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Q & A: Andy Wright

27 November 2020

Q & A: Andy Wright

Today my interviewee is Andy Wright. Last February, Andy became chief executive officer of Sunbelt Rentals UK, the re-branded identity for A-Plant that was introduced in June. His hire industry career spans more than 30 years and he has held senior management positions with Speedy, Lavendon and Aggreko. Sunbelt is the UK’s largest hirer of tools, equipment and plant, with 19 specialist divisions, and it is playing a key role in providing equipment for NHS coronavirus testing centres throughout the country.

How’s business?

We have bounced back strongly after the initial lockdown and demand is spread evenly across all our business units. One I would highlight is our Safety & Communications business that we launched in March. It has made excellent progress, establishing national coverage during the pandemic.

What is your standout Covid-19 related memory or experience?

Sunbelt has been intrinsically involved in the government’s efforts to beat the virus, deploying a number of our expert businesses in a very coordinated way to help build Covid-19 test centres from Inverness to Plymouth. And more are being built. The way in which our people and teams have responded at this time of the country’s urgent need has made me extremely proud – it’s undoubtedly the proudest moment in my career to date.

What in particular impressed you?

So many things. People were working round the clock. Many travelled round the country, some finding themselves to be the only people staying in Premier Inns that were virtually closed, with no restaurant facilities and having to quickly find alternatives. If Covid-19 has a silver lining it’s the way in which it has brought our entire business together. In the old A-Plant organisation, people sometimes felt they worked for different independent businesses. One of the reasons for the Sunbelt Rentals rebranding was to unify everyone, and the pandemic has actually accelerated that.

How did you get into the hire industry?

I left school at 16 and did a high-voltage cable jointing apprenticeship with the former Yorkshire Electricity Board. In 1989 I joined Aggreko, first as a sales engineer in Doncaster and then as a depot manager which took me into hire. I loved it: the people, the spontaneity and having to react to customers’ needs. I worked for a couple of smaller businesses from 1995 to 2000 before rejoining Aggreko, becoming MD for its UK business after a few months. I joined Lavendon in 2007, initially working in the UK before moving to the Middle East, to run the International business there, moving to Speedy in 2016 as MD of its Southern business and then becoming MD for the UK & Ireland. I went to A-Plant as Chief Operating Officer in February 2019 and was appointed CEO in February this year. 

Who or what inspires you?

I admire people who overcome adversity and achieve their dreams without ever complaining, like paralympic athletes who are determined to succeed, or the tenor Andrea Bocelli who was blinded at the age of 12 in a football accident but still became a world-renowned singer.

What annoys/frustrates you?

Almost the opposite of my previous answer: people who don’t appreciate the opportunities they’ve been given and just use their energies in a negative way.

What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever been given, or that you would pass on to others?

Six weeks after joining Aggreko, I seized an unexpected opportunity to take a management course. I always remember being told during it that ‘you get the people you deserve’: if you trust them, then they’ll trust you. It’s like doing unto others as you would be done by. Too many climb up the greasy pole of management and forget how they got there.

What new skill would you like to learn?

Patience.

How do you relax after a hard day?

I’m a bookworm. I’ve obviously read many management books, but I also like crime thrillers. I’ve been reading several recently by the Norwegian writer, Jo Nesbø. He’s a great storyteller.

What was your favourite school subject?

PE, especially football. Which leads neatly on to the next question...  

If things had been different, what other career might you have chosen?

I really wanted to be a professional footballer and had opportunities with Barnsley FC as a centre half. Earlier, I had also played for Huddersfield Town’s boys’ team but ultimately things didn’t work out, which was a shame.

On what topic could you give a 30-minute presentation with no preparation?

On a personal subject it would be 1980s heavy rock bands. My favourites were groups like Rush, Journey, UFO, Rainbow, AC/DC and I still listen to them, although my tastes are a bit more eclectic nowadays – hence my earlier reference to Andrea Bocelli. On a work-related topic, I could talk about the links between sports management - say football - and business management. You obviously need to pick the best people in your team, but you must have the best system and you effectively need eleven captains who understand the strategy, not just one, otherwise you risk creating bottlenecks.

Do you follow a particular sport and/or team?

All sports and especially football – my team being Huddersfield Town, my home town club. I’ve also followed Arsenal for years because I never dreamed Huddersfield would make it into the Premier League! After they won the play-off final in 2017 (I was there at Wembley with my two sons), the two teams played each other in the League the following season, and I wondered whether I would follow my head or my heart. In the event, it was the latter: I got totally behind Huddersfield without any hesitation.

What is the biggest challenge facing your business or the wider industry?

Apart from Covid-19 obviously, I think it is the whole issue of carbon reduction and the technological journey that will replace diesel fleets, such as machines powered by electricity and hydrogen, and the infrastructure needed to support them. 

And what’s the biggest opportunity?

I believe that as time goes by, more people will realise that hire is the ultimate sharing economy, increasing sustainability, decreasing carbon emissions and encouraging end users to rent rather than own. It raises utilisation, customers benefit from the latest technology and it protects the environment.

What’s the secret of success?

A combination of four things, not necessarily in this order: humility, in the sense of always being aware of your origins; timing - being in the right place at the right time; hard work; and a sprinkling of good luck.

Finally, is there anything you would like to add about the business, the current trading outlook or future plans?

Given the journey that our business has made following the Sunbelt Rentals rebranding, it’s worth pointing out that the move was a vehicle for change, not the strategy itself. It was about creating a joined-up organisation from 19 different businesses: some previous A-Plant customers hadn’t realised that they were dealing with parts of the same group. Sunbelt Rentals is the umbrella for the various individual identities, and our Covid-19 response has shown how we can all work together to provide a world-class service. 

There will be another fascinating Q & A with a hire industry professional on the site next week. Don't miss it.

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