Furlough scheme a welcome lifeline but our volumes are through the roof

The chancellor's furlough scheme has previously come in for criticism from hauliers who claim it won't work if parts of a business are seasonal or experiencing a surge in growth while other parts are in decline.

However, Brooks told motortransport.co.uk the offer was "very, very welcome".

"I’m sure we’ll be taking use of that from this week onwards," he said. "It will be quite a good lifeline."

ABE offers "a real mixed bag" of distribution and warehouse services, Brooks explained, including food, drink and agricultural produce.

But while he accepted that the company's focus "wasn't straight lines", he could still see big benefits putting staff on furlough.

"Our work is up and down and we'll have to be very cautious how we step down the resources because we don’t want to go far," he said. "We might be quiet on Monday and then very busy on Thursday so we’ll have to leave a fair bit of fat.

"But if we’re looking at 50% volume for example, we’ll be fairly safe to take 25% of resource out. Its not as straightforward as shutting a production line but there’s plenty we can do with the furlough scheme.

"And there’s nothing in there to say we can’t bring people back from furlough quickly, and potentially if we have a seasonal spike we can bring them back and then put them back on furlough.

"I don’t see a lot of red tape to be honest. We’re paying them and we’re going to recover the money through a scheme."

Brooks went on to stress the excellent job his staff were doing in such challenging circumstances.

"Our knights of the road have gone from zeroes to heroes overnight and our colleagues in the warehouse and offices can puff their chests out with the knowledge that they are key workers in distribution," he said. "We just need to ensure that everyone rightly keeps this sentiment when we get to the other side of this mess."

However, he said the government seemed to have forgotten the importance of maintaining the distribution of agricultural products.

"One thing missing from all the announcements about the priority being given to food and drink and farmers is there is no real mention of agri," he said. "But if we don’t feed the cows or provide the seed there won't be a crop to end up as food. So we’re treating all our agri supplies as emergency as well."

Asked how the COVID-19 outbreak was affecting the business, Brooks revealed that ABE is still fully functional but with changes in terms of moving shifts and worker segregation.

"Our volumes have been going through the roof," he said. "We’re just under 20% up this month on our inputs into the network. But I’ve been saying for a week that it’s not going to last. We can see signs that that’s changing now; a lot more of our customers are shutting up shop.

"I know a lot of consumers have been panic buying and a lot of our customers’ customers have been panic buying, just to fill up before everyone shuts down."

For general haulage, Brooks said there was a big difference in terms of bookings this week compared with last.

"We’ve got a lot of industrial customers and they've been rushing to get some of their important, urgent goods in before their suppliers shut down - i.e. our customers," he said. "So volumes are unprecedentedly high because people have bought emergency stock early so that they can carry on functioning even if their supplier closes."

Asked if the government's relaxation of drivers' hours was a help, Brooks said he had made the decision early not to bend the rules.

"We don't really see a need and we’d never forgive ourselves if there was an accident and the driver had been driving for 11 hours," he said. "The rules are there for safety - and safety should be in good times and bad times, so we won’t be doing that."

He agreed that the three-month extension to MOTs was welcome with most of his fleet needing to be grounded if they couldn't be tested: "But at least with commercial vehicles you have periodic inspections," he said. "I've got no concerns about MOTs because we’re looking after them every week. But I guess some other carriers will see it as an opportunity."

Asked how the COVID-19 situation might play out for the business, Brooks said: "We’re fortunate that we don’t have anything on lease. We own our own vehicles and have some cash in the bank. We have a war chest. It’s frustrating and difficult but we have a lot less to worry about. You have to deal with it and react to it and adjust accordingly.

"Our sole focus will be keeping the company going in the future for everyone's jobs. There will be some short-term pain for everyone but we’re hoping furlough will see us through.

"We didn’t make any redundancies in 2008 and we hope we won't this time. Our work might drop but maybe our competitors’ work might drop. There are too many variables. Our long-range planning is next week."

ABE parent company Palletline is offering full support, Brooks continued, providing daily conference calls with updates on the different divisions and additional HR support.

"But it's going to do irreparable damage to some companies which will affect hauliers," he admitted. "You feel for events hauliers and people doing marquees. In fact we’d just started taking show stands to conference centres. We did the first month's work and they had to cancel the rest of the programme. But to be tied up in that line of work must be galling.

"We’re fairly well spread and the network helps but you’ve got to take the tough decisions quickly. We learnt a lot in 2008 and hopefully we’re more able to react this time."