Turning lead into Platinum

Interview originally published in CAT June 2019

 

Alchemists spent hundreds of years trying to make gold from lead, but as battery mogul Chris Taylor’s beautiful house in the Lancashire countryside testifies, they had been going about it all wrong… Why turn it into gold, when you can turn it into Platinum? As one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the starting battery arena, he took advantage of the chaos that gripped some of his competitors.  ”From my viewpoint, the difficulties being experienced in the battery market in the early 2000’s only magnified the opportunities in the market” he told me after finishing a phone call to his private bank.

Chris Taylor

But Taylor wasn’t born with a silver (Platinum?) spoon in his mouth. Indeed it was at the age of 15 that Taylor dropped his dreams of becoming a professional footballer (he had been a schoolboy player with Man City, which had an obvious effect on his CSE grades) and landed a job at Chloride Gaedor. “I must have interviewed well, although I suspect it didn’t do me any harm that I’d been on Manchester City’s books as a schoolboy and Frank [Bateman, General Manager] was looking for someone to join his woeful football team, which played in the notoriously hostile Salford Sunday football league” recalled Taylor.

This company was a large national parts distributor and a subsidiary of the Chloride Group, which at the time was listed on the FTSE 100 and the owner of what were then household battery brands including Dagenite and Exide. Not that this would have made much difference at first to Taylor who had the job of unloading heavy batteries from the fully laden trucks.

He also had the task of repairing duff batteries by replacing faulty cells where appropriate. “This job was usually done, understandably, by the most expendable employee in the organisation, as it involved an acetylene blow torch, goggles, explosive gasses and little by way of health and safety” he recalled.

 

Doing the heaviest and most dangerous job in the organisation gave Taylor the motivation to work his way through the company. His first promotion was onto the trade counter, which was not only a far better job in terms of working conditions, but also gave him a pay rise of an extra pound a week.

 

Despite a buoyant market for spare parts, conditions to run a business in the early 1970s were  not ideal. “Businesses had to deal with significant challenges, we had the turmoil of decimalisation, extremely high inflation, as high as 13 percent in 1973 and strikes were common place” said Taylor, recalling the blackouts and the three-day week during the early part of that decade.

UK Batteries – CAT November 2006

 

Although industry was in turmoil, Taylor’s star rose during this decade. He credits multiple people for helping him on the way up, including the aforementioned Frank Bateman, but also Peter Dawes, Graham Woods George Niven and Commercial Director Bob Price. Soon Taylor was out on the road as his real  area of interest was sales and marketing and he went on to hold the positions of Area Sales Manager and Regional Sales Manager, before taking up a Branch Manager’s role at the Bolton depot of Chloride Gaedor.

 

In time, Chloride Group divested Gaedor and closed the majority of its 71 branches, leaving just a dozen in the hands of the parent company of Exide as specialist battery distributors. Taylor remained with the company as Branch Manager, moving up to become the National Sales Manager in the early 1980s. Although Taylor had been with the company in its various forms for over a decade, he was still only in his mid twenties, but had  a seat on the board of Directors.

 

The culture of the business was not one that suited Taylor’s entrepreneurial style. Indeed, an issue of CAT from back in the day described his departure as being ‘perhaps inevitable’. In any case, a new venture was planned and in 1988 Taylor along with three other shareholders left to start their own venture, a specialist battery distributor first called ‘Northern Batteries’ and later renamed ‘National’ as its reach and market share expanded. The growth was rapid and within a decade it had a 20 percent share of the market, which was too large for the management back at the old firm to ignore.  Exide approached Taylor and his fellow Director Stuart Dale in 1998 and made an offer for the company, which, to the surprise of many, they accepted.

 

“At the time, there was a great deal of market uncertainty, with quite a few disruptive acquisitions” recalled Taylor. “It seemed to me, that the only way to thrive, would be to be a part of a larger entity, a manufacturing partner, with the scale and relevance to be doing business in a changing market”.

 

Hindsight is a valuable thing, and Taylor admits that at the time he believed that selling up and rejoining Exide, the future of the National business would be secure for employees, customers and suppliers alike. ‘But I was wrong’ he said. With diplomatic phrasing he added: “My time with Exide following the sale of National didn’t last as long as I’d have liked and in my opinion, following the demise of Exide as the market leading brand in the UK, the initiative was surrendered yet again to the competition”.

 

Exide in the UK went into administration in 2001 which along with the collapse of Finelist caused huge turbulence in the aftermarket. With this in mind, it seemed like a strange time to launch a new aftermarket venture, but that is exactly what happened. UK Batteries opened to the trade in May 2002 and sought to fill the void left in the wake of the collapse.  “It seemed that with a fair tailwind, we couldn’t fail” he recalled.

 

Despite having an experienced team and a ready customer base to make that tailwind, all was not plain sailing, at least at first. “We faced the usual challenges that are normally associated with the starting of a new business, such as keeping costs down, building scale, lack of financial support from the banks and keeping spirits up when things went wrong” said Taylor. “And perhaps a few problems specifically relating to getting batteries in and out of a basement, when it was occasionally flooded and under water… I did mention keeping the costs down”.

Chris Taylor

 

 

Apart from these problems, which are faced by many startups, there were a number of issues at the time that related to battery suppliers specifically. “We also had the added complexity of managing volatile lead and currency movements. Both of which can make a huge difference between making a profit and making a loss, as all automotive batteries are imported and lead represents a significant part of the manufacturing cost of the battery” Taylor explained.

 

“Lots of companies have mismanaged the effects of lead and currency variations and as a result, they have at best, seen profits decimated and at worse seen their battery businesses fail.

With a sourcing strategy that involved long lead times, it was critical to produce accurate sales forecasting”.

 

Survival was difficult and the key management team worked without pay for many months over the first two years. Fortunately the business as a whole was well funded from the beginning and so investment in stock never suffered during those early years.

 

“You always need a bit of luck and some nerve to hold a steady course, when the cost of lead is falling, the pound is getting weaker, the market hasn’t reflected these changes and you are sat on high levels of stock ready for the winter” he said. “Fortunately, being in a business, where I was not only the Managing Director, but, the major shareholder, meant that I didn’t have to attend any difficult meetings, whereby, I would be expected to explain the short-term effects of the above.”

 

The eventual success of UK Batteries, later renamed Platinum, needs little coverage.  By the time the business was sold to Alliance Automotive Group in 2018, it had become the UK’s largest specialist battery and lubricant supplier with 10 depots domestically and one in the Netherlands. Although retired, at least from the battery business, Taylor said that he had no regrets and that his time in the business and the people he had worked with had all been fantastic. “I’ve worked with the best in the UK battery business for over 48 years” he said. “The only thing I’d change now if I could would be to turn the clock back and do it all again”

Published by Greg Whitaker

Editor of CAT Magazine and an experienced motoring journalist @GregWhitaker5

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