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Q&A: John Freeman

14 April 2023

Q&A: John Freeman

John Freeman is Managing Director of Hire! Freeman, Telford’s oldest independent plant hire company which dates back to 1961. John is a qualified production engineer and is a huge supporter of British industry, past and present… 

What was your first job?

I was an apprentice with Westland Helicopters in Yeovil, gaining a full technological certificate in Engineering Production in 1981. It was a five-year course with day-release elements and two evening classes a week.

How did you get into the hire industry?

In 1978 I joined the family firm that my father and mother established in 1961 shortly after I was born, later being joined by his two brothers. He was quite a pioneer, building up a substantial fleet of compressors which were hired throughout the country. The business actually ran six helicopters as part of our service fleet to reach customer locations quickly, and it eventually led to a separate helicopter hire business being set up, complete with pilots. The company once hired one to Chris Tarrant, although most clients were contractors and utilities. 

Sounds fascinating.

Yes, and I certainly had an exciting childhood being surrounded by plant and helicopters. We even had a fixed-wing plane in the fleet once and I first flew solo fixed wing myself when I was 19. 

How’s business at the moment? 

Very active having had a very good start to the year and despite the doom and gloom that abounds in the media, our broad range of customers seem to be doing well. 

Are any products in particular demand?

It’s across the whole range, from the hire of compressors and plant, to our specialist access platforms. The Telford area has a high proportion of manufacturing companies so we have a lot of business from factories,  as well as customers such as large estates in rural areas. 

Have you added anything to the hire fleet recently?

Two more Snorkel A38 all-electric platforms and hybrid Niftylift HR17s. 

I understand that you are a keen supporter of British industry?

Absolutely. We try to buy British where possible, such as Niftylift and Snorkel access platforms, Mecalac dumpers made in Coventry and Timberwolf chippers in Suffolk. And if not British, then certainly European. Also, I am a huge fan of Jaguar and Land Rover: I own a Land Rover Discovery, an F-Type Jaguar and my pride and joy is a 1954 XK120 Jaguar. 

What do you think are the main challenges facing the hire industry? 

Energy costs; plant theft and the lack of police response; silly petty legislation; the removal of the red diesel rebate; and counter-productive environmental laws that seriously impact plant hirers, like the use of AdBlue. 

What annoys/frustrates you? 

I try not to let it get to me. 

Tell me a surprising fact about yourself or the business.

We employ three brothers who have 111 years of service between them. Andrew Coathupe (39) is our foreman and plant buyer, while his brothers Phil (38) and Gareth (34) are respectively our access machine fitter and driver. 

What was your favourite school subject?

History, especially from the time of the Industrial Revolution onwards. 

Why’s that? 

I am a huge admirer of the engineer Thomas Telford and others including Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Richard Trevithick, George and Robert Stephenson, and James Watt. I have donated the money to catalogue the archive of L.T.C ‘Tom’ Rolt, a biographer of major civil engineering figures involved in railway building and inland waterways. 

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

An engineering lecturer or a job in helicopter engineering, production or product support. Now in semi-retirement, I am actively involved in the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust and several local history groups in Shropshire. 

What’s this I hear about you building a Land Rover?

Yes, a 1949 Series 1 model to celebrate Hire! Freeman’s 60th year in business in 2021. It was a total rebuild completed in less than a year. Nicknamed ‘Lily’, the car was found in a local barn and was in pieces – someone had obviously tried to restore it before. We took everything apart, shot-blasted the components and sourced those needing replacement. It was amazing how supportive and helpful people were. 

We rebuilt another Series 1 Land Rover, ‘Lottie’ made in 1953 to mark the company’s 40th anniversary. [Read the story of Lily’s restoration by John, his wife Heather and colleagues here.]  

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

The only predictable thing about the plant hire industry is its unpredictability!

What is the strangest hire request you’ve ever received? 

Supplying large portable compressors for aerating fish pools that had become polluted; starting up and running steam engines on compressed air; and recovering a large parakeet from a tree using one of our access platforms. 

If you could invite three famous people to dinner, who would you choose?

Present day choices would be Sir Jim Ratcliffe, chairman of Ineos which is developing the Grenadier off-road utility vehicle; John Wilson, a down-to-earth Geordie whose John Wilson Orchestra plays everything from the classics to Hollywood musicals; and the historian and TV presenter Dr Lucy Worsley. From the past I would choose I.K. Brunel, Thomas Telford and Edward Elgar.  

You obviously like music as well as engineering. 

I have very broad tastes, from classical to Lynyrd Skynyrd. In my final year at Westland Helicopters I saw Thin Lizzy on their legendary Live and Dangerous tour. And at school our games master could never understand the keenness of us boys for cross country running until he found out that the route went past the house of Robert Plant [lead singer with Led Zeppelin].  

Finally, any future plans or anything you’d like to announce?

Watch this space! 

Photo shows John and Heather Freeman with Lily the Land Rover and the Hire! Freeman team.



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