In a year like no other with Brexit, Covid 19, an unprecedented driver shortage, and a huge spike in the demand for logistics support services across the UK and Ireland, UPN has continued to grow strongly both financially and in terms of reputation.

David Brown, Managing Director of UPN.

In a market sector which itself has grown in reliability and reputation, UPN has established a clear niche as a network driven for, and by its membership. UPN is also renowned in the sector for its bespoke high quality IT support systems that have enabled the company to build, retain, and develop a strong and stable member network across the UK and Northern Ireland.

“Team UPN” as it promotes itself, is now a cohesive and united nationwide network of ninety five high quality regional hauliers operating synergistically to provide an extremely reliable range of nationwide services. Established in 2001 and now in its 20th year as the UK’s only privately owned Pallet Network, UPN has grown over two decades through a commitment to provision of “First Class Travel for Palletised Freight”. The company’s signature line has become its mantra and benchmark for its daily performance on behalf of palletised freight shippers across the UK.

UPN Managing Director – David Brown – gave his perspective on the challenges that both UPN and the Pallet Network Sector are currently facing and his thoughts on the future.

How is the Driver Shortage being handled by UPN members and indeed the sector in general, and how is it impacting on your business and your members?

Yes, a perfect storm of issues has gathered to energise what is now a real problem for the logistics sector. What was a driver shortage of around 50,000 just two years ago has this year grown to probably around 100,000. The average age of drivers is increasing annually and most recently is thought to be around 52.

There is just not enough young blood coming in. This lack of young and new drivers joining the industry has been further affected by the availability of HGV tests. Then there are the new HMRC IR35 rules that have served to remove many agency drivers from the market. Brexit has meant the loss of thousands of European drivers and the addition of more intensive border controls slowing the process of inbound and outgoing freight. Covid has created a further myriad of challenges across the country.

But really the driver shortage has been around for many years and it’s so clear that nothing has been done to improve the situation and encourage new people – male and female – into these roles and indeed into Logistics generally.

School leavers are actively encouraged to join the IT sector, Finance Sector, Sales, Marketing, and Commerce, but nowhere near enough, has been done to attract the youth of today into Logistics a sector that actually has proved to have excellent career paths and a real history of “Home Grown Timber” – a life time career trajectory – often with the same company.

UPN has joined forces with the APN (The Association of Pallet Networks) and the other Pallet Networks to actively promote logistics as an exciting world with so many different opportunities and a real opportunity for a stable long term career.

We are all lobbying government and MP’s to focus on the current issues and trying to get them to invest in the logistics sector. We need HGV drivers to be added to the UK shortage occupation list to allow foreign drivers to come back to the UK to take up these roles.

I believe that Government has been very slow to respond to these issues and is simply putting the issues back in the court of the logistic sector. Without Government focus and support pretty soon supply chains are going to slow down, shelves will be empty, and of course that will mean rising costs.

An impact on our members and indeed one that is also impacting right across the Logistics sector is increasing wages and special deals for new drivers.

Whilst it’s right that drivers should be valued for the increasingly challenging roles that they fulfil these increases are pushing prices up to the consumer.

It’s not the solution to this major shortage though; we need more drivers as well as better wages for drivers already on the payroll.

UPN being one of the smaller networks is not currently as impacted as the larger networks but everyone is concerned as we are all now entering the peak period for logistics. Supermarkets will have a larger requirement and indeed they are already offering signing on fees and higher wages that network members simply can’t compete with.

How challenging was the Brexit transition for the sector and for UPN, especially your members dealing with Europe and across the Irish Sea?

The challenge was that the Brexit deal was done at the last minute. There was nowhere near enough time given to enable the logistics sector as a whole to educate customers regarding the new complexities of post Brexit requirements to ship goods between the UK and Europe.

There was a huge lack of expertise and experience in the sector so a really fast learning curve was required. UPN centrally took on the Brexit Education Programme and worked closely with all our members to ensure that they had the tools and knowledge necessary. We set up new systems and clearance checks to ensure the smooth transition of all shipments. We also set up a comprehensive Brexit information area on our website as a further support resource.

