PLANT HIRE SPECIAL: Interview with Alan Guthrie

By Angie Lake on May 9th, 2022

Is it time for a new website?

On the industry in 2022, the importance of digital marketing and the role of focused content

Vooba’s relationship with plant, access and tool hire firms is anything but understated. Thriving to offer the most up to date and relevant services to our clients, we endeavour to stay abreast of the latest digital marketing trends and to source the most reliable and trustworthy industry information for the benefit of our clients.

As a highly respected independent journalist, Alan Guthrie is a household name to many in the industry. With a career spanning over twenty years, his contribution to the sector throughout this time has been considerable.

We were fortunate enough to speak to Alan about his career, his current projects and to ask his opinion on the most important developments for the plant hire industry in 2022.

What is your background in the industry?

I’ve always been a journalist; I found myself working on trade publications. I joined Executive Hire News 20 yrs ago, at the end of 1999. I built up a lot of contacts and friendships.

Prior to that I worked on trade publications to do with a variety of equipment, so there was an element of overlap. It was a small team but we punched above our weight… the magazine was acquired by another publisher in 2016… it’s just a fascinating industry.

How did the On-Hire Blog come about?

I decided to step back and pursue personal interests; I decided in 2019. My last working day was Friday 13th March 2020… “what could possibly go wrong?” - I thought. “Here you are: A new life”. Ten days later we were in lockdown.

All the plans my wife and I had went out of the window, Boris Johnson told us to stay at home for 6 months and Rishi Sunak came up with the furlough scheme. I realised that this was utterly unprecedented, I’d never lived through anything else like that. The only possible parallel was the 2nd World War in terms of national effort, people pulling together and the uncertainty.

I saw the images on TV of the hire companies rallying around, building the Nightingale Hospitals, building the test centres.

I went on Linked-in after two or three weeks and saw all these messages about the heroic efforts people had made to build these facilities, often working for 48 hours non-stop to the most exacting standards.

At the beginning we were told that you must maintain a 2 metre distance (..). I particularly remember seeing a post from a contractor whose company I don’t know. His team had worked through the night putting in kilometres of barriers and fencing to segregate people queuing for testing, scrupulously 2 metres apart, and he was understandably proud of what he had done

I just thought: “somebody needs to report this, this is historic”. Somebody told me I should do a blog. I was reluctant at first - I am a ‘serious’ journalist… I’m a print man!

I originally planned to do it as a part time thing (...). People started to tell me that they really enjoyed what I was doing: positive news at a time of uncertainty.

The industry then started to bounce back very strongly. Hirers had to supply essential services, contractors realised they could keep working and hirers became as busy as they ever have been.

I started the blog in June 2020. Initially I was talking about things like Zoom calls, (many people had never encountered Zoom before),the Furlough scheme, people working from home and the challenge of doing that when you’ve never done it before….. I’m very proud that the blog has that historical element to it, we very quickly forget what things were like.

In June 2021 I started a section called Site-Eco, which is for green and environmentally friendly equipment and initiatives. That is proving very, very interesting.

I certainly have no plan to stop the blog anytime soon. It is a fascinating period, so the pursuit of personal interests is on hold for a bit longer.

As regards the hire industry at the moment as we emerge from the pandemic: what is the current situation?

Overall I’d say it is remarkably strong, typically in times of trouble (and I’m thinking of the credit crunch in 2008), whenever there is any doubt or disruption, the first thing to suffer is construction.

This time it’s the exact opposite: construction has kept going, because for one thing we haven't built enough houses in the last 30 to 40 years. People are working from home or remotely, so broadband installation is very, very strong throughout the country.

During Furlough we’ve seen a lot of people getting home improvements done: gardening, landscaping… They weren’t going on holiday so they were putting the money towards patios, conservatories, extensions. I’ve covered some of this on the blog: people were putting in pizza kilns and outdoor living spaces. These pizza kilns weigh a ton… They were buying these things, they were being dropped off by the road side and people suddenly realised they’d have to move them…so they were hiring equipment to do that.

