The Obart tale is one of family succession and an entrepreneurial spirit. The company was founded in 1972 by ‘Jack’ Hill as an outlet for Campbell-Gray Plant Hire. The Peckham depot was managed by son John, who bought the business outright in 1975. Always keen to explore new opportunities and potential points of competitive difference, he was impressed by the lightweight Tsurumi pumps he saw at an exhibition in the USA. John bought several pumps for use in his plant hire company, Campbell-Gray. He got to know how reliable they were, then sold them to his friends in the hire industry through Obart.
Business growth and increasingly larger premises followed, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing. Current MD and grandson of the original founder, Matthew Hill, brings the story up to date: “There wasn’t really anything like Tsurumi pumps back in 1975 – other equipment was typically big and awkward in comparison. So my dad did very well to begin with, and he started selling them to his friends in the hire industry,” he starts.
“The company grew, but he was perhaps spread too thinly by the early eighties, and he was nearly wiped out in the recession. Then the big one of 1990-91 completely finished him off and he lost absolutely everything. I joined the company in 1986, having been a sales rep for Dexion shelving. I bought the company in 1991 because Dad could see that it was about to become bankrupt. I paid £100 for it, but had to invest £50,000 too, which my grandmother gave me. There was only three of us at the start, including a lady who typed the invoices, and I was doing sales, the packing, marketing and the finance.
“We have moved as we’ve expanded and needed bigger warehousing space – we were up to 2500sqft in 2003, selling 5000 pumps a year, to where we are now, with 20,000sqft and forecasting 30,000 pumps a year. We’re looking to double the size of our premises over the next ten years.”
After eight increasingly commodious premises, is the current location big enough to accommodate the current business?
“No, it just doesn’t stop. I call it ‘Frankenstein’s monster’, as it’s got a mind of its own and I never know where it’s going next!”
So Obart was a general plant and tool hire company to begin with, but what caused the shift in focus in the first place?
“When I bought the company all we had was Tsurumi pumps, wallpaper strippers, ladders, Belle mixers and other types of construction equipment. I was looking at the comparative margins, the aggro and the competition involved. Tsurumi came out on top, and in 1992 I got rid of all other items.”
“So we became a pump company, mostly supplying to the hire companies, but we also started getting enquiries from outside the sector which helped us to evolve and diversify. Hire is still a major part of our business, but it’s the one I like the most.”
Long may that continue! Meanwhile, and after a longstanding relationship, Obart was finally acquired by Tsurumi Europe in 2020. Matthew retains a 20% equity, but what’s the story there, what’s their input and how will this affect the company going forward?
“When your manufacturer wants to buy you that’s got to be the greatest compliment you can have as a business. In terms of their decision, I think Tsurumi recognised that I don’t have a successor in place. My daughter works here in marketing and my son is in Manchester but neither are interested, as being an entrepreneur can be a bit lonely and burdensome sometimes."
“We now have exclusive rights to sell Tsurumi in the UK, but the company is very satisfied with how well we’ve done in the tool hire market. Tsurumi let us get on with it, but they want to get more involved in larger infrastructure projects, such as Crossrail and the new Elizabeth line in London. That’s the long term aim, although Tsurumi still want to maintain their presence with the single-phase equipment, which we sell to rental companies.”
This seemed like a good opportunity to hear from Pete McMutrie – a 20-year veteran of Seddons, who became Sales Director in 2019. Much has happened since, but what’s his mission?
“Basically, I want to Obart to be seen and known as the pump specialists, right across the hire industry. Customers are trying to consolidate and reduce the number of suppliers, so I’m trying to convey that we should be the first port of call whenever there is a pump problem.
“A lot of larger hire companies have sales divisions, where they’re perhaps not dealing directly with the equipment very often. So we’re looking at workshop videos which we’ll provide to the hire industry. We will offer sales training as well, to help them identify problems and offer better solutions for their clients.
“I’m also working on our brand exposure to help push the Tsurumi name forward. In fact, we have a three ads a day running for three months on Fix Radio (catchphrase: “Tsurumi Pumps – Stronger for Longer”), and this will help drive business to the hire industry and our dealers.
“Apart from that, we’re an ethical and responsible company, and we try to minimise our impact on the environment. We’re currently undergoing a carbon audit – it’s not just the
right thing for us to do, but it’s also good for business!”
On that, what measures did the company take during lockdown, and how is current trading?
“We saw a 60% drop in April/May 2020. We put some people on furlough, but we didn’t make anybody redundant. We were closed every other day, initially, but we were still able to take orders over the phone and email, and then prepare orders for delivery the following day,” Matthew explains.
“Sales improved gradually and were back to normal and full strength by October/November. Then things really exploded from January, effectively double for the month and they’ve stayed strong since. It was wet, which helps, but also because a lot of capex that been held back was being released and construction projects were coming back online.”
That’s great to hear, and it’s very evident that Obart is a happy, healthy and inclusive place to work.
The meeting draws to a close, but not before I asked a final, vital question. Obart will be 50 years old next year, nearly timing with EHS 2022, so how will the occasion be celebrated?
“Because I like the exhibition, I’ve got this idea for a tombola where the prizes will be related to our 50th anniversary – 50% off, 50 boxes of sweets or 50 metres of hose! We’re definitely planning something big for the show!”
Article courtesy of Executive Hire News: https://content.yudu.com/web/fiqy/0A3vvgk/EHNoctober21/html/index.html?page=22&origin=reader