SANDY Fairweather is one of the most admired and popular figures in the Scottish plant industry. He’s seen most things after a lifetime in sales, including working with some leading manufacturers.
Less than two years ago, Sandy and his wife Jan, whose background is in finance, took the bold decision to branch out on their own, forming a company called Empire Exports, which involves sourcing and selling a wide variety of construction equipment for customers old and new. The company is booming, with repeat business increasingly prevalent and Sandy admitting he should have made the leap years ago.
Sandy recently sat down with Project Plant editor Gary Moug to discuss his career in sales, what it’s like to have three sons follow him into such a challenging sector, and why you should always ensure you give someone the correct address when you send them to pull down trees from a residential address…
Q) HOW DID YOU FIRST BREAK INTO THE PLANT INDUSTRY?
A) I served my time as engineer at the BP chemical site in Grangemouth, so I had a very strong mechanical background. I’d always been able to fix things. Then I found I was a face-to-face person so sales was my forte. I had various sales jobs, from supplying industrial diamonds to working in ultrasonics.
I moved into the plant industry with Bell Equipment, where I spent 15 successful years, massively improving the popularity of Bell machines within Scotland, leading to 60% of the market share. I enjoyed that and had a very good relationship with Gary Bell, who owned the company and was very supportive.
I left Bell when the opportunity arose to join another manufacturer, whose product I really liked. I worked there for a year and was made redundant because there weren’t enough machines being supplied into the UK for the following year. It was the first time in my life I’d ever been unemployed. I didn’t know what I was going to do but my four sons and wife Jan said I knew everybody and was always helping people, so I should go into business for myself. We’d dabbled in the past in running our own businesses. My family had an antiques business, which I was heavily involved in. And when Jan and I got married, we opened a car dealership. A good business is a business that makes money. Any business that doesn’t make you anything is absolutely pointless as far as I’m concerned because of the effort, risks and physical time you put in.
With my experience in plant sales and Jan’s experience in the finance industry, we decided to set up Empire Exports.
Q) CAN YOU PROVIDE US WITH AN OVERVIEW OF EMPIRE EXPORTS?
A) I could clearly see a gap in the market for buying and selling used plant machinery. I decided that my contacts and knowledge would be a huge help to customers looking to move on their unwanted machinery or source any machines that they may be looking to acquire.
The way I see the market for the next few years is that the big infrastructure jobs are not there at the moment, particularly in Scotland. Throughout the UK, we’re waiting on them all starting. Plant is of no use unless it’s working. There’s no point in someone having equipment, even if there’s no debt on it, sitting in the yard not earning you money. With the smaller contracts that they get involved in short-term, people are looking for equipment immediately. Someone will wake up and say, ‘That manufacturer can’t supply it for 12 weeks – do we really want to buy new?’ A contract might only be for six months and they might need to take a huge hit on that product if they have to get rid of it again. So they turn to people like me who can source very quickly machines that are maybe a couple of years old, so the capital outlay is less, they can get it immediately, it goes to work for them, and if the contract ceases early or doesn’t carry on, I can move it on for them again.
A lot of the bigger companies are opening their doors to saying they could do any type of project if the plant’s available. They’re quoting for jobs they normally wouldn’t have chased before. That’s where Empire comes in. We take calls on a daily basis – probably as much as ten calls a day – with people asking if we can buy or sell a particular machine. The crucial point is the negotiation. A lot of the time it’s done on the phone, often it’s face-to-face. People trust me to get the machine on time and supply a decent piece of kit. The policy is to sell the best we can in terms of the condition. If we sell the cheapest and it’s rubbish, nobody is going to come back. Repeat business is now happening in Year Two, which is amazing. Jan sent out about 120 thank you emails last week to people we had orders from. In one year of business, a tremendous amount of people have placed orders with us. Some of it values £300,000 or £400,000.
We are based in the central belt and the majority of our machines are bought and sold within the UK. We do, however, work with customers all over the world and have supplied machines as far as China.
