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Rigs are the queen bees of the oil industry squatting in the North Sea their every need must be satisfied as they continue the business of turning the ocean's resources into liquid energy. Every day helicopters and ships set off from Scotland's North East coast to make sure these needs are met, from toilet rolls to engine parts.
Aberdeen is at the centre of this activity. In the granite city provisions and components awaiting despatch offshore fill warehouses on both sides of the River Don. Pipes, chemicals, food, hardware for diving bells, drilling equipment, machinery for hire—when any of these are needed, they are needed on deadline. queen bees do not like to be kept waiting.
In this city you can hire attics by the hour, to ferry supplies from warehouse to port or to return equipment from dockside for repair. It is, says Aberdeen haulier ARE Craib, much like a taxi service, but using 38-tonners rather than saloon cars.
Craib, founded in 1965 with a sole Albion Clydesdale milk tanker, was soon taking advantage of opportunities in the fledgling oil industry, combining local runs servicing the rigs with long-haul work: 'I was 19 when we began," recalls managing director George Craib. "It was the 1960s, when men were men and women were glad of it."
In 1983 Craib merged with Aberdeen Road Runners (ARE), which specialised in deliveries for the energy industry throughout Europe. Three years later George Craib and director Eddie Anderson bought out ARR's shareholders to take control of the operation. Now it is on the point of further growth, with the planned acquisition of a local haulier.
The business operates in two sectors: oil and general haulage, with 45% of its turnover still linked to the offshore operations. "The boom days in oil are past but there's work for a good few years yet," says Anderson. The company recently won an exclusive five-year contract from Shell UK Exploration and Production after Shell reviewed its transport policy and decided to dispense with using numerous small hauliers.
"Shell wanted an operator running new vehicles," explains Anderson, "They are happy to pay to have it done right:' As part of the deal two Craib employees are permanently based at Shell's Torry Dock operation to manage the transport for a contract worth up to £2m a year.
Some of the oil related work involves bringing components from Great Yarmouth, where for ships on certain routes it is easier to dock. Craib also has frequent loads into Great Yarmouth and other oil support bases including Peterhead, north of Aberdeen, and runs south to Newcastle and Heysham. The general haulage operation is rooted in solid industries. Aberdeen is a major producer of paper and Craib works regularly for Arjo Wiggins and Federal Tate, two of the largest mill owners on the banks of the Don.
"Raw material comes into Aberdeen and we haul the finished product south," says Craib. Backloads into Scotland include steel and timber. The company hauls some 20,000 tonnes of steel a year from Corby—most of the steel brought into Scotland.
ARR Craib runs 82 vehicles, with those used for long-distance work replaced every three years, though some are "recycled" into local work. No other company in the area spends so much on trucks, reckons Craib: We have the newest fleet without any question and, yes, we do sleep at night." Last year the company spent £2.5m on equipment with another £1.4m since the start of this year.
But it doesn't rely exclusively on state-of
the-art kit: "We keep much of our business because our drivers are motivated," says Anderson. "That's always been Stobart's thing, hasn't it?" Wages meet the union rate "and more in some cases"; for example, drivers on the Shell contract get a higher rate.
The company's wage structure pays a flat rate of £4.31 an hour, £6.46 at time-and-a-half and £8.62 double-time for Sunday and hank holiday working.
"Other operators pay the same £4 whatever the day of the week," says. Anderson. "It's easy to make an extra 1% by cutting drivers' wages, but it backfires in the end."
But even a motivated workforce with the right gear doesn't make the company immune to the problem of cowboys. Craib talks of one haulier sending drivers down to Great Yarmouth with hazchem loads after they have been working all day.
"Everyone has to bend the law a little," he says, "but that's ridiculous." 10. Despite Aberdeen's distance from the Continent, haulier Sandy Bruce has European ambitions. There are two reasons for this. On the one hand he feels he is too dependent on one large customer: on the other hand, that large customer provides him with a southern base for his trucks in Sussex, potentially slashing the journey time for cross-Channel run& The key customer is packaging firm Styropack, Bruce's first customer when he began as an owner-driver in 1981 and now, 14 years later, still the mainstay of his £3.5mturnover, 42-truck operation, accounting for Lim of revenue, 45% of volume and four dedicated drawbars.
Styropack manufactures seeding trays for market gardeners and boxes for the fish processing industry with plants in Aberdeen and Arundel, Sussex. Bruce keeps six trucks in Arundel in a yard rented from Styropack, "and there is more land there if we need it", he says. From Arundel it services the packaging firm's customers south of Grimsby but the base is also a useful stopover for the three or four vehicles a week Bruce sends to Italy on general haulage work.
From Aberdeen Bruce carries out work for some of the major paper mills, including Federal Tate, BPB Davidson and Wiggins Teape, and a small amount of oil-related work, ferrying components across town: "We are not really involved in the oil, but it keeps our competitors busy" says Bruce. Food manufacturer Nestle is another customer.
The business actually expanded during the recession but Bruce has begun to notice unsett-ling signs recently—such as losing some of his Wiggins Teape work to TNT. For a long rime this was an area that people were not interested in servicing," he says. "We survived the recession and thought, thank Christ that's over. Then you get the big boys moving in."
The company pays its drivers "slightly below the union rate" but is seen as a good employer, Bruce believes. There is no recog nised union but the drivers elect representatives to discuss concerns with the company. If they say they are not paid enough, Bruce has some sympathy with their views: "The whole industry is underpaid and underdeveloped, and that includes the drivers."
In an effort to diversify, pending his Continental campaign, Bruce has joined hauliers' consortium Palletline and collects up to 20 pallets a night from its hub in Coventry. It's a profitable addition to the operation and enables Bruce to offer his own customers a reliable southbound pallet service. Overall, he reckons, his corner of the UK has survived the recession better than the rest, but adds: "We all squeal when we get squeezed."
When CM met Bruce he had just returned from a week in the Canary Islands. A haulier taking a holiday? Surely that runs against grain? He admits that for many years he refused to leave the business:" But now I have a couple of good people in the office—you just have to learn to let go."