Our members who act for us within Europe and in Ireland gave absolutely fantastic support for both UPN and all our network members. Collectively we worked tremendously hard together and I am pleased to say that within four weeks it was business as usual.

The cost of shipping within Europe has increased sharply and this has impacted on volumes but it is still a healthy part of our business.

All this has been happening of course during the once in a lifetime challenge of the Covid Pandemic? How are UPN responding to the challenges that this unique unknown has set for us all?

As you know the world changed quite dramatically for all of us when Covid hit. Both personally and professionally everyone was feeling their way through a really difficult time and dealing with challenges that could not have been predicted just a few weeks earlier.

Initially we were very concerned as we entered a period of the unknown, how this would impact on our staff, volumes, and the membership. At UPN it was a case of keeping everything running well but making sure that health and safety was very much at the forefront in every respect.

We very quickly defined and implemented our Covid plan both on site and across our network applying the mantra – Hands – Face – Space – right across the board both on site, and on the road to ensure that we were able to provide our services efficiently and safely.

We applied Covid protocols right across our network with the introduction of clear guidelines and an efficient system of contactless deliveries.

Our unique UPN technology, our SmartHUB Operational IT, our SmartPOD contactless POD, and our SmartClockIn sign in system have all really helped us to keep our staff and the public safe.

Our IT systems kept visiting drivers safely in their cabs. It enabled them to log their arrival on site automatically. Manifests could be downloaded directly to a phone, on site instructions again straight to phone and logging vehicles on and off site again could be done remotely. Not only did this keep the drivers safe but also our fork lift truck drivers as no physical interactions were required.

Our SmartClockIn sign in system enabled UPN staff to login directly without all queuing to use traditional clocking in machines again keeping them isolated from each other.

As the concept of “Key Workers” evolved, so did the role of logistics workers as Key Workers. Alongside the NHS the Logistics sector including “Team UPN”, our network of partner hauliers, also became known as Key Workers all working through lockdown to keep UK PLC and our economy going.

The whole nationwide UPN member team of drivers, forklift staff, warehouse staff, and operations staff really stepped up to the plate to ensure that despite everything our service levels were maintained. They should be really proud of themselves at this extreme time, and very proud of the special way that they are meeting the challenges thrown at them by the pandemic.

Logistics is playing a crucial role in keeping the country running, the shops and supermarkets stocked, and the population positive, sane and safe. Without our Logistics Key Workers, there would undoubtedly be turmoil and chaos right across the country.

By supporting our high streets, the booming DIY sector, and the inevitable increase in home deliveries, we have really helped in a significant way to minimise the mental impact of Covid on the UK and indeed keep the country sane!

We had massive swings in volume, both up and down, staff furloughs, illness, indeed over the past six months we have increased volumes by 50% across the board. I am really proud to say that despite what has probably been the most challenging year in our history, UPN service levels were upheld.

Its UPNs 20th year in business, how do you feel that the sector has changed in that time?

The sector has changed massively; there have been huge changes in many respects. There are now eight networks each with their own distinct identity so it’s become much more competitive. It’s a good thing actually because competition drives standards, service levels, and overall performance, which can only be good for service users.

In the Pallet Network Sector there is a real focus on customer service excellence supported by high quality IT systems to ensure total client visibility. Pallet networks are a unique logistics sector; they are the greenest and operate at optimum capacity at all times unlike some other Logistics sectors which often run close to empty.

Pallet Networks are now seen as a complementary service working for companies in conjunction with or replacing the standard 3PL service offerings. Pallet Networks are highly responsive and flexible and it’s probably this USP that is seeing the sector become the fastest growing sector in UK Logistics.

The Pallet Network Sector has been around now for just under thirty years, how do you see the sector evolving over the next five / ten years?

Pallet Networks in the UK have now definitely reached the “mature” stage but with new markets opening up outside of Europe will provide further opportunities for those networks interested in developing within these arenas.

From our part as we see new technology being developed, we will look how this can benefit our network. This is an area that UPN is continually looking at to ensure we stay at the forefront in our sector.

The important thing for us here at UPN is that we maintain our core ethos and that is to continue to provide an ever improving high quality service for our UK customers and our members.


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