In the Spotlight – Adam Collins

In the Spotlight – Adam Collins
May 16, 2024 joLawton
Adam Collins

In the month celebrating PFE’s 40th anniversary year, we speak to PFE’s Managing Director, Adam Collins, about the achievements of PFE that make him the most proud.

Tell us about your personal journey with PFE

My journey with PFE began when my father, Peter Collins, founded the company. As children, my sister and I moved around with him while he forged new business connections. In 1972, when I was only a youngster, we relocated to Hong Kong for my father to establish operations there. Then, we moved to LA for a while in 1979 when he set up there. Growing up, I was never particularly keen on school; not good with authority, and studying was not for me. Joining the family business was never part of my plan at the time, nor was it an expectation from my father. However, after being asked to leave from numerous schools, my father gave me an ultimatum when I was 17: get a job or leave the house. So, I sensibly opted for the former!

Initially, my tasks involved running around London, collecting documents from various customers. Most of our business at the time was in the rag trade, with some in the electrical sector in the East End and the garment district in the West End. I spent long days traveling on the tube, fetching documents, and then commuting back to Essex. After proving my responsibility, I transitioned to working in the office, primarily handling customer calls. Funnily, I never disclosed to customers that I was the person who had been collecting their documents, but over time, they caught on. It turned out to be a clever strategy as it allowed me to build strong relationships with them.

When a few key staff members left, including the Operations Manager, my father saw potential in me and appointed me to run operations at the age of 18. Our service levels improved steadily, setting the stage for future growth. Dad focused on sales, while Dreen Toms managed finance, and I oversaw operations. Gill Hardy handled customs and entries, soon to be joined by Anya, and both are still with PFE to this day. We maintained this structure for a while as we steadily expanded, eventually outgrowing several buildings and relocating to accommodate our growing team.

Dad gradually withdrew from the day-to-day management of the company in the early nineties. It’s important to note that Dad founded PFE at the age of 50, back in 1984, which is why we’re celebrating our 40th anniversary this year. By the time computerisation began to revolutionise business operations, he was already in his sixties. When I first joined, fax machines were not even commonplace! As technology progressed and the pace of handling tasks digitally accelerated significantly, it became challenging for Dad’s generation to keep up. Consequently, he willingly took a step back from the forefront. I consider myself fortunate because he never held me back in any way. He’s never been one of those fathers who are reluctant to let go of the reins.

What have been PFE’s significant milestones?

At PFE, our most significant step changes have always revolved around people and organic growth; we’ve never pursued growth through acquisition. We firmly believe in the people aspect of this business – after all, that’s ultimately what we’re offering our customers.

One pivotal moment was the acquisition of our first office in Wickford in 1991, coinciding with Dave Girling joining the company. Together, Dave and I formed a formidable team, securing substantial business and steadily growing the company. Recognising the need for our own warehouse, we purchased the land where our office in Witham stands today. Despite initial doubts about filling the space, we quickly achieved full occupancy.

Another milestone was the opportunity to bring Aron on board. Having known him through his role at Maersk, I reached out to him as he was considering an offer from a major forwarder. To our delight, he accepted, and for the next decade, with Dave, Aron, and myself leading, the business propelled forward.

Additionally, the appointment of Simon Boulton as Finance Director, following Dreen’s step back due to health reasons, marked a significant organisational change. Simon’s dedication and hard work have been instrumental in our financial management.

The addition of Dave’s daughter, Abigail Girling, to our team has enabled us to strengthen relationships with key accounts significantly. Having my two sons, Jacob, and Jonny, now in the company has also made a massive difference. Jacob has transformed our Air Freight operations and Jonny has already made a huge contribution to maximising the benefit from our data infrastructure for our operations and for our customers.

Looking ahead, I believe the synergy between the experienced members of our team and the younger generation bodes well for the company’s future. We’re fortunate to have incredibly talented individuals, and I have high expectations for our younger team members. The business is in a really good place, and we’ve got some great people. We’re very lucky to have some extremely talented youngsters, who I’ve got really high expectations for. 

What achievements are you most proud of?

There are many things about PFE that make me feel proud. The quality of our staff is one I’ve already mentioned, our IT capability and data infrastructure is another. Investing in technology has always been a priority for us, recognising its crucial role in our industry. I’m proud that our investment has allowed us to compete with anyone in terms of system capability. 

However, I believe PFE’s reputation is our greatest achievement. Our standing in the industry is hard to beat. One of the most memorable compliments I received was during a dinner some ten years ago, when we were somewhat smaller and less established than we are today.  I sat with the MD of Kuehne + Nagel, one of the largest forwarders globally. He mentioned that when their sales team enquires about who’s handling the work, and if the answer is PFE, they immediately leave without further discussion. This anecdote illustrates how favourably we’re regarded by even the biggest players in the industry. Our ability to be agile and nimble gives us a distinct advantage over larger competitors.