A lot of that is continuing, from what hirers tell me, many people are wanting to do more.

Then, of course, we have other massive projects: HS2,Hinkley Point ... We're now being told that we can't supply enough energy: and we are going to see investment in more North Sea Oil and gas production.

All this activity means that, for the plant and tool hire industry, the outlook is very positive. A number of hirers have had record years. However, we’ve got very unexpected supply chain difficulties: people are having to wait months or years for orders; some of the hirers I’m speaking to are placing orders for 2024. They’re booking production space with the major manufacturers to meet demand; and you’ve also got labour shortages.

It means that skilled technicians who work in hire companies are (or should be) very highly valued. You need strong, skilled people to do the job, to understand what the customer needs. So you’ve got these pressures… It's making hire even more attractive. If you’re someone who normally buys equipment, but you can’t buy it because it’s not available, you’re going to hire it; which creates even more demand for hirers.

In a way it’s a nice problem to have: will these users go back to owning? Perhaps not. So, there are an awful lot of dynamics at work here.

This is interesting; it does, however, seem somewhat volatile. I think the energy situation could prove quite complex.

I think it will. I mean, I’ve said several times on the blog.This is a test of management, much like the credit crunch of 2008 (...). The phones just stopped ringing overnight as if they’d been cut off. You knew that the well run companies would come through it, and they did.

There are many challenges and uncertainties ahead.

Important developments of 2022

Red diesel is a massive issue.Certainly that’s a major cost increase . The challenge is to increase your hire rates to reflect those costs. Customers certainly won’t like it. It remains to be seen whether there will be a slowdown in the amount of activity as contractors go back and re-cost their projects. And it’s not just the cost of diesel, but the increase in prices generally. As I said, it is a test of management.

One of the greatest developments (touching wood) is that we seem to be past Covid, so we’ll be able to go to exhibitions and events again. We should be seeing concerts, events, festivals, local fetes opening up again and bringing demand for equipment. We had the Executive Hire Show in February, it was great to get back to that. We have had ScotPlant in Edinburgh in April, Vertikal Days for the access industry in May and the Hillhead construction and quarrying machinery exhibition. A lot of people are enthusiastic about getting back to events, so that’s something to be excited about in 2022.

I think what we’ll also see is focus on the value of a good workshop team and a well kitted-out workshop, because with rising levels of demand and often short term hires, equipment is in and out very, very frequently. This puts a great strain on workshop technicians and engineers; that might continue. We need to attract new people into the industry and make sure we have the right equipment and the right facilities.

Then, of course, Ukraine. That’s something that will affect all businesses. It just shows how necessary good management practices are.

Is there anything else looming on the horizon that might pose an important challenge for the industry?

We have the problem of equipment availability: fleets are getting older, but they can’t be replaced because the replacements aren’t available. Hirers have to extend the life of the equipment.

They’re also talking about this “great resignation” of people who are leaving their jobs in pursuit of a better work-life balance. I’m surprised at the number of people whom I know that after 20 years have decided to move on. Some people have left the industry. So you have to be sure you maintain the workers you have. We need to retain staff.

The other big challenge is sustainability and the route to Net-Zero. I started the Site-Eco section. It’s a huge topic and we’re at the start of a very long journey. We’ve all known for years that we have to do the right thing, we have to protect the planet, we all want to. But knowing exactly what to do is very, very difficult.

The government is saying that companies have to go green and we all have to reduce our carbon footprint, but the problem is that some technology, like hydrogen, is a long way off. Battery powered products, solar panels… They are more expensive. Now companies are having to say to their customers: “We have these green products that will help you tick the box to say “we are meeting our sustainability requirements” but it’s more expensive. Now… will the customer pay that extra premium? A lot of the larger contractors are paying, because they need to be seen to be doing the right thing with their ESG obligations. This has a high priority in the corporate environment, and in a way it’s the larger companies that are driving this change.

