been regarded as an outrageous extravagance and an unwarranted interference with area autonomy. The RHA is beginning to become truly national.
To anyone with an intimate knowledge of the association, the recent change of attitude towards commercial services to members, at one time thought to be almost immoral, is surprising. What, I asked, was the reason? Had hard times forced RHA leaders to cease playing at politics and become businessmen?
Mr Russell thought I was being unduly hard on them. "in the past," he said, "they were pre-occupied with the RHA's representational role — and with every justification — and there were doubts about the wisdom or even the propriety of its involvement in commercial enterprise. 'This is a trade association, not a trading association,' they said.
"These attitudes have changed with the recognition that members now require commercial assistance, and that direct tangible benefits will attract operators who are not at present members and are apparently content to leave the work and cost of the association's representational responsibility to others."
It was too early to judge the results of the new services but Cargofax, computer services and the RHA insurance company were creating great interest.
Did I detect a growing reluctance among members to work voluntarily for the association and a tendency to expect the permanent staff to do much more for them? Mr Russell disagreed but conceded that "there are signs that many now have to devote more time to their businesses."
He added: "There is general acceptance that permanent staff should represent the RHA on outside bodies, but it is an association of hauliers for hauliers and run by hauliers. Members are, and always have been, astonishingly generous with the time they give to its work. They, as well as the staff, will continue to be directly involved in the representation of the industry's interests on all important issues."
The fact is that the permanent staff now has more responsibility than in the past and greater freedom of manoeuvre within defined policies. On the other hand, in Mr Russell's words, which my own experience corroborates, "the staff establishment at head office and in the districts is the minimum required." In other words, the shoestring is fully stretched. That implies long hours of work by senior officials — a situation that can be changed only by substantially increased revenue which it is hoped the new services will help to provide.
I turned the conversation towards the association's influence on politicians, local authorities, industrial organisations (including unions) and the public. How effective was it?
Mr Russell pointed to the denationalisation of road haulage in 1952, the failure of the Labour Government to use the special authorisation provisions of the Transport Act, 1968, and the Conservatives' eventual repeal of them, and support by MPs for the association's proposed amendments to the 1982 Transport Bill as good examples of political clout. These were the RHA's greatest triumphs.
As Mr Russell has waited on more deputations to governments than most people have had fish fingers, I asked how closely my favourite television series, Yes Minister, mirrored life. In his experience, not at all.
Ministers, senior and junior, in the Department of Transport, were not, I was assured, subject to devious manipulation by civil servants like the gullible Jim Hacker. Access to ministers by the RHA had never been blocked. If officials could not support the association's view on a particular matter they said so plainly and a request to take the question directly to the minister was never thwarted.
"Senior civil servants are most helpful and much maligned, and show a real understanding of transport problems," Mr Russell assured me. "Moreover, they do appreciate that consultation with trade associations can be helpful to them. My admiration of their abilities and integrity is unbounded."
Although they were apt to pass in the night, ministers also quickly grasped the intricacies of transport and did credit to the officials who briefed them.
Close contact with trade and industry is maintained through the Confederation of British Industry on whose council the RHA was represented, until his retirement, by Mr Russell as well as by Freddie Plaskett, directorgeneral. Mr Plaskett also serves on the CBI transport policy committee and is able to present the haulier's case at the highest levels.
The unions would hardly admit that they had been influenced by the RHA, but a wage settlement of 6 per cent suggests a reasonable relationship. Open disputes between the two sides have been conspicuously absent, though how far apparent harmony is the result of high unemployment is uncertain.
"Do you agree that in public relations the most the association can hope is to persuade the public to be more indulgent to hauliers than to football hooligans?" I asked.
Mr Russell laughed: "I see the RHA in the position of a marriage bureau that is trying to persuade a client to marry a very worthy but very unattractive woman. If lorry drivers were more courteous the industry would be more acceptable to the public. The previous generation of lorry drivers earned the title, Knights of the Road. That description is now ludicrous and is greeted with hilarious disbelief."
And on that note of censure the oldest inhabitant at Roadway House bowed out. Despite its disadvantages, he enjoyed his job enormously. That is why he stayed for 30 years, although he admits that he never had time to think seriously about another job. It is fortunate for the RHA that he hadn't and didn't.
The best man wins
"HE IS GOING to be a hard man to follow," said Eric Russell's successor, Len Harper — and he meant it. Having known Mr Harper well for 14 years, I am in no doubt that he is the best possible choice.
They are from the same mould. Both are keen sportsmen and are dedicated to their jobs. Whereas Mr Russell's sports are tennis and golf, Mr Harper's early enthusiasm for all games was whittled down to cricket. At 57 he is still playing for Enfield Cricket Club, of which he is chairman. When George Bernard Shaw spoke of "cricketers to whom age brings golf instead of wisdom," he was certainly not referring to Mr Harper.