Maintaining this reputation while experiencing growth is no small feat. It would be easy to become complacent, but we’re constantly reminding ourselves not to forget our roots. Acquiring customers is still a challenging task, and it’s crucial not to give them any reason to leave. The supply chain is full of potential to fail, so how we manage difficult situations sets us apart.

Building long-term relationships is essential. We never take on more than we can handle because business is about partnership between two companies and mutual growth. Helping our clients succeed ultimately benefits us. While some businesses may focus solely on profit, or short-term gain, we prioritise trust. Trust is the foundation of our relationships, and once it’s lost, it’s nearly impossible to regain.

How do you maintain PFE’s culture despite the company’s growth?

PFE’s family ethos remains paramount. It’s crucial for us to uphold the same values as we grow. We truly operate like a family here. After all, we spend more time at work than we do at home. If someone isn’t happy, they shouldn’t be here. We try to be as supportive as possible to everyone on the team. Of course, we can’t always be everything to everyone, but I hope that those who have the misfortune to face tough times would say that we’ve helped them through it. No one should dread coming into this office; it should be the opposite – we should be a safe haven.

I personally make an effort to know each and every person who works here. Accessibility of the Directors is crucial; employees should feel comfortable approaching us with questions or concerns. That will never change, the door will always be open to all of our staff. I’ve seen too many businesses get it wrong by believing they’re above interacting with their team once they reach a certain level of success. That’s just foolishness. So, no, that will never change. It’s a core part of who we are.

What do you hope for PFE’s future?

I’m very optimistic about PFE’s future. Throughout my time in the business, I’ve heard people claim that forwarding is a dying trade, that only big corporations will survive. However, I firmly believe that there will always be a demand for companies that prioritise service, value, trust, and competitive pricing. Our customers recognise and appreciate this. Recently, one of our largest accounts expressed that we’ve consistently been their top supplier for over a decade. They mentioned that they wouldn’t receive the same level of service from a global forwarder due to the frequent turnover of staff and management in those larger companies. Despite what critics may say, I’m confident that there’s a niche in the logistics sector for businesses like ours. 

While we will continue to expand, especially in operational areas like warehousing and transportation, we’ll do so cautiously and prudently, with no financial risks. We’re very conservative when it comes to risk management. Maintaining tight control over our overheads and operating efficiently is crucial to sustaining our excellent service. We don’t have any immediate plans to diversify into new service areas; instead, we’ll adapt and refine our existing offerings to meet our customers’ evolving needs. Essentially, we’ll be doing more of what we do best, but with even greater excellence.

What do you enjoy most about working in this industry?

I really love what I do. It’s important to me that PFE excels and I genuinely enjoy the challenge of that. I take pride in the company being able to accomplish tasks that other companies may find challenging, and I strive to do them even better. There’s a thrill in orchestrating the movement of goods worldwide, regardless of the global circumstances, and being able to tackle challenges that others may struggle with. 

Our role entails understanding various aspects of the supply chain, from factory production issues to logistics, customs, and transportation. It’s incredibly diverse, and you don’t often find such a broad scope in many other industries. 

Interacting with a wide range of people is another aspect I value. Each person and each of their businesses and products presents unique needs, and gaining their trust is paramount. Winning people over and building that trust is always a rewarding challenge. Looking back, even when I was just starting out, I realise I was already doing that running around for Dad. I consider myself fortunate to be able to work well under pressure. In our line of work, constant deadlines and pressure are the norm. You either thrive on it and find it exhilarating or struggle with it. Fortunately, I’m someone who enjoys the buzz of it all. Overall, I’m very content with where I am in life.

How do you unwind outside of work?

I watch a lot of sports and enjoy catching up on films and TV shows. Walking our dog, who’s practically my fifth child, is also a favourite pastime. My wife and I often dine out, go to the theatre, and socialise with friends. And we definitely make time for holidays! I’ve always been a hard worker, but I’ve come to realise the importance of taking breaks, even if it’s just for a couple of days. I’m usually away at some point every month, so I try to keep things varied. Sometimes I find myself mixing work with leisure while I’m away. The nature of my job allows me to visit customers, and sometimes I’m able to extend these trips and make the most of it.

What’s your favourite film?

There are so many, but if I had to choose, ‘Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back’ is definitely up there. And if I’m in a soppy mood I’d always pick ‘Pretty Woman’. I’ve got a soft spot for a good Rom Com. We make it a tradition to watch ‘Love Actually’ every Christmas. But I also enjoy action-packed flicks like ‘Armageddon’ and ‘Independence Day’. I escape into these films, but it’s really all about the happy endings. I love a happy ending. There’s already enough doom and gloom in the world without adding more depressing movies to the mix.

If you could only eat one meal for the rest of your life what would it be?

It’d have to be Chinese food. I’m a big fan of Dim Sum and similar dishes. Spending so much time in Asia, I’ve grown accustomed to authentic Chinese cuisine rather than the overly sweetened versions you tend to find in the UK – although I do like it all! I also have a soft spot for classical French food. It really depends on my mood. I’d happily eat any Asian cuisine, but when I’m wanting something more refined, I opt for classical French cuisine paired with a nice wine.


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