The Big Interview: 21st century Fox

By Ged Henderson

20 Nov 2023

Paul Fox of the Fox Group

Paul Fox puts it bluntly. “We are in a dirty business,” he explains.

It is a world of muck shifting and the supply and haulage of aggregates for the construction industry extracted from pits and quarries.

The 91-year-old family business he heads is also involved in plant hire – the heavy lifting side of construction.

There is little in that business description that would suggest a green agenda in play.

However, the Blackpool based Fox Group has embarked on a sustainability journey with the focus firmly on reducing its carbon footprint – for the good of the planet and the company.

Paul talks with great enthusiasm of the ‘circular economy’ and is crystal clear on the driving force behind all this activity.

He stresses that not only is it the right thing to do, importantly it also makes sound financial sense, increases sales and is a major tool for growing value in the business.

The growth of the group, organically and through a buy to build strategy, has already been spectacular. Current turnover is £150m.

Since the start of the decade Fox has developed from a regional player to a national business that employs 850 people and has 32 locations across the UK. As part of its keen focus on sustainability it is pioneering the use of electric vehicles, becoming the first tipper operator in the UK to begin the transition from diesel. Recycling plays an increasingly important part in its business model.

Fox Group has also transformed into a multimodal transport operation, with a newly opened railhead in Leyland and a maritime division based at the Port of Lancaster, recent developments which Paul says have moved the business into road, rail and marine.

He speaks of a “lightbulb moment” when the road towards a more sustainable future became clear as a way of “making a difference and helping the business grow”. But he is very clear in stressing: “Everything we do has to make money.”

He adds that the focus on sustainability is also driven by the desire to enhance the group’s long-term business value, along with increasing the multiple on its EBIDTA, “by making changes and helping the future of both local communities and the environment.”

Sitting in his office on the outskirts of Blackpool, surrounded by reminders of the company’s long history, Paul says: “We are in a dirty business. However there are things we can and are doing successfully.

“There’s the use of electric vehicles, Led lighting and solar panels, but the fact is these don’t even scratch the surface.

“However, one of the biggest things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint is to move large amounts of aggregate in a smarter way and that’s by boat and rail. This is now huge for us.”

Freight trains have been delivering concrete aggregates like gravel, sand and crushed rock to Fox Group’s EV wagons at the reopened railhead since the spring.

Bringing the sidings, originally built in 1953 to support the manufacture of Centurion tanks at the outbreak of the Korean War, back into use has been a two year project.

Paul says it is already paying off, both as a greener and more sustainable form of transportation. He explains: “We are moving more stone than before but in a much more sustainable manner.” It is a model he would like to replicate in other parts of the country.

Fox is also moving aggregate by sea through Lancaster’s Glasson Dock and supplying various other ports as part of this strategy.

Paul also sees more growth here and has set up a new venture, Fox Maritime, based at the dock and offering chartering, broking and agency services to anyone who wants to move dry bulk  cargo by sea, throughout the UK and Europe.

Then there is the commitment to the circular economy. When it comes to recycling, a wash plant on the outskirts of Preston is diverting increasing amounts of waste from landfill.

It is currently producing 10,000 tonnes of materials each week which are then turned into recycled aggregates. “We’re working not to put things in the tip,” Paul explains.

Green initiatives in the pipeline include the production of concrete using more recycled materials, battery storage projects and the restoration of quarry sites owned by the business.

Fox is a fourth-generation family firm that an trace its history back to 1932. Its growth journey really got underway in 2020 when it started on its acquisition trail.

The first was a multi-million-pound deal that brought together two of the North West’s heavyweight operators in the haulage and plant hire sector.

A whole series of acquisitions followed with businesses across the country bolted onto the group.

Paul describes that first deal as “a catalyst” for future growth, which opened new doors for the business and created significant opportunities that it has taken advantage of. He says: “That was the springboard for us. It raised the barrier to entry.”

He is a firm advocate for family businesses and their strengths, including their workforces’ loyalty. All the businesses acquired by Fox have themselves been family run, with the people staying post-deal.

Paul says: “We look at the people first, as they are its biggest asset. Any business we buy also has to tick a number of boxes.

“We have to understand what they do. There’s no good buying a company with great people in it if you don’t understand what the core of the business is.

“It has to be profitable and it has to align with our business. We have got to be able to add value to it and it has to be able to add value to the wider group.”

He says: “It is about making the right decisions. We’re still getting approaches from firms and it is about picking the right ones.

“There are always acquisitions in the pipeline but our focus is growing the arms of the business that add real value, it isn’t just about adding more metal.”

This includes building on the strategic alliance agreed earlier this year between Fox’s Group equipment sales business and LiuGong, a global manufacturer of plant machinery.

Fox will retail and support the LiuGong product range from nine bespoke depots across the UK and there are already plans for future expansion.

Paul, who was brought up in Thornton, took over the reins of the business in 2007 at the age of 23. He says: “There was never any way I was going to do anything else but come into the business, nor did I want to. I spent half my school life in the yard.

“You learn as you go and it was a very steep learning curve. I was raised by my grandad, affectionately known as ‘Barney’, who always had the motto ‘look after the business and the business will look after you’.

“It’s not work when you enjoy it and I enjoy the fact we’re creating and building the company with the same ethos Barney installed in me and proud that we have a large number of colleagues with an exciting future ahead of us.

“I’ve just travelled from Preston to Blackpool and have seen the family name on 15 trucks and that gives you a real sense of pride.

“The business is over 90 years old and we want it to be here for another 90 years, as a strong family business.”

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