Peter Collins, Founder and PFE’s Chairman, reflects on his exceptional career and contribution to PFE’s success on his 90th birthday.
Tell us about how you started in the industry 65 year ago
I started working in the industry in 1958. Coming straight out of the army to start work at a freight forwarding firm called Schenker’s – which still exists to this day. Back then I didn’t expect that I would go into business myself. I certainly didn’t visualise in 1958 that 65 years later I’d be sitting in a little empire of over 130 people in a highly successful company.
I was fortunate enough to have some very good training during my time at Schenker’s but as is common in the industry, moved on to another freight forwarder a few years later. Eventually I started up on my own with a partner. We went from nothing to a large company (Patmar Shipping Limited) over 30 years. Patmar was the forerunner to PFE Express.
PFE Express was founded in 1984, initially with a team of just six. Remarkably, some of those original team members still contribute to PFE today. Our primary focus at the time was moving goods from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea to the UK. Over the first four years of PFE’s existence, we expanded our services to include freight forwarding from the Indian Subcontinent, Thailand, and Singapore. Eventually, we broadened our operations to encompass all of Southeast Asia. Today, we reach far beyond Asia’s borders, and I can confidently state that we stand as one of the UK’s leading freight forwarders offering consolidation services worldwide.
What are the most significant milestones in PFE’s history?
The most momentous moment was when we decided in 2002 to move to a purpose built office and warehouse in Witham. Establishing our own warehouse, consolidating everything under a single roof, wasn’t just a preference but a pivotal element in our growth and success. The ability to handle paperwork from our overseas partners, documentation from our customers, cargo movement from the port of arrival to our facility, unloading, customs clearance – every aspect, all managed in one place. Any queries or concerns could be promptly addressed without the need to traverse between the office and the warehouse. Communication and issue resolution happened seamlessly.
We diligently scouted for a suitable location and made the decision to construct a custom built terminal, tailored to our specific needs and requirements. The result is what you currently see before you, and in the coming year, we’ll be expanding it even further next door.
Were there any particularly challenging moments?
The early years of establishing my own business were undeniably the most demanding. I remember going out to Hong Kong on my own in 1972 to forge business connections. I was quite apprehensive as I was a young man and still had a lot to learn. I remember that I initially went there for a fortnight and then decided to go and live there for three or four months to open an office there, which I did. The family came out and joined me, my children were very young at the time, but they adapted well.
They were exciting years, but there was also a lot of heartbreak. Conversations with Chinese exporters could be frustrating, as they often claimed to have no cargo for the UK, only for me to spot their shipments bound for the UK at the docks the very next day. Perseverance and resilience were paramount in securing those initial business deals. It was undeniably a challenging time! Today we still enjoy a very happy relationship with our sister company Ensign Freight Ltd and numerous agents throughout SE Asia.
What achievements are you most proud of?
The occasions that I have felt most proud are the pivotal transitions, such as when we started to offer a new service from a new territory and when we got it running like a clock.
One of our notable accomplishments, which we now consider routine but was truly transformational for PFE at the time, was when we first introduced a groupage service in ocean freight, with a focus on shipments from the Far East to the UK. This strategic move laid the foundation for our subsequent growth and success.
The move into consolidation services was my particular baby, enabling us to combine various small shipments into full units, like containers or trailers. These units were then managed either by us in the UK or by our counterparts at the destination. This approach ensured the safe and cost-effective handling of shipments, regardless of their size, from the point of origin to delivery. It’s like offering full-load movement even for smaller shipments.. Getting that up and running regularly and successfully, I consider to be my most significant personal achievement. Today, as a result of the team’s endeavours over the years, our company offers this service from all major ports globally to the UK, operating our customs terminal, duty facility and numerous vehicles.
Did you have a succession plan for PFE?
Adam joined the company as soon as he finished school. While I hoped that he would take over the management of the business, it was never a given. He had to prove himself to be capable of it, just like anyone else. When Adam started, he was thrown in at the deep end and he learned the best way that it is possible to learn.
I started taking him to the Far East from a very young age, at around 18 or 19, to see how things were done. I used to undertake these trips during spring and autumn, starting back in 1972. These trips were crucial for several reasons:
First, we needed to meet our partner correspondents since web conferencing wasn’t available back then, and face-to-face meetings were essential. Second, we had to meet carriers, most of which were based in the Far East. Lastly, many of our customers were also located there. Adam observed and learned first hand on these trips, and the next time, I let him go on his own.