The new secretary is one of a minority of RHA executives who have been engaged in haulage. He is quiet, conscientious, unruffled and always good humoured, and, like Mr Russell, invariably helpful no matter how inconvenient it may be.
On leaving school he volunteered for flying duties with the RAF and until he was needed he worked for the Coal Commission. When his call-up came he found himself in the infantry and the war was over. On release he went back to the Coal Commission (by then part of the National Coal Board) until he secured a post in Lloyd's of London's underwriting room, where, discussing international insurance claims, he had his firs;' — alas, vicarious — introduction to big money.
His next move was as office manager to E. E. Howes Transport Ltd, Enfield. He soon proved his worth and was promoted to company secretary and later a director. Although he says it was pure coincidence, the fleet grew from 60 to 180 during his 61/2-year tenure.
On January 1,1968, he joined the RHA head office staff as an executive officer. The Road Transport Industry Training Board was starting work and the association's Education and Training Committee had just been formed. Mr Harper was its first and, until now, only secretary. That duty is being taken over by Mr Douglas Taylor, the industrial relations officer — a logical progression in view of the fact that contact with the unions is involved.
Mr Harper has been intimately concerned with training and has brought great enthusiasm to it. He was a member of the RTITB for about two years and has served on various subcommittees of the board.
The young-driver training scheme was hatched in his office between him and Mr Edgar Williams, the Education and Training Committee's first chairman. It has inevitably been affected by the recession but is firmly rooted. Mr Harper regards it as vitally important and he urges hauliers to back the Government's new scheme to find training places for schoolleavers in their first year. Today's young people are industry's seed corn.
Although the RTITB was responsible for setting up the many successful group training associations, it was Mr Harper's suggestion that a committee representing the two sides and the RHA should be set up to coordinate activities and solve common problems. The result has been most useful.
Someone once remarked to me that Mr Harper had dug a small but very deep hole in the RHA. The implication was that he had become an authority on education and training to the exclusion of most other things. This could not be farther from the truth. He has been secretary also of the Licensing Committee (since disbanded), Car Transporters' Functional Group and Express Carriers' Functional Group. In addition, he has been closely concerned in the thankless task of organising the annual dinner and annual conference.
If this were not enough, he was responsible for starting the new range of member services to which the association's leaders, notably Mr Freddie Plaskett, director-general, attach great importance. Mr Harper, who believes that the days are past when a trade association can subsist on subscription income, shares that sense of urgency.
He thinks practical service is the light that could lead the association back from its present diminished membership of some 12,000 to its peak of more than 18,000. Admittedly, the RHA still has an important political role and a balance between that and a vigorous commercial policy.
Mr Harper believes that the road haulage industry has a brighter future than many others because it meets a universal need, and is tough and resilient. If it wishes to attract more traffic from own-account operators, however, it must keep up with the rapid technological changes in its customers' industries. Hauliers must know their customers' businesses inside out.
This is the age of instant communication and the RHA's new Cargofax service, now being promoted by the energetic Kerry Spencer, is, Mr Harper is convinced, a vital contribution to it. It is not just a load-finding facility. With a desk visual display unit hired at an annual rate of £600, including a printer, the haulier has immediate access to a vast range of information about loads, roads, vehicles, ferries, wages, the law and much else. The project is ambitious but the rewards promise to be rich. Another service launched by Mr Harper gives RHA members computer packages designed specifically for the industry and 10 per cent discount on computer hardware and software. Free consultancy is an added benefit. Users can link into the NFC freight computer network. The RHA is to run seminars to explain the possibilities and techniques of computers.
Then there is the vehicle recovery service which, as part of the member's subscription, entitles him to assistance 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
The launch on January 1 of RHA Insurance Services, with 15 offices throughout the country, in succession to the former Insurance Panel, is in Mr Harper's view a big step forward in giving members better terms and helping the association's finances.
These are just some of the benefits with which he has been associated. He also believes in the promotion of high standards of business conduct by the establishment of a code. This would have political as well as commercial advantages, because the more professional the industry, the less likely government interference would be. Increased efficiency requres technological advance and the third generation of family haluliers, brought up from childhood in electronics, is well placed to build on the sound foundations laid by their grandfathers and fathers.
I wondered whether the depression had created a greater sense of realism about rates. "The main thing that hauliers have learnt is that if they make the smallest mistake they soon go out of business," Mr Harper said. "Profit margins are so small that, even if they pay the daily bills, they do not allow for investment for the future, which is a great danger."
Although the days of the general haulier with platform lorries were strictly numbered, rigid specialisation could be a double-edged sword, he added. The answer was probably to use multi-purpose vehicles and to become expert in handling several kinds of compatible traffic.
Mr Harper looked forward to his new job, which he sees as head-quarters anchor man. With this sound backing the directorgeneral can go out and meet the members, stimulate enthusiasm among them and discuss their needs and problems, knowing that the association's day-to-day administration is in sure hands.