In a brand-new series, we look at the people who shape, steer, and make Coopers – the UK’s only truly independent and the most dynamic port handling and heavy capacity lifting equipment supplier.
We start the series with an interview with our founder and owner, David Cooper. Under David’s stewardship, the business today has reached £15m turnover from a zero-start and has a built an enviable reputation of launching previously unknown products into market-leading performance. Approaching a quarter century on his own, David has arguably been the sole pioneer for independence and entrepreneurship in a manufacturer-led-supplier heavy capacity market and changed the shape, and the manner of doing business, in this most traditionally conservative of specialist markets
Tell us about your early career?
I started as an Engineering Apprentice in the late 1970s for a famous British forklift manufacturer, Coventry Climax – the Company that would one day become Kalmar in the UK. I still recall my first income at 60 pence per hour which meant, my first half-hour working paid for my first pint of beer on Friday – in those days, wages were paid in cash every Thursday!
Whilst the initial aim was to become a designer and development engineer, the lure of sales and business was too great so, at the age of 19, I transferred into sales although I was anxious to complete my engineering qualifications. I was the youngest on the sales team by at least 20 years.
Coventry Climax fell into administration on October 4th, 1986 and would eventually be acquired by Kalmar Industries which opened a whole new world of heavy, port handling equipment
So have you been in the same industry all that time?
Yes, I have the honour of serving the same industry in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, noughties, the teens and now the twenties. So, six different decades although admittedly, I only scraped into the latter years of the 70’s and we are in the early months of the 20’s.
What happened under the Kalmar umbrella?
Initially, the ravages of administration meant that whilst still young, I ended up with the prize local territory that included many of Climax’s old British Leyland sister subsidiaries such as Jaguar Cars, Austin, SP etc. However, my first branch out of conventional lift trucks came with the sideloader that Kalmar built out of the Irion factory near Stuttgart in Germany. I like to believe we were good for each other and, together, we made the sideloader programme a spectacular success in the UK in the 1980s and early 90s. This was also my first taste of launching a new and unknown brand into a market and running a business within a business hence exposure to P&L accounts, cash-flows and balance sheets – all experiences that would assist later in life.
As a consequence of this I was offered, at the age of 31 the role as National Sales & Marketing Manager for all Kalmar products. A huge job but one I had to get used to and learn fast as not least, all of the team were older, and some much experienced than me.
How did it end?
I was targeted to sell 180 units in my last year and I sold 165. I recall my MD saying sales can be cruel, but ‘a miss is a miss’ and my job was made redundant forthwith. I wasn’t immediately replaced and I often wonder if Kalmar ever sold more than 165 new units in a year although, a year later, they were acquired by Sisu so the Company has since changed from the one I left.
Is this the time you set Coopers up?
It took a while, but the guys who left Kalmar in Sweden to set SMV up 2 years previously were acquaintances of mine so, in late 1997 we agreed to start a new business that was the foundation of Coopers. We were the exclusive distributor of SMV heavy forklifts, container handlers and reach stackers across the whole UK and Ireland.
Describe those early years.
They were exciting, frightening and crazy times. With no money, no business reputation, a product that no-one had ever heard of, it was extremely, extremely difficult. After three very tough years on my own, I invested in more people and slowly built it year-on-year. By 2004, SMV had sold out to Konecranes and so began a new chapter but those early years were challenging but so rewarding. The product is now firmly established globally but I am proud of what we achieved and contributed to that foundation. By 2002 we were taking 25% of SMV production in Sweden and were to become the second largest market for SMV / Konecranes; just behind Germany who had a 3-year head-start on us but we were closing the gap fast!
What happened with Konecranes?
It was their decision to take a different path with a larger and more mainstream, small-forklift volume-orientated partner. Having given 17 hard years of my life taking the product from being completely unknown to over 450 new units and an annual parts revenue of £1m, it really hurt but we enjoyed a great journey together. There were challenges confronting both companies, but they chose the path they did. I did not agree with it at the time but looking back now, it was probably for our long-term benefit so for that, we can be thankful. We do however still own and maintain over 100 Konecranes machines so we are probably still their biggest customers in the UK although, understandably, these are slowly now being phased-out and exported.
So where do you go from that crossroads?
We had to knuckle down and start all over again and graft ourselves out of the situation. It was akin to landing on the big-fat snake on square 99 that took you all the way back to square one. In our favour however, we did have a very loyal customer base but with no ready equipment supply. Sany’s entry into the market therefore came at just the right time. The Konecranes chapter however had taught us a valuable lesson. Being a one-product supply, with a sole source of revenue, if the product goes quiet for whatever reason, we go would quiet with them. We had to break away from sole focus and spread our product range over what I term ‘multi-channel’ supply. This means we are always talking to the same customers but for different product types according to their budget requirements. We don’t select random suppliers – it must be a natural and complementary fit. It has taken 6 years and we share a fantastic relationship with all our manufacturing supply partners with, between them, an incredibly impressive and comprehensive equipment portfolio.
What has sequence of events taught you?
I have learned of the value of supply relationships. Of course, customers are incredibly important, but I have yet to come across any business that cannot survive without suppliers. For this reason, our manufacturing supply partners are held with equal esteem and with the same respect and reverence as our customers. We entertain and meet with our suppliers as much as we do our customers – it is incredibly important.
