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Good vibrations at Nixon

PLANT HIRE - Nixon Hire has come a long way since its origins as a two-man vibrating poker outfit - it now has designs on being a national hirer of plant and site accommodation.Dan Gilkes meets the ambitious Geordie hirer

BUILDING a business, as many will know, is no easy task.You work hard, putting in long hours just to keep your head above water. But word gets around, hopefully customers like the service and products on offer and the company starts to grow.

New equipment is added, then a second and third depot.Additional product lines lead to new customers and opportunities in new industry sectors. Expansion can be rapid. Before you know where you are you're looking at six or seven depots, a huge fleet of equipment and a turnover running into millions.

Perfect? Well, yes and no.While growth is certainly good, keeping a handle on the many strands of the operation can be tricky. Sometimes you just need to sit back and take a long hard look at what's going on, put some distance between yourself and the day-to-day running of the firm and examine where you want to go from there.

That has certainly been the approach of late at Nixon Hire, the general plant hire and accommodation business based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

'Over the last two years we've spent a lot of time looking at the structure of the business, ' says plant director Chris Nixon.

The company has seven depots, in Newcastle, Stockton-on-Tees, Sunderland, Berwick, Perth, Edinburgh and Bradford. But Mr Nixon says that each depot had, to some extent, been left to run as a separate entity, rather than working together as a unified business.

The firm has taken a very close look at the way the business works, bringing in a group health and safety manager, group buyer, group plant manager and other positions that draw the depots into a cohesive whole.

With more than 170 staff, the change in culture has taken a while. But Mr Nixon is confident that the message is getting through and that the company's service to the customer is seeing benefits.

'We firmly believe we've got to be at the forefront of what we do, ' he says.'We've done extensive research with our customers, and we're really listening to their problems with plant hire.'

With the basics firmly in place, Nixon Hire is ready to look forward again, with further growth planned.'We need to take a step backwards and look at the UK, ' says Mr Nixon.

'We're not in tool hire, so we don't need to be on every high street. But we do want to go national.We're not talking about 200 or 300 depots but we'd like to have 20 outlets.'

At present the firm is well-established in the north-east and Scotland, with the depot in Bradford the furthest south.New outlets will push its presence below the M62, possibly to Nottingham or Sheffield.

All of this takes investment.With turnover last year of just over £10 million and a prediction of closer to £13 million for 2004, Nixon is not afraid to spend money on future growth.'We estimate we're going to spend £6 million on new plant this year, ' says Mr Nixon.

It's not just about the equipment either.More than £600,000 is being spent on improving infrastructure within the depots, with yards and workshops in particular being improved.Nixon has become a major player in the accommodation and toilet hire sectors, both of which require substantial hard standing on which to store and work on equipment.

'The customer expects a higher standard.We're competing with GAP and Hewden, so we have to add value, and that is in the service that we provide, ' says Mr Nixon.

Nixon Hire was started in 1967 by John Nixon, who is still chairman of the firm and father to current directors Chris, Graham and managing director Peter Nixon.Mr Nixon was a vibrating poker salesman, travelling the country supplying flexible drive pokers to customers.

One day he and colleague Dick Richmond decided to set up on their own, with Nixon selling and Richmond repairing the pokers. From that start, the company got into power tools and smaller plant, opening a second depot in Stockton-on-Tees in 1970.

From the start the firm took on dealerships alongside hire, and in the early days was one of the biggest dealers for Stihl saws in the UK.These days Nixon remains a Stihl dealer in Newcastle, but the depot also distributes Volvo's compact equipment range, Bomag rollers and compaction plant, Thwaites site dumpers, Belle mixers, CompAir compressors and a host of smaller plant and tools.

'The emphasis is very much on hire though, ' says Chris Nixon. Indeed sales make up just 10 per cent of the firm's turnover.The big benefit for Nixon is that as a dealer it can afford to hold a large stock of parts, reducing downtime for the hire fleet and further increasing service to the customer.

As Nixon Hire grew through the 1970s and 1980s, the firm became a sole supplier to contractor Stanley Miller, taking on the contractor's plant and accommodation fleet as part of the deal.The contractor later went out of business, but the deal left Nixon with a small fleet of steel container accommodation.

'We saw growth in containers, so we started up a production plant, ' says Mr Nixon.'At one stage we had 50 guys working on accommodation unit production.'

Though the firm no longer makes its own cabins, buying instead from manufacturers like Ultra, that fleet has grown rapidly from 70 cabins in the early 1990s to around 2,500 accommodation units at present.On top of that, Nixon has invested more than £1.9 million in new welfare cabins, going from a standing start last June to more than 190 units today.

'We're barely scratching the surface yet in welfare units, ' says accommodation director Graham Nixon.'We're just doing them in the north-east at present.'

Once into accommodation, portable toilets soon followed.'On the back of the containers we saw an opportunity with plastic toilets, ' says Chris Nixon.'We hired a few then went out and bought some.'

Some might be a bit of an understatement - the company currently has more than 1,100 toilets on the fleet.And it will be toilets and accommodation that provide the impetus for further depot expansion.

Having sold a toilet division in Scotland in 2000, Nixon will get back into the Scottish toilet hire market in November this year, with a move into Edinburgh.The firm has plans for a further three toilet and accommodation depots next year, which will spearhead the move south, with plant following on behind.

Of course, accommodation and toilets don't just need depot space, they need dedicated transport.Nixon Hire has just replaced a number of Iveco trucks mounted with Palfinger cranes. It also has three Iveco chassis on order equipped with 13,500 litre tankers to empty all those toilets.

'We're looking at perhaps having 'super depots' in Newcastle, Edinburgh and Teesside, then have satellites or hub and spoke depots for the general plant, ' says Mr Nixon.

Customers can keep up to date with all of these changes as they happen, as Nixon Hire has fully embraced the internet with a busy website.

The site includes full specifications of the hire equipment, along with safety guides for their use. Eventually, Mr Nixon hopes to have full operating instructions for every piece of plant on the site.

'We like to communicate with our customers, 'he says.

That communication extends to the firm's own performance.Nixon Hire has a list of key performance indicators (KPI), including breakdown response and delivery response.

'We have eight KPIs at board level, but breakdown response is drilled into everyone, ' says Mr Nixon.He says that in 2003, the average response from all depots was one hour and two minutes.

'We know we're good at it, so why not shout it from the rooftops?' asks Mr Nixon.

'There are some really exciting times ahead.We believe if we can measure it, we can improve it.'

All of which has to be good news for Nixon Hire's growing list of customers.