Q & A: Ray Neilson
8 January 2021
Today’s interview is with Ray Neilson, managing director of Altrad Belle. Ray joined the original Belle business back in 2001 and before then had been operations director with another iconic machinery manufacturer, Benford Ltd.
Really good. Fingers crossed it continues. Altrad Belle’s cement mixers, plate compactors, Warrior wheelbarrow, bowser-pressure washers, 1-tonne high-tip dumper, new reversible plate compactors and generators are all in very high demand from our hire customers in the UK, who are reporting high utilisation.
What is your standout Covid-19 related memory or experience?
There are several things, like our employees doing whatever was necessary to help customers and the company through a tough time – that’s when you know what an exceptional team you have. I also remember a customer saying they had ‘a tsunami’ of demand for our famous Mini-mixer as demand bounced back quicker than anyone had imagined.
With all but a few people furloughed, UK & Eire Sales Manager Bob Williams [who retired in June], plus just a couple of the sales admin team and I found ourselves fielding all the calls, managing export sales, taking machines to customers for demonstrations in the blazing summer heat – everything. In one sense it was good to get hands-on again. And, of course, construction bounced back faster than anyone predicted, making it even busier.
How did you get into the industry?
37 years ago, I had the best apprenticeship anyone could hope for. I was hand-fabricating and test-driving prototype dumpers, rollers, access equipment and more at Benford which, being based in Warwick, was local to where I lived. I was also driving TT4000 site dumpers around Army rough-terrain test tracks in Surrey, with 4-tonne weights welded into the skip, while keeping out of the way of rally cars like the high-powered 3-litre MG Metro 6R4 at 90mph, or even military tanks that were being tested at the same time. I was only 17. This was all pre-ROPS, of course, and often without a seat even being fitted in the dumper!
Who or what inspires you?
Entrepreneurs and risk takers who have battled against all the odds to be successful. My father was the head of the Agricultural Training Board, and he would coach professionals, from livestock farmers to cider producers, in managing and developing their businesses. He would tell me how he trained and mentored people, and about risk management. So I take my hat off to tool and plant hirers, sales or manufacturing companies who have set up and built their own business, and those who have successfully managed the challenge of handing it over to the next generation.
Also, my boss, Mohed Altrad [chairman of Groupe Altrad], inspires me. He overcame being an unwanted child, born to Bedouin tribes people in Syria, to become EY World Entrepreneur in 2015. Now a billionaire, he still drives the business from the front daily and remains a humble man.
I also applaud Alan Guthrie for setting up his new venture, which I know we will all support [Ray is adamant that his Q & A cannot be published if this paragraph is taken out!]
What annoys/frustrates you?
Red tape, bureaucracy, negative attitudes. I enjoy the freedom to make the right decision for the company and customers quickly.
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever been given, or that you would pass on to others?
My woodwork teacher once told me that “Laziness well carried out is efficiency”. In everything, you can be far more efficient and automate or eliminate processes if you are ‘lazy’ enough to actively seek a better solution. It is like the continuous improvement processes that Japanese manufacturers introduced. One by-product of the pandemic is that we have all found ways of being more efficient in the crisis and finding new ways to operate.
What new skill would you like to learn?
Perhaps a few air tricks on a wakeboard, when we can holiday safely again. I’ve done some wakeboarding in Turkey, negotiating obstacles and ramps. Like anything, the more you do it, the more you learn.
How do you relax after a hard day?
Taking the dog for a walk in the Peak District National Park where I live. When it’s wet and muddy, it’s so good for blowing out the cobwebs.
What was your favourite school subject?
No real surprise here: it was engineering, drawing and craft design. I was so lucky. At the comprehensive school I went to in North Leamington, there were two technical teachers who were passionate about it all. Facilities included a foundry, full machine shop, anodising plant, woodworking tools, vacuum forming equipment for Perspex and welding torches. We were able to make patterns, cast the metal required and machine it. There was little we couldn’t do: everything from unicycles to tin can crushers were designed and produced.
If things had been different, what other career might you have chosen?
I used to love jumping motorbikes but 110ft through the air was all my old bike could manage. I guess stunt riding might have been an alternative.
On what topic could you give a 30-minute presentation with no preparation?
It would probably have to be how you can steer a project from the start right through to completion. I’ve lived and breathed the development of our HD1000HT 1-tonne high-tip dumper, 20 years after managing the team who launched the first 1-tonne dumper at Benford. We listened to feedback from the top UK hirers over several years.
Do you follow a particular sport and/or team?
Mohed Altrad owns Montpellier Hérault rugby union club, and I try to visit the UK/Eire matches if possible. We hold many conferences at the rugby stadium near the French Riviera. Being part of the Altrad family, it is easy to support them and great fun to watch the team training (sometimes in 35 degrees C or higher) and to hear the manager discuss the season’s strategy. Also, having Scottish parents, I support the Scotland rugby team.
What is the biggest challenge facing your business or the wider industry?
The opportunity exists for the UK hire industry to grow and the current challenge is the disruption in the supply chain of raw materials, and component suppliers’ capacity to meet industry demands.
And what’s the biggest opportunity?
Developing green products is a great opportunity to show we care about everyone’s health and safety, and the planet. Also, I have experience of acquiring companies and there is scope within Altrad to continue to add significant businesses that suit our customer base in hire. In addition, I love product development and have a fantastic team who are both hands-on and engineering experts. We have many more plans for more products and range additions.
What’s the secret of success?
Passionate and competent people with a can-do attitude won’t let anything stop them. Don’t worry about mistakes and failures as these are just learning opportunities (as long as you do learn from them). It’s important to have a clear, focused strategy that is easily communicated and understood so that efforts and resources are targeted efficiently, and individuals can make daily independent decisions.
Finally, is there anything you would like to add about the business, the current trading outlook or future plans?
I wish all in the hire and construction industries, past and future customers, competitors, suppliers, all partners and Altrad Belle’s current and former employees, a safe and a tremendously healthy, successful and enjoyable 2021. We have a fantastic team of highly passionate, competent and entrepreneurial individuals who will allow the business to push forward in more exciting ways in the coming period.
There'll be another fascinating Q & A here on the site next week.