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High rollers

PLANT HIRE - Clee Hill has become a major force in road machinery hire thanks to the drive of its two owners. Ian Brown reports

CLEE HILL's owners Derek McSwiney and David Hargreaves have fought to keep it not only in existence, but also growing and thriving for the past 15 years.

They are unlikely bedfellows: Mr McSwiney the gritty, tell-it-like-it-is plantman, Mr Hargreaves the chartered accountant. But both love the industry and are passionate about where Clee Hill is going.

Clee Hill sprang up in Clee Hill Quarry, Shropshire.

It was bought in 1989 by Northern Strip Mining, then a fast-growing conglomerate with interests in the UK and USA. In 1990 NSM poached Mr McSwiney from Hewden Stuart to develop Clee Hill.

'I presented the board a capital expenditure request for an amount that included the takeover of a small hirer, ' says Mr McSwiney, 'I was told there was no money for expansion. I'd moved to get away from this big company culture.'

After a similar incident Mr McSwiney was re-appraising his position but he and Mr Hargreaves decided on an MBO.

Mr Hargreaves started at Anglo United but had switched to the UK division of NSM.'The operations in the USA were bleeding NSM dry, ' he says.

In 1996 they put forward their plan and the NSM board approved it and exchanged contracts. But days before completion, NSM was placed in administration.

'A man from Arthur Andersen said: 'We are selling Clee Hill on the open market, '' says Mr McSwiney.

'But I knew that Clee Hill wasn't a snug fit with any general hire company able to afford the price.'

Nine months later the two men were in charge.

In 2003 the pair staged a secondary buyout, reimbursing the original creditors and forging ahead with a new team of financiers.

'Since then we've followed a straight course.We have a plan to raise the depot count to 10 from our present seven. It's 'firm but flexible' if you like.

Rigidity gets you nowhere in the plant hire industry, 'Mr McSwiney says.

Clee Hill boasts 1,200 pieces of kit, 80 per cent of which are compactionrelated.

'That's a blessing and a curse since we are specialised and expert, ' says Mr Hargreaves.'But we have a short working season. It makes the cash flow come in peaks and troughs too.'

Clee Hill has carved itself a niche, particularly with road surfacing specialists. It is proud of a five-year supply deal it has with RMC Surfacing.

'This five-year package is the cream, ' says Mr McSwiney, 'The RMC deal meant taking a look at the kit we specify, ' he adds.'We decided to major on Hamm compaction.'

The deal is for 74 major, exclusive items and Clee Hill will also supply ancillary kit nationally. It is working on further partnering programmes but 'nothing is near fruition just yet' 'The Government's 10-year roads plan started off fast but after a couple of years has slowed down, ' says Mr Hargreaves.'At some point the funding has to be put in place to improve the transport infrastructure and Clee Hill is well-placed to take advantage.'