A WEST COUNTRY VIEW
An interview with Mark, Sarah and Matt Lane from Britannia Lanes of Cornwall, to look at succession, staffing, attitudes to change, and being first. By Steve Jordan. (The Mover magazine.)
It had been a while since I had set the sat nav to point south-west and head off to the extraordinary county of Cornwall to visit Britannia Lanes. As I drove in, the façade appeared unchanged, but I suspected a lot was different. I was here, not just to interview Mark, but also to talk to his children, Sarah and Matt her younger brother, as they take over the reins of this remarkable UK moving dynasty.
Mark said that he, and his siblings Rob (who runs the Exeter operation with his wife Emma) and Maria (who runs Bridgewater and Somerset with her husband Angus) were very fortunate in that their parents, Mike and Sylvia (Sylvia was BAR president in 2005) having set up the business, were prepared to put up the investment and let the kids get on with it. He has taken a similar position with the third generation.
“I have always been lucky that Dad’s been very inclusive of me,” said Sarah. “I think it works because we have a very good working relationship. Our ideas are very similar. I think if you are very different people, and you have to work at the relationship, it would be more difficult.”
“Sarah is just like my mum,” joked Mark. “I was only king for a couple of years.” The interview was just the day after Sarah, her brother Matt and her cousin Alexandra (Rob and Emma’s daughter) had been made directors of the company that embraces all three depots.
Although Mark is still very closely involved with the strategic side of the business, and with property dealings, it’s Matt and Sarah who run the Cornwall operation day to day.
I wondered if things were different now compared with when Mark took over? He thought the big difference was one of opportunity. “When we started it was a much smaller company,” he explained.
“Now, with greater assets available, it provides the opportunity to launch more new projects and enjoy the ride of running the business.”
Could that opportunity also be daunting? It’s easier to take risks when there’s less to lose. “I wouldn’t even look at it like that,” said Mark. “Even in the earlier days, Mum and Dad gave me and Rob the opportunity to suggest new ideas, finance them and then told us to make it work. In my time I’ve tried many new ideas, some work and some don’t.”
The prospect doesn’t faze Sarah at all. “I have never known it be any different,” she said.
Leading the way in self storage
As if by illustration, Mark and Sarah talked me through their most recent project: a new self store in Falmouth. It has a 10,000ft 2 footprint, making it a medium-sized facility, and will be completed by June 2022. That is all unremarkable, until I learned that the entire site will be entirely unmanned.
So how does it work? In reception there is an Electronic Point of Sale panel (EPOS). The new customer follows prompts on the screen to select the size of room required, the access needed and the location within the building, all of which affect the rental price. The sizes of the rooms are taped out on the reception floor to help customers decide the space they need and the system illustrates how much can fit into each type of room. Customers scan their identification (driving license or passport and a utility bill to prove their address). Embedded into the software there is a biometrics system that within four minutes checks that the customer making the booking matches the photo ID, it also checks that their address details are bona fide. The customer signs the contract on the screen, downloads the Noke app (pronounced No Key), and they have immediate access to the main building and their own room.
As they talk me through the process it’s clear that, although it operates seamlessly from the customer’s perspective, stitching all the necessary technology together to make it work has been tricky. “We have had to put four different systems together and develop some of the software from scratch,” said Mark, illustrating that making things look easy doesn’t happen by accident.
Playing the Devil’s advocate, I asked what happens when it goes wrong, as all machines, at some time, do. “It won’t,” said Sarah, clearly demonstrating a millennial’s trust in technology that my generation will probably never have. “But if there ever were a problem, there’s an alert button that customers can press and we’ll be able to help them.”
A more telling question was, what’s in it for you? After all, Mark and Sarah could easily have saved all the trouble and just paid for a receptionist. They would probably sell as much space. “But people don’t look at it that way,” said Mark, instantly looking at it from the customer’s perspective. “If people think that it’s easy, they will feel part of the process,” he said.
“It’s a new way of doing self store,” said Sarah. “We’re going to be one of the first in the country to do it this way. Somebody has to do it first, and people will see how great it is.”
Mark, of course, reminded me that being first is not a new concept for Lanes. “We were the first company in Cornwall to have a purpose-built container store and we had one of the first self stores outside the M25.
Being first gives us a leap every time.” Mark and Sarah believe that this system, with software from four different suppliers, is unique in the industry.
Sarah’s brother, Matt, is the operations director. He is very much at the sharp end of staffing issues at the company so I was interested to find out a little about how he was handling the staff shortages that have been dogging the industry of late.
He agreed that, despite having a 25% increase in salary over the last year or two, getting staff in general and drivers in particular was a problem. “It’s a really difficult thing,” he said, “especially as we have some very big haulage companies based nearby.”
Although he felt it was largely a money issue, the nature of the work was also a factor. “Working away from home has become less attractive,” said Matt, “and everyone wants to be back home by 3 or 4pm.”
Mark agreed. “This generation does not want to do manual work,” he said. “Brexit and COVID haven’t helped.The European workforce went back home and were not let back in.”
Matt said that they advertise, and recruit through agencies, but even that source has dried up. But they do have many loyal staff that have been with the company for many years. “We work hard to support our staff and many of them enjoy the teamwork and the interaction with customers. It gives them more job satisfaction than just driving.” Of course, Lanes does have an ongoing training programme to train up new drivers and allow existing drivers to progress to drive bigger trucks and have more responsibility.
But in the immediate future, finding the right staff is the big issue. “We have even had people not turn up to start work on their first day,” said Matt. “It’s a challenge that we are working on all the time.”
Keeping good staff, of course, costs money, so will Lanes be holding the somewhat elevated rates the industry has been enjoying throughout 2021? “We don’t have a choice,” said Mark. “We have to keep the rates up.” I wondered if he would feel the same if the competition started to reduce rates when there wasn’t so much work around? “I don’t worry what the competition does, most customers want a good service and generally are willing to pay a little more to get that service.” It’s clear that Mark knows his costs, and charges accordingly.
Attitude to change
In the respects of labour shortage and increased costs, Lanes is like any other moving company in the UK, or even worldwide. But in other areas of its business, it is different. For example, in its attitude to change. Mark quoted the words often attributed to Charles Darwin: ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, it’s the one that is most adaptable to change’. “A lot of people in our industry don’t like change, but I do, Sarah does and so does Matt,” said Mark. “It’s change that brings opportunity.”