About twenty years ago, I started to take a step back gracefully. There was a deliberate and gradual shift, entrusting the day-to-day management of the company Adam, and his colleague, David Girling initially. Later on, Aron Newton joined us, which was a real boon. This transition had its phases, and today, Adam and the other directors are very much running the set up. We have all agreed that the evolution worked well. The results speak for themselves because we are where we are today.
The next generation has now joined the company, with David Girling’s introduction of his daughter Abigail and Adam’s sons, Jacob, Jonathan and Morgan. It has been very refreshing and rewarding working with these bright young people. They have a lot to offer and have already made an enormous impression on the company and I’m sure will continue to do so.
I have been helping educate them in our business and would like to think that they will play a central role in PFE’s future. However, the future shouldn’t depend solely on family. There’s one thing that I resolved when I started at PFE, that nobody would get to a position of seniority, for any other reason than their own merits.
How involved are you in the business nowadays?
I am a firm believer that working keeps you young. Even though I passed on the day-to-day management of PFE and relinquished my biannual business trips to the Far East a while ago, I still come into the office every week and am kept informed of what is happening.
I reserve my Tuesdays for my office visit, and I also take on the occasional task at home. These activities serve a dual purpose. They keep me connected to what’s happening from a distance and ensure that my mind remains sharp. I consider mental agility crucial at my age. I’ve witnessed too many former colleagues retire and abruptly transition from an active life to complete stoppage, and they’ve paid a price for it. I resolved that I would not allow that to happen to me. So I stay fairly active and stay well-informed.
I have to accept the fact that at 90 I’m beginning to slow down a little bit. I think that over the next year, I won’t completely discontinue my regular visits to the office, but I might reduce the frequency of them.
How have you maintained the company’s culture despite PFE’s growth?
Although the company has expanded, it has retained its close-knit, family feel. I can say, with the possible exception of myself (and I’m only excusing myself because of my years), all the directors are always willing to roll up their sleeves and knuckle down to get a problem resolved. This dedication flows from the directors to the managers, setting a solid example for every individual, whether they’re a newcomer, trainee, or apprentice. The door is always open and communication and support across the organisation is encouraged. I’d like to believe that I initiated this culture during my tenure at PFE, and Adam, Aron and Simon have admirably continued in that same vein.
Why do you think PFE has been such a success over the years?
What sets PFE apart in this industry is our unwavering commitment to service excellence. We take immense pride in the quality of service we deliver. It would be a personal affront for us to hear that a client was leaving due to a perceived decline in the service they receive. We acknowledge that the business world is highly competitive, and others may offer more attractive terms and rates. That is a reality we must accept. While we strive to remain competitive, we can confidently assert that we have never lost a customer due to poor service. On the contrary, most of our business comes from recommendations. I think we are generally regarded, even compared to our largest competitors, that we’re still a force to be reckoned with.
I believe the positive examples I set still resonate today and influence everyone down the line. Happy customers and contented staff are paramount. If we maintain those aspects, the business will thrive. Currently, we continue to provide our services, with a substantial and satisfied client base, ensuring our livelihood. While we’ve seen some clients remain with us for over four decades, the number has naturally diminished. Some companies have ceased operations for various reasons. Management changes, takeovers, or other factors lead to the end of certain partnerships. It’s crucial to acknowledge when a relationship has concluded, allowing us to part ways amicably and reunite like old friends if our paths ever cross.
The success of PFE is reliant on the quality of its staff. The reputation we have built up over many years for excellence of service is because of our fabulous team. People are what our business is all about. You could have amazing facilities and competitive rates, but if the people you employ are not up to it, those things are worthless. PFE very much looks after its staff and we have a very low churn at both junior and senior levels as a result. As well as having clients that go back 20-30 years, the same applies to staff, we’ve still got staff who have been with us from the word go.
What do you hope for PFE’s future?
I trust that the team will follow the example that Adam has followed, along with the rest of our colleagues, and continue to align with our shared values and high standards. I encourage everyone to uphold these principles, ensuring the sustained success of our endeavours.
PFE’s growth has always been planned. We haven’t left anything to chance. What you see today wasn’t a coincidence; it’s the result of decades of experience, the coordination of an office in one place and a terminal warehouse in another, which, over time, seamlessly fused into a successful operation. I hope we will use all the knowledge and experience at our disposal to make PFE, what it is today, even greater.
I’m confident about the future. Our team is exceptional, and our relationships with customers remain strong. I’m genuinely optimistic about PFE’s future.