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Hire runs in the blood at Carroll

From its modest beginnings as a one-man operation Carroll Plant has thrived for 40 years and seen off a number of bigger players through a mixture of hard graft and old-fashioned customer service. Ian Brown visits the Liverpool hirer

IN OCTOBER 1961, John Carroll was a young man working as a maintenance engineer for a big plant hire and sales outfit based in Leeds. Living in Liverpool, he travelled the country repairing crushers, conveyors and almost anything else that required fixing.

But he also had ambition - he knew that the plant hire industry was thriving and held opportunities for a man with his experience and contacts. So he took the plunge and became a plant hirer. More than 40 years on and the company still thrives at its site in Aintree, Liverpool.

A couple of Winget 1,500 kg dumpers were his first purchase - they cost £950 each, and no VAT back then. They formed the basis of a fleet which grew rapidly and now numbers more than 200 items. All are non-operated. 'It's what we started out doing, ' says John Carroll, 'and events have proved us to have made the right choice, because plant hire has become more and more non-op oriented over the years.

'In the early days I was the manager, salesman, serviceman, delivery driver and tea boy. My wife Maureen did the admin, such as it was - and, most importantly, typed the invoices. My working day often started at 6 am as I delivered a dumper to site and sometimes finished at 10 pm after I'd serviced a machine in the dark.

The return on capital was far higher then than it is now. That's because equipment prices have risen steadily while hire rates haven't. Back then we weren't in a discount war; the rate was the rate, and probably the biggest headache was that sites would continually ring up to say they'd lost the starting handle. Clutches and brakes were hammered, since mostly dumper drivers couldn't actually drive, they just jumped on and muddled through, slipping the clutch meant they didn't have to change gear. Deep mud turned to grinding paste as the brake drums filled up with it and frazzled the linings - often on a weekly basis.'

While John was putting in long days, his wife Maureen sat at the dining table tackling the paperwork with two small children playing at her feet. Those two children Neil and Pat grew up to become committed directors of the family firm and they're there to this day.

'Everything was hand-written at first, ' says Maureen, 'invoices, statements, letters and orders. But we badgered John to get a typewriter for our second year. He thought it was a luxury and we had to persuade him otherwise.'

Carroll Plant became a limited company in 1971 but it remains a family business.

John has been semi-retired, he claims, for several years and spends long periods of each year in Florida. But ask Pat or Neil and they'll tell you that their Dad still retains a keen interest in what's going on in Carroll Plant.

If there's one thing that sets Carroll Plant apart from most of its peers, it's the firm's complete financial independence.

'We've never borrowed money from the bank, ' says John, 'and until five or six years ago, we'd never used any form of HP or leasing facility. We simply negotiated a deal and then wrote a cheque.

'But then, about seven years ago, we bought a 'rogue' excavator and it cost us a lot in terms of breakdowns, faulty operation, broken promises and loss of faith. Since the dealer had our money, it wasn't really interested in pursuing our case and eventually the thing died the death. It taught us a lesson, though, and now we use a finance house to structure our deals. Their commitment is strong and they are more powerful than us when it comes to exerting pressure on a dealer or manufacturer, should the need arise.'

John's daughter Pat ran the administration side of Carroll Plant for years until she decided to get married and emigrate to Australia in 1998. Many a tradesman in the Liverpool area can tell tales of being chased across his site by a leggy blonde in a hard-hat and mini-skirt, waving unpaid invoices.

'It worked, ' says Pat, 'and I'm putting them all on notice that in the near future, as Arnold Schwarzenegger puts it: 'I'll be back!'' She admits that she misses the adrenaline rush of day-to-day plant hire.

Meanwhile, her brother Neil, a qualified chemist, has never actually plied that trade.

He spends every working day in the thick of Carroll Plant's workshop. He's the one who doesn't look as though he's a director of anything, since he's usually grafting alongside the fitters and delivery drivers.

Always optimistic, he is aware of the transient nature of the business: 'We can only succeed against the nationals by offering a better, more focused service with top-class kit that our customers are proud to have on site. We do lose some passing trade because of massive discounting, but we have a strong hardcore support of customers, some of whom have been with us from day one. Interestingly enough, our customer base is growing year by year.

Maybe the cheapest isn't necessarily the best option.'

Buying the cheapest isn't the chosen option when sourcing new kit either. 'We look for quality, good service backup and a proven on-site reputation, ' explains Neil, 'then we look at the price tag. That's why you'll see brands like Benford, Volvo and Atlas Copco in our fleet.'

John Carroll may leave the day-to-day running of the business he founded to his children, but there's little doubt he's proud of what he and his family have achieved.

'We've never turned in a financial loss, ' he says, 'and I see no reason for that to change. The experts have told us for ages that the end of the small plant hirer is just around the corner. But we believe they're wrong. More than 40 years on, we're thriving, financially sound and just as hungry for business as we were in 1961.'