And, of course, if you have a battery powered product, how are you going to charge it? If you’re in the middle of a greenfield site in a remote location, there’s probably no power supply there. How are you going to charge the electric or battery powered machine? You could use solar power, but you’re not going to produce it on the scale you need. Same with wind turbines. You’re going to need diesel or a hybrid solution: You’re going to need a clean diesel engine powered product, or an alternative fuel like HVO, particularly for heavier machinery.

This is why we need all these solutions. To some extent the government’s policy is to increase the price of fossil fuel in order to make green alternatives less expensive, relatively.

Another flip side to that is that, if you’re buying these battery powered or solar powered machines, what are you going to do with the equipment they’re replacing? Some of this equipment you may have bought fairly recently, and you may need to keep it for a few more years to get your return on investment.

We’ve got low emission zones springing up in London, Bath, Birmingham, Bristol is looking at one; Manchester is looking at one. And, of course, that affects delivery drivers. Hirers’ delivery vehicles have to be low emission too. Now, I know of companies that decided to renew their fleets, a year ahead of the introduction of the low emission zones but were unable to get the vehicles. That’s an issue that’s going to affect companies on the route to Net Zero.

I think we’ll also see hire companies acting more as consultants. Clients who were accustomed to hiring the same equipment from one job to the next will now be saying “I need to go green on this project, how do I do it?” Whereas previously clients were coming in and saying we need this type of machine or this type of generator, now clients are going to be asking: “What do I need?” And the hirer will be asking, “Where are you working? Have you got power onsite for charging equipment?” If you haven’t got charging facilities you might need to have clean diesel or HVO powered equipment.

The hirer will be a consultant working in tandem with the customer.That happens to a large extent anyway in cases like event hire, where things are on a one-off basis. Whereas in the past people used essentially one package of equipment from one project to the next, there’s a very real possibility that it will almost need to be done on a project by project basis: “Where are you working and what’s the best package for you?”

So we’ll see more environmentally friendly equipment being developed… and I also think we’ll see more new startups in the hire industry. A few people have told me that when they were on Furlough they thought “maybe I can do something myself”. And few companies who supply hire management software have told me that they’ve had quite a few enquiries from people who are starting up in a small way.

Can you tell me about your view on digital marketing services for plant and tool hire?

Digital platforms complement, rather than replace. You still have the need to maintain contact and communications with customers, and most business management books (...) will tell you that having a good website is essential. Twenty years ago it was almost like a status symbol, but now it’s just a given: A website is your shop window. In the same way that the first impression of a business is given by whoever answers the phone, the quality of your company’s website has a huge impact on how a new potential customer will see you: It's that first impression.

You want clients to click on your website and be impressed with what they see; it’s all about using your digital presence to build a personal relationship.

We’ve all been on sites that look amateurish, the links don’t work, the text doesn’t fit properly and the news section is either “coming soon” or it hasn’t been updated for three years. It doesn’t impress the customer. Whatever you do needs to be done to a good quality standard.

A small company might not have the resources for an all singing, all dancing website; but you still need to have a presence of some kind. Even if it’s static.

Like everything else, you get out of it what you put in: it needs resources, it needs people, it needs time to get the content right… but the payoffs may be considerable.

On the role of focused content in digital marketing; and the value.

One of the outcomes of Covid was that we became more reliant on good communications. Whether it was looking out for your next door neighbour or finding out who could deliver a piece of equipment: It became very important to keep channels of communications open when you couldn’t go out.

Websites and social media can help you reach out to people and encourage this interaction; but it takes time and it takes skill. Sadly, the written word is often given a very low priority and a very low value; but it takes time, planning, strategy and structure. If your site does contain an element of news or anything that creates a dialogue with your customers, you have to make sure that it’s relevant to that market, that it’s fresh and current and… the big question is: who is your audience? Your content on the site has to be tailored to your particular audience or audiences.

