From one four-wheel drive and a trailer to a fleet of 12 salt spreaders serving local and national customers, AA Salt Services Ltd has gone from strength to strength since it started in 2002, crowning its success by winning Family Business of the Year at the Herefordshire and Worcester Chamber Business Awards this year.
The company, which provides salt spreading for a wide range of organisations, has expanded in recent years; in 2010 they had 79 customers – now they have 412. They not only spread salt on car parks and yards to keep businesses running, they also provide a snow clearance service.
Co-founder Nikki Rogers and her son Ben Tanner now lead the firm which was set up by her late husband with some friends as a way of helping another friend out during the winter. After his unexpected death, Nikki took up the reins on her own, with two young children to support – Ben was 11 at the time.
With family and business so intertwined – Nikki occasionally took the children to school on a salt spreader during the winter – they have had to strike a balance between the professional and personal over the years.
“We have always taken external advice,” Nikki said, “and when Ben decided to join the business, having got his HGV licence when he was 18 and already having done some casual work for the business before that, we found a business mentor for him. That has been invaluable – he gives us the objectivity we need.”
“He has always told me to look at what the figures are saying,” said Ben. “Don’t just go on instinct or preference; if the figures tell you that you need to expand or to diversify, follow that lead.”
They are also aware of the need to allow other family member to play their part as much as they want to – Nikki’s husband Mark plays an important role in the detail behind the firm, providing support services such as IT and health and safety, while Nikki’s daughter, currently at university, is not involved in the firm at all.
Issues of succession are often difficult in family businesses – younger members of the family wanting, or not wanting, to take over, set against older and established members who may not want to hand over the reins.
Nikki said: “I encouraged Ben to go travelling and to think about what he really wanted to do in life. I think if he had come back and said that he didn’t want to be involved, I would have sold the business fairly soon; I had definitely lost my enthusiasm for it.
“But he came back and said he wanted to come into the business fully – he started a business course at Heart of Worcestershire College, and his work experience elsewhere meant that he came with some new ideas, including new technology.”
Ben’s innovations include an app which enables them to see where drivers are at any time, and greater use of IT to record work and coordinate requests. Nikki said: “I think the drivers saw the app as Big Brother watching them to begin with, but because it means that we can literally guide them step by step to yards or car parks where the salt needs spreading, they can now see the benefits.”
This technology will help to take the company into the future – they are considering diversification into grounds maintenance to even out the seasonal fluctuations of their core business. Nikki said: “We were amazed to win the award – we were sure that the other entrants would be much more impressive than us. But Ben joining the business has reawakened my enthusiasm for it and I am really looking forward to working with him so that it develops for the future.”