In your career, you have represented the three Swedish forklift manufacturers, how do they compare?
Kalmar, in the 1980’s, were operating out of the old Ljungby Truck factories in the town of Ljungby in central southern Sweden as well as the old LMV factory in Lidhult, nor far away. There they had acres upon acres of manufacturing buildings with machine shops, welding and fabrication areas and assembly and shot blast / painting halls. You could see the machines being created in front of you – the culture was to manufacture as much of the machine in-house as they could.
When SMV set-up in Markaryd (just down the road from Ljungby), their approach was totally different; one of bought-in items (initially locally but now further afield) and assemble in Markaryd. This policy Kalmar have since followed although the machines, as I understand, are assembled in Poland now.
With SveTruck, the owners being the founders of Ljungby Truck, stay loyal to the policy of in-house manufacturing by making as much of the machine in Ljungby as they can. They haven’t been affected by the globalisation as much as Konecranes or Kalmar but this is, in my opinion, an ownership matter. SveTruck remain an independent business and not part of global empires and this is reflected in the product, the way it is sourced and built and therefore, ultimately the quality.
Who has influenced you most in your career?
My mentors have undoubtedly been one German and a few Swedes. Heinz Raubacher was a larger than life character who ran the Kalmar Irion facory in Germany in the 1980s. His enthusiasm for a product was infectious – always positive and never-say-die. Whilst German, he spoke English in a broad American accent. Without Palle Westergren and Olle Osterlund at SMV, I perhaps wouldn’t have been given the break I did but Nils-Olof Larsson, Hans Matzner and Goran Pehrsson were simply great and experienced guys to be around and taught me so much in the SMV era. We were on the same crusade together – the little guys taking on the big guys.
Where do you see Coopers now?
We now are the strongest, in every sense of the word, than we have ever-been. I maintain our product portfolio means that we are the most comprehensive bulk AND solids port equipment handling business in the UK and we have an exceptionally experienced mobile engineering team. Having become UK market leaders with Konecranes in 2008-2011, we have done it all over again this time with our Mantsinen and Sany ranges. Our staff are loyal, dedicated and extremely talented and every day I am humbled that they choose to come and work for our business rather than one of our larger ‘manufacturing-orientated’ competitors. At Coopers, it is, and always been about ‘the underdogs punching above their weight’ and (occasionally) winning. Relationships are important and knowing so many people over such a long time of course helps. But being a family owned business with anti-corporate family values throughout our core, I regard as a real strength.
And the future?
I enjoy it as much today as I ever have. The backbone of the business is its people who are incredibly loyal, supportive and adopt a similar position as if they were the owners themselves and, in this respect, I consider myself very fortunate. My role is more of guidance and assistance these days. My approach is to agree the end-objective but the route to achieving this objective is created by the staff themselves. They don’t need me leaning over their shoulder – that is too autocratic. The staff must be allowed to express themselves and we have an open and free dialogue amongst the whole group. There exists a fine line between greed and ambition, but I prefer to keep on the ambitious side of that line and we still see organic and balance sheet growth for more years to come.
What about the current CV crisis? How is this impacting?
From a personal perspective, the loss of life is tragic. Each day I wince at the daily death toll. From a business perspective, we have built financial resilience over the past 3 years and with a strong order book so we can withstand market turmoil longer than others. I do truly feel however, much like the downturn of 2008, the media continue to talk us into a crisis. I read a report that the Bank of England see this as the sharpest, deepest recession in 300 years and it likely will be but, there is far too much negative reporting here. The same Bank of England forecast stated what is lost will be recovered within a year so this is sharp recession with the strongest, fastest bounce-back in 300 years, but the media don’t give any emphasis to the strength of recovery or the fact the economy will be larger than pre-virus; they just solely focus on the fall. The pick-up will ultimately be dependent and driven by consumer-confidence and undermining this same confidence with media negativity is an area that especially frustrates me.
Would you recommend anyone to the heavy truck industry or make a go alone themselves as you have done?
The big truck market is niche and I have found it far more interesting, pleasurable and solutions-led than the 1-5tonne volume sector where there is clear over-capacity. Customers really do understand the products in the big-market, and they are prepared to listen to the technical arguments and are far more engaged with their purchase and the subsequent running. So long as you are prepared to learn the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the market, it is fascinating, challenging and yet rewarding. As for ‘going it alone’, ultimately it depends on the person and their attitude to risk. When things are going well, it is probably the best job in the world, but when there are challenges, and they will come, it becomes the loneliest job too. Business runs in cycles – highs and lows, ownership is therefore not for everyone.
Away from work, what do you get up to?
My passion for a long time has been golf and, having changed golf clubs recently, that brings fresh challenges. I also have some land that needs care so that occupies me but oddly, I find it quite therapeutic. I have a mantra in life that in life, your own health comes first, closely followed by the needs of your family. Next is your job and finally, the things that you enjoy that you fit in around your family and job. If that order of priority ever becomes disrupted, then you can expect trouble – it is an ideology that has served me well.
David, thank-you for your time today!