In the hire industry the audience is quite broad but, say you were offering something to a younger audience: You have to make sure that your language appeals to your market; that it uses words and concepts that they understand, otherwise it just comes over as “a bit lame”.

Content doesn’t have to be earth shattering; it doesn’t have to be “we just invented the wheel”. It could just be a particular project that someone has worked on or a problem they solved for a customer. A particular feature of a product that people may not have appreciated before…but it’s something that encourages people to click on it, to learn something or think “um, that’s interesting”: these people know what they’re talking about. It helps build your reputation and encourages some kind of engagement. The reader may be a future customer who comes back and does business with you.

Equally, if it’s poorly written, has words that are wrongly spelt or is grammatically awkward… if it doesn’t look right, you risk alienating the customer. Focused content can be a really good way of engaging with people and, of course, you encourage feedback.(...) it extends that relationship.

Another important thing worth mentioning is pictures. A good picture can really set off a piece, but they can be very, very difficult to get. Some topics are almost impossible to illustrate.

If you have a picture of your equipment and your hire fleet on a job, solving a problem, that’s great.

Too many people rely on generic images that they got out of a catalogue that hang in mid air on a white background, and it’s OK; but there are certain hirers who every piece of equipment on their website or in their catalogue, they've taken that picture themselves of that product with their stickers on, in their livery and their equipment on their website.. It looks really, really good. The investment in time … it just shows you they take pride in their products.

Focused content: relevant words, relevant vocabulary, putting yourself in the customer’s shoes: that’s what you have to do and it’s quite difficult to achieve. That’s why companies should put a higher priority on their web content.

Getting that information (of a tool that solves a problem with no noise or emissions, or how someone fixed a burst pipe) is difficult… and getting a picture of it is challenging. Most people, understandably, want to get the job done… and then you’ve got to get the client’s approval. But case studies, things that are unusual… nobody else would have that. Their customer, their project: a one-off. Nobody else will have that content. It shows that you care and you value what you do.

It’s a fascinating area. What’s also fascinating is that twenty years ago that job, the job you do (creating content), didn’t exist. Because very few people had a website and very few were dynamic and kept up to date. Surprisingly some companies, and not just small ones, let themselves down: you go onto their websites and think “is that it?”, “why haven’t they updated it for three years?”

Usually it’s because somebody who was doing it has left or hasn’t got the time,and nobody else feels comfortable doing it. It's something that perhaps should be given a higher priority.

Closing thoughts:

The future is extraordinarily positive, the hire industry has always been about solving problems, overcoming challenges. Whatever the next twelve months throws at us, hirers will respond positively, as they always have done. I would say, although it seems obvious, that it all comes down to people. A lot of people think that hire is about the equipment. It’s not, it’s about the people who understand what the problem is, find a solution, get it (the machine) to site, pick it up and go on to the next job. It’s all about engaging with the customer: whether you do that with a phone call, face to face or communicate via a website. It’s all about communicating between people and exchanging ideas. You use all the outlets you have to maximise your reach and your potential.

It’s great that we’re gradually getting a more diverse workforce. We particularly need to encourage young people to enter the industry. And we can learn from them as they experience things from their perspective, they’re the generation for the future and a valuable resource: we all learn from each other.

(...) Hire is all about going above and beyond, you’re like a fourth or fifth emergency service. You take a pride in what you do. (..) Hire is all about solving puzzles, solving problems; it’s about the people who accept the challenges and that’s what makes this industry so fascinating.

For regular independent news and updates on the plant hire industry from a trusted source, we invite you to visit the Alan Guthrie’s On Hire blog.

Vooba is a digital marketing company with an important connection to plant, access and tool hire companies. As well as providing Professional SEO services, social media management and website design, our content services seek to provide focused content from leading, independent sources. We strive to provide your company with a message that connects with your customers. For more information on Vooba’s digital marketing services, get in touch today.

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