Deputy Editor David Jordan takes a road trip to rural Lincolnshire to meet Mark Harris, the man behind the famous Maxi Mover low loader.
As I passed to the north of Lincoln on the A46 I was dazzled by the sight of one of England’s most magnificent buildings: Lincoln Cathedral. William the Conqueror ordered its construction - along with the equally impressive Lincoln Castle - in 1068 as a way of taming the defeated but still defiant Brits following the Battle of Hastings. The construction of the buildings brought an army of craftsmen and labourers to the city and with them came trade and prosperity. The castle symbolised Norman power, while the cathedral provided an awesome place of wonder for the people to pray to God and secure a place in the next world. William was clearly no fool.
Mark Harris may not have built a castle or cathedral, but he has nevertheless achieved a great deal in the village of Scothern, six miles north of the city, where the Maxi Mover lightweight low floor Luton vans are manufactured.
As we sat in a meeting room next to the company’s smart reception area, I asked Mark how it all began. “After leaving school, I trained as a plumber and also bought and sold several commercial vehicles,” said Mark. “I managed to save a little bit of money from the van sales and the plumbing; I must have been working about 100 hours a week at that time. I had vans on my parents’ drive and a small lock-up, but I needed somewhere bigger and by that time I was determined to make the van business a success,” said Mark.
One day, back in 1997 while driving between plumbing jobs, 19-year-old Mark noticed a 'For Sale' sign outside an old run-down stable in Scothern and decided to make an offer. “I think the price was £65,000, which was far more than I had saved at the time, so I had to go cap-in-hand to the bank manager to ask for a loan and amazingly, given my age at the time, he said yes!”
Mark’s plumbing and building skills proved useful in renovating The Old Stables – now the company’s head office - during the next few years and with the help of his late father Ron, the fledgling business began to take shape. “I gave up the plumbing at that point to concentrate solely on buying and selling commercial vehicles. For four years I lived in one room of the old building to save money. It’s an office now, but at that time it was my lounge, bedroom, everything, I can hardly believe it now looking back,” said Mark.
“Dad and I were a good team. While I had the drive and ambition to move the business forward, he had the man-management skills needed to get things done. He’d been a Sargent Major in the army and was brilliant with people. He often used to say, “You have to be just like Marilyn Monroe, firm, fair and friendly,” which he was and the men respected him for it. My Mum, Karin, was also an important cog in the wheel and helped in many ways.”
At this stage, the company was dealing in new and quality used commercial vehicles. Customers began asking for specialist vehicles built to their own requirements. “We would design the vehicles exactly the way the customers wanted them. The problem was the outsourced coach builders were very unreliable and would almost always deliver late and often the final build wasn’t to the original design. This was very frustrating and meant we couldn’t keep our promises to our customers. I really disliked that, it went against the grain as we have always been about delivering our vehicles on time, first time, every time, so we decided to start building our own coach-built vehicles to overcome the problem.”
Mark and his team invested time and energy researching and talking to leading UK transport and removal companies to find ways to overcome the day-to-day challenges they faced with their traditional type 3.5T Luton vans and HGV trucks.
“Over time we continued investing in our premises and staff to meet the demands and expectations of our customers,” explained Mark. “We now have a skilled team of over 50 employees and every aspect of the Maxi Mover van is produced on-site, including signwriting and professional paintwork. We’ve even invested in a new Dalby spray booth, the same as those used by Bentley and Rolls Royce. This means we can achieve a car-quality finish, keep control of our production and quality standards and deliver vehicles on time, fully liveried and ready for work.”
The company introduced the Maxi Mover range in 2010 and it now accounts for about 80% of production, with many orders coming from the removals industry. All are built individually to the customer’s exact specification. There is no standard model, as Maxi Mover is always developing and implementing the latest design principles, materials and technology.
Today, The Old Stables’ immaculate décor and water feature that greets visitors to the factory is a far cry from the semi-derelict building Mark bought all those years ago. As we walked around the now extensive site, accompanied by Mark’s beloved rottweiler, Max (the company cat as Mark fondly calls him) I was impressed by the quality of the buildings, the friendliness of the people, and the feeling of efficiency and orderliness. Perhaps Ron’s influence still lingers?
I asked Mark what he thought was the key to his remarkable success. “I’ve always been driven to be and deliver the best at what I do,” he said. “It’s not necessarily about money, fame or shouting about what we have or haven’t got, it’s about working as a team. I really like to see our customers, driving out of our yard more than happy with their new Maxi Mover van - it’s as simple as that.”
Photos: Top right: Mark Harris; middle left: Mark began his own coachbuilding
service as outsourcing proved unreliable; middle right; Signwriting; bottom left: Mark with Max, the ‘company cat’.