Insights from Alex Knowles, Managing Director of Knowles Transport, on future-proofing his business, human capital, disruption, the environment and more. He explains how debating common issues and sharing best practices at the IRU World Congress will benefit his business and the wider industry.
Tell us a bit about yourself
Growing up in a family logistics business that has been operational since 1932, I have been surrounded by the industry my entire life.
Working in different departments during school holidays allowed me to gain an early insight into the business and industry. I returned to the family business after graduating university, and assumed various positions in transport and warehouse, finance and marketing. Assuming director of business development and marketing roles, I achieved a 32% increase in turnover from 2015 to 2017. Early in 2018, I became Managing Director.
I am great believer in digitalisation and the collection of relevant data to contribute to management decisions.
In addition, informational flow from qualitative sources such as our people, customers and bodies such as IRU and the RHA is key to ensuring effective strategy formation and execution.
I also regularly pursue leadership courses. I would describe my leadership style as a coach, actively empowering people to learn and make decisions that benefit the company and them as individuals.
Considering that you are managing a family company, do you look at business differently compared to your father (Is there a difference how different generations view business?)
The complexity of the business has changed considerably since my father became Managing Director in the early 1980’s. I share the focus our business has always placed on our customers, our people and financial performance. However, I am expanding that foundation to include environment and technology. Our business is putting in place strong teams and processes to oversee these new areas.
Business leaders from my generation have had a comprehensive education on the environmental challenges facing the world combined with widespread media coverage and research, which was not available or as high profile during my father’s earlier career. The fact that the global logistics industry contributes heavily to carbon emissions is neither a secret nor a surprise, given the scale and importance of our sector worldwide.
What we need to do is adapt the business models to address our environmental impact.
Secondly, growing up in an era of massive technological change and the digitalisation of all levels of our business over the past two decades means this was always going to be an area of high importance for me. Ensuring IT systems are deployed, interconnected and adaptable, together with real time data mining for agile decision-making, are all key parts of my strategy going forward and crucial for the industry to embrace.
You took part recently in IRU Logistics & Innovation Solutions Event in Amsterdam where you also had opportunity to meet young transport operators from Germany, Netherlands, Greece and many other countries. Do you see a need for young transport operators to exchange knowledge and build business relations between themselves?
It was great to be a member of the Road Haulage Association team at the IRU Logistics & Innovation Event in Amsterdam. It was extremely helpful to meet other young transport operators from different countries.
I believe that collaboration and knowledge-sharing benefits young transport operators to grow sustainable logistics businesses.
One thing that struck me while speaking with counterparts from different countries is how we are all dealing with similar issues. It was very useful to learn how they are responding to these challenges, and see how their solutions could be relevant to our strategic decisions.
Taking into account the latest disruptive trends, such as vehicle automation or digitalisation, how do you see the future of your company evolving?
My Board and I are very much focusing on ensuring that our business is future-proofed in anticipation of disruptive technological trends that will undoubtedly affect the company during my tenure. This includes digitalisation and the integration of IT systems across all departments and the linking and harmonisation of these systems.
I believe digitalisation is key in preparing for vehicle automation; something that in my opinion is still quite a way off from becoming mainstream.
Vehicle automation will obviously give asset utilisation and labour cost-saving benefits for transport operators depending on whether a driver is required to assist or not. There will also be challenges particularly regarding the initial implementation of such vehicle types. Undoubtedly, it will be a very interesting period of radical change for our industry.
You will also be one of the speakers at the IRU World Congress, highlighting the important topic of Driver Shortage. Does it affect you today, and how do you see this evolving in the future?
Driver shortage is a problem for the entire industry at the moment.
With the number of people on the planet rising, logistics has grown as a result. The problem is the number of HGV drivers has not grown to support the fulfilment requirements that we all have as an industry. Retaining and rewarding drivers in a low margin industry, where increased costs (although this can be very difficult) are passed on to the customer and end consumer, can be very challenging. Logistics operators end up aggressively competing not just for customers but for drivers as well.
Young people need to see driving as an attractive career option.
These days, while salary remains important to young people, lifestyle and social status are equally critical particularly given the widespread adoption of social media channels such as Facebook and Instagram.
In addition, many young people want working hours that allow them to spend a reasonable proportion of their evenings with their friends and families. In a fair number of driving jobs within our sector, this is not feasible or requires a radical shift in operation to accommodate this lifestyle.
We, in the industry, need to make lorry driving a more appealing career path. Many young people still have a predetermined image of a lorry driver as an overweight, older male who spends his life alone behind the wheel. We need to better showcase the excellent facilities inside a modern lorry and highlight that reasonable working hours are possible. Finally, we must demonstrate that this is a career that pays well for men and women with a basic education.
I am also concerned about the widespread media coverage of the imminent arrival of automated vehicles. I am convinced that potential young drivers are influenced by these reports into thinking that driving is a poor long-term career path.
My belief is that automated vehicles or not, there will always be a job for the lorry driver (in my tenure anyway)!
Talking about the Congress, what value do you see for your business, and would you recommend to other transport operators to take part?
It is a great honour to be part of the IRU World Congress. I expect considerable benefits to myself and my business.
IRU is forward looking and the solutions proposed by both industry experts and leaders as well as software manufacturers are key to the future-proofing of my business and the industry.
By discussing common industry challenges with such a diverse group from all over the world ensures that we maximise the learning and networking experience. This can be taken back to our own businesses, integrated into strategy, and ensure we are all aware of and adapting to the changing needs of the industry in an effective manner.