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Aodh Hannon: 'We were doing 20 trucks a day from GB… now it's zero'

Aodh Hannon got his £65m firm Hannon Transport ahead of the curve. Two and a half years ago. In the last few days, it’s gone from 20 trucks a day from GB, to zero (a loss of £35,000 a day), invested £600,000 in Brexit, hired a dedicated team of 30 and ordered 80 new trucks. He speaks to John Mulgrew about the state of play and the move to dealing with Europe, directly

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Haulage boss Aodh Hannon

Haulage boss Aodh Hannon

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Haulage boss Aodh Hannon

‘We were doing 20 trucks a day from GB – now we are down to zero’, Aodh Hannon tells me.

It’s the first of many strong statements, big numbers, multi-million pound investments and huge hiring, that come out of our chat, looking back at the first days of post-transition Brexit.

Brexit has meant two and half years of preparation, setting up new European depots, creating a dedicated customs team, and effectively ending most of its GB to Ireland trade – instead focusing efforts to mainland Europe, directly, or going through the Republic.

Starting off with just one truck more than two decades ago, Aodh Hannon has grown his haulage company Hannon Transport into a business heading to a turnover of £65m.

Hannon Transport has spent the last two and a half years, and, according to Aodh, the guts of £600,000 on preparing for Brexit.

It appointed a new head of Brexit role and now has a customs team of almost 30 people based in Templepatrick. It’s an operation which Aodh says wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t for Brexit.

It’s responsible for reviewing each single job for customs readiness. If it isn’t it’s then about communicating to the customer to get the required information and processing the documents required.

“The biggest problem has been on the UK side,” Aodh says. We would have been doing 20 trucks a day – a groupage, including flowers, plants, fruit and vegetables – mostly food. (Now) we are down to zero.”

He says chopping out its GB to Ireland trade is costing the business around £35,000 in turnover, but he’s moved to replace the lost income with other parts of the business and says turnover is only down around 5% compared to this time last year.

“We had a nice selection business and pulled it all together – around 15-20 trucks (a day from GB to NI). Our customers weren’t prepared.” He says the cost and time required for key paperwork, particularly sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks which apply to things like food and plants, make groupage such as that unviable.

He’s ramping up business coming in direct from the European mainland the Republic – adding another 80 trucks to his roster here, and sourcing products directly from countries such as Holland, Spain, France and Germany.

“We didn’t replace it (the lost business). It replaced itself naturally. People were buying stuff – there is transit every day going from Holland to NI and the Republic. We have our own customs team with transit working perfectly. In and out of Europe is fine. We have had practically zero issues with paperwork. But if it’s coming from GB then it’s a nightmare.”

In one case, Aodh says a truck load of avocados bound for supermarkets in the Republic was loaded on a Thursday and due to be in on the Friday. But three days later and it was still sitting at Holyhead.

“We are looking at doing more business in and out of Europe, instead of the UK. The bureaucracy is not allowing us to do this,” he says.

“We have been preparing for two and a half years. I’d guess (we’ve spent) £600,000.”

His Brexit customs team deals with between 600 and 700 sets of paperwork each day. “That’s just for our own business. That took two and a half years… a good haulier (not prepared) is two years away from where they need to be.

“It’s about making sure our customers are sorted. It was about servicing current customers.”

Hannon Transport has also added a new distribution facility at Rungis outside Paris. “What we saw is that people are not going to be able to buy their imported goods, and goods were going to have to be collected,” Aodh says. “We needed a depot in France to allow people to collate things (there), and not in the UK.

He says the company operates most of its trucks to and from Europe, directly into Northern Ireland, or through the Republic

“French and Spanish hauliers have no interest in coming into the UK,” he says.

“A lot of it is based around the food service business which is non-existent at moment. But we have grown that business from start of the year.”

Hannon Transport is heading to £65m turnover this year, 500 staff and 230 trucks right across the business. Aodh also operates a large coach business – Hannon Coach. But that’s been more or less paused entirely amid the pandemic.

Looking at the challenges of groupage in moving loads from GB to NI, Aodh says the reason it’s unviable is it takes just one chink in the armour for the whole thing to hit a brick wall.

“If you collect a pallet of strawberries in Dublin, then a pallet of spuds (from someone else) and he doesn’t do the paperwork – one has done nothing wrong but it impacts on the others.”

Aodh says the company has opened up a temporary storage facility and bonded customs area at sites here and in Dublin and Holland, which he says allows them to take off and set aside any loads which don’t have the correct paperwork, to continue the rest of the journey relatively unaffected.

He says the Government needs to do something to ease the pressures and burdens in terms of paperwork and checks, including the SPS checks.

“I have seen big UK companies preparing for two years and they still got it wrong,” he says.

“There is so much detail needed. If you make one small error, it won’t clear customs.

“They need to rid of SPS. That’s the big hold up. But I can’t see that happening. There have been goods coming into NI and Republic (before) without any issues. I can’t see why they would attempt to bring something like this in.

“We are getting 80 new trucks for January to March – that’s £10m. It’s because Brexit is going to slow your production.” He says if the company wishes to keep the same volumes of goods and loads flowing, it needs the additional vehicles.

And, looking back over the first couple of weeks, are things better or worse than he expected when first taking the early steps to try and mitigate problems.

“I would say it’s worse than I thought it would be,” he says. “We were really prepared and still got things wrong. God help those who didn’t…  we have had teething problems.

“We have ironed them out one at a time. By (later in January) we will have all our systems singing and dancing, and have a good flow of business through our customs office.”

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