Ed Helps is MD and part-owner of ABC Leisure, and there’s a lot more to him than that
Ed Helps is MD and part-owner of ABC Leisure – but there’s much more to him than that
You can always tell real passion, it sometimes comes with table-thumping but more often it appears with a smile – and if you ask Ed Helps about motorbikes, cycling, his company, the waterways or a certain 1960 primrose yellow Ford Thames 400E Calthorpe conversion campervan, you’ll certainly see a smile for all of them.
The campervan, his latest acquisition which he’s keen to show me a picture of – and very attractive it is too in a Sixties classic way – might sound slightly unusual for the man behind one of the inland waterways’ largest companies, but then it’s essentially a piece of his past which helps define who he is, and how he got to where he is today.
That’s because he grew up in Newham, where his working life started out in the motor trade. Life in the East London borough also launched him at the age of 14 on a sporting career as a competitive canoeist, which sparked his interest in the waterways as training was carried out on the River Lee, the Thames or Regent’s Canal. He actually went on to paddle in the Combined Services Team during a stint in the army as a ‘boy soldier’, and also while in the reserves. And, yes, he’s taken part in the epic endurance of the Devizes to Westminster canoe race three times.
Canoeing, of course, wouldn’t give you a living back in the Seventies, but the motor trade would so it wasn’t a big step to joining the AA, initially as a patrolman before rising to eventually manage its Patrol Force.
The latter job also taught him about computers and their benefits in business. The AA taught him other things, too, as he rose through various departments including the truck and bus breakdown service and, a new departure for the AA, More Assistance which morphed into the more recognisable AA Home Assistance, which was later sold.
“It served me quite well,” he recalls as we sit in the offices at Worcester Marina and discuss past events. “I had to learn quickly about gas and electrics to understand the business and that’s turned out to be useful in this world.”
His real passion for the waterways showed through when he decided to leave the AA in 1998 after 20 years. By a stroke of luck, and now with a good track record of organisation, he was up for a job running operations for the motor racing school at Silverstone, something of a plum job for anyone interested in cars and motorbikes – Ed’s also a lifelong, as opposed to ‘born again’, biker.
Curiously, at the same time that the Silverstone job was in the air, Alvechurch Boat Centre needed someone with a bit of get-up-and-go to organise things. You might think it would have been no contest between running racing cars at Britain’s foremost motor racing circuit or a dusty hire fleet on a canal (depending on where your interests lie, obviously) for someone steeped in the motor industry, but after a great deal of hard thinking he made the unexpected move to Alvechurch.
“My mates couldn’t believe it,” he says, “they said to me ‘you’re going to run a canal boat company when you could have been running a racing school…’.”
In business you have to aim high...
‘Everything we do is alongside the canals because the company needs a focus, and that is the waterways’
It wasn’t, though, quite as simple a decision as it seems; go back to 1993 and Alvechurch Boat Centre had been about to go bust so four of the company’s boat sponsors (owners who leased their boats to the hire company) made an offer to the bank and took over, leaving the original management in place. But that didn’t work out. So, in 1997, Ed had conversations with them about joining and running the business, and so four shareholders eventually became five equal ones, including a professional business manager.
In 2003, two of the original four decided to sell their shares leaving Ed and the remaining two shareholders, and that was just the sort of kickstart the business needed. “We decided that if we were going to be in the business we needed to do it properly and expand it,” he says.
That expansion was, for the waterways, pretty rapid: in 2003 they acquired Wessex Narrowboats at Hilperton, on the K& A, then Viking Afloat at Worcester in 2004, Redline on the Mon & Brec in 2006 and then, in 2008, elements of boat share companies Challenger and Canaltime (now branded Canal Boat Club) plus Blackwater Meadow Marina on the Llangollen. Then, in 2010, ABC acquired Reading Marine at Aldermaston Wharf.
If all that sounds rather breathless for the usually tranquil waters of the inland waterways (other smaller concerns were acquired along the way, too), it’s perhaps worth pointing out that in 2008 everything changed as it did for many people, and the company’s strategy changed from being acquisition-based to making the business as efficient as possible.
That doesn’t mean it stood still, far from it; the company now has 14 hire bases stretching from Hilperton on the K& A in the south of England to Falkirk in Scotland and operates ten marinas, plus there is boat building, mostly for shared ownership boats, and other enterprises.
With such a diverse portfolio the name Alvechurch Boat Centre simply wasn’t fit for the job, so it five years ago it changed to ABC Leisure Group because, as Ed says, “we had to make the entity something different.
“There was Amazon doing books and eBay doing auctions and, in addition to hire fleets, we had a restaurant, a pub, camping pitches and holiday lets. Someone suggested the name ABC Leisure which summed it up quite well and also puts you at the top of any list.” But most importantly, he stresses, “everything we do is alongside the canals because the company needs a focus, and that is the waterways”.
Perhaps not so surprisingly, one of the more recent developments is ABC Web Chandler, an online chandlery to compete in the e-commerce world. You have to move with the times, which neatly leads on to his thoughts on the future of hire boating – will it continue to
attract good numbers over the coming years? The answer, as you might expect, is “yes” but with a rider; “to do that we’ll have to give people what they want and expect”, and that means things such as Wi-Fi on board and higher quality fit-outs on boats – an experience more like home, if you like.
So much for the business aspect, but what about outside work and this interest in two wheels? As we’ve already touched on, Ed has been riding motorcycles all his life and there’s currently a Harley Davidson Electra Glide Ultra tucked away in the garage in addition to a certain campervan, and as you’ll have gathered from the picture on the opening page of this