Q) HOW COMPETITIVE IS THE MARKET?
A) It is a very competitive market, but this is something I thrive on. I want our business to be full of personality and this is where I feel Empire Exports differs. Each and every one of the customers I deal with is someone I have built up a strong relationship with and their trust is really important to me. Aftersales is absolutely pivotal. Whether a machine has been delivered or purchased, we ensure our customer is completely satisfied with the service.
Not a lot of people are doing what we’re doing. It requires a lot of contacts, a lot of time spent on it, and a lot of hard work. Everybody’s moved onto technology and it kind of destroys some industries, because you can see how people can check prices and contact loads of people by simply pressing buttons. What’s lost is that I’ll jump in the car and drive to Inverness, or above Inverness, meet a guy on site, look at the equipment, ask what he’s needing, and he’s then convinced that if I’m prepared to do that, I’m prepared to help him. I’ve got all the technology anybody ever needs between iPads and computers, but I still have a notepad and get up through the night when I get something in my head that I need to scribble down.
A customer I dealt with 10 years before called me up to say he had heard I had moved on and he wanted to work with me again. He was from a remote part of the Highlands and I previously sold him a B40D. I was delighted he had called me to help him out. Needless to say, I worked my hardest to ensure I got him the best deal possible. This is someone who now works with Empire Exports regularly for both our supplying and selling services.
Q) WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON MACHINES YOU’RE ASKED TO SOURCE OR SELL?
A) Excavators are asked for all the time. We’re really successful at the moment with 20 and 30-tonne dumpers, bulldozers, lime spreaders. We sold 37 sets of tower lights recently. We are a company that people say ‘Can you help me?’ and we’ll find it.
The auctions can do what I’m doing in terms of disposing of people’s kit. But there’s a timescale on that and there’s never a certainty what someone’s going to get. What I do is go to a customer’s site, look at a piece of kit, and ask how much they need for it. I’ll tell them what I can give them right now and they’ll be paid the next day. I’m not asking what they’ve been offered by someone else. I’ll tell them what I can offer because I know I’ve got a home for it, or I’ll take it into stock.
Q) WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT FUTURE PLANS?
A) In the years to come I definitely plan on expanding the business. It is important however not to lose that personal touch that I feel Empire Exports excels in. I would like to leave a family business that hopefully one day can be taken over by my children and grandchildren.
I always wanted to retire at 65. That was my ambition in life, but I’m enjoying this so much that I actually see the company growing very progressively to a level where my family would like to get involved in it or at least take ownership of it and reap the benefits long-term.
Q) THREE OF YOUR SONS ARE WORKING IN THE INDUSTRY – HOW DO THEY FEEL ABOUT YOUR GROWING BUSINESS?
A) They’re very enthusiastic and 100% see the potential. As you get older in the industry, you have your circle of people that you’ve dealt with and have built up good friendships with. Those are the people you depend on. The younger people associate with people their same age, so my boys have a relationship inside some of the companies I deal with, with people who are younger and progressing up through the ranks. I leave them to build that relationship. It doesn’t do any harm to mention their dad, and I threaten them to do that as often as they can!
I’m very proud of my four sons. The plant industry is probably the most difficult industry for young people to get involved in and stay in, because it is extremely difficult and hard for them. But there’s opportunities to go right to the top if you’re prepared to make the effort and be good at what you do.
My son Euan is sales manager for Finlay Scotland. He’s extremely knowledgeable and extremely good at sales. Another son, Cameron, joined Close Asset Finance as one of their youngest people to join straight into a sales role and he’s commanded that, building up a good rapport with the people he works beside and clients. My son Ross was with Bell for many years, then worked for Hill in Ireland and has now moved to a massive Dutch-based auction house, so he’s working throughout the country dealing with assets being sold to auction. My fourth son, GreIg, lives in Manchester and works in HR for a technology company.
Q) CAREER HIGHLIGHTS?
A) At Bell, I was awarded salesperson of the year globally one year, at a ceremony in Germany. The same year I achieved the highest order value, which took in a deal with Scottish Coal for 27 40-tonne dump trucks, which was the biggest deal I’d done in my life. They were predominantly users of a rival brand. I persevered with Bell because I had a strong thing to prove, which was the fuel economy. That was something people didn’t consider years ago but I thought it was a very strong selling point. We did various surveys and tests down in Ayrshire to prove the point that it was a substantial saving if they used the Bell machines.
Q) WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED?
A) It’s a fairly simple thing I was told by my peers – do the very best you can, and if can do it better than anybody else you’ll get recognition. I’m a great believer in that. If I go into a petrol station or restaurant and someone is exceptionally nice and good at their job, I’d rather just go up and give them a big tip.
Q) WE HEAR A LOT ABOUT SKILLS SHORTAGES AND THE CHALLENGE OF ATTRACTING YOUNG PEOPLE INTO THE INDUSTRY. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR THOSE POTENTIALLY CONSIDERING A CAREER IN PLANT?
A) If they want a career in the industry, they should do their homework, find the type of company they’d like to join, and physically go and make an approach to that company. It sounds daft but go to their offices, take the CV in and actually speak to someone and ask for help. That person might not be the decision-maker or the owner, but if they get that sort of approach, they’ll recognise the effort and say that’s maybe the kind of person they should be looking at. That’s the only way to do it. Contacts work, but if you don’t have contacts, source the type of industry you want to go into and make the effort to do that. Someone will see you walking in that door and ask what you were there for.
The rewards are there. The sales profession is a fantastic profession. Unfortunately, it’s not looked on as a great profession in the UK. In America, a salesperson is in the same category as a surgeon or a doctor because they see it as a very important profession. The UK should be the same. Unfortunately, everyone’s trying to make money, everybody’s got targets, and when things don’t happen quickly enough, the one that gets under pressure is the one who’s just joined or the youngest person, so you just have to ride that through and never give up.
Q) ANY FUNNY ANECDOTES FROM YOUR CAREER?
A) A good few years ago, a friend called me up to ask for a favour. He needed trees removed from the front of his house as they were undermining the drainage. The trees were only six or seven feet high so I phoned a guy I know who could go out with a 3CX or tractor and pull them out. I went around to make sure he didn’t tear up the ground and make a mess of the house. When I got there, he had chains wrapped around the trees and said to me it was typical of me to tell him the trees were only six feet tall when they were in fact 15 feet. He was at the wrong house! It was absolutely terrifying; I never saw anybody disconnect chains so quickly!
In a sales environment when you’re doing fairly big orders, I still get excited and get very nervous because I want to get that business. I remember going into a customer’s office and he asked if I’d like a coffee. I didn’t want to complicate matters as I had enough to concentrate on with my paperwork without drinking coffee, so I refused. He brought his own coffee through and placed it down on the boardroom table. He then left to take a phone call. I thought the coffee was going to mark the table, so I got a placemat and put the coffee on top. When he returned, I was drinking his coffee. Nerves had got the better of me and I forgot that it wasn’t for me!
Q) HOW DO YOU RELAX WHEN YOU’RE NOT WORKING?
A) Socialising, malt whisky and classic cars. Jan and I are constantly working, even during dinner we’ll be chatting about what’s happening. So, I pour myself a whisky for two reasons: one is to take the stress off, and two is that it means I won’t need to run my sons anywhere!
Our relaxation is weekends. If we’ve not got something on work-wise, the pair of us just love chilling. My bucket list is huge – it’s got a big hole in the bottom! I’ll have a go at anything. Jan dragged me to the ballet yesterday and warned me to switch my phone off. So, I’m sitting there with my mind going over everything I had to do, while watching men in tights!
• For more information about Empire Exports, email Sandy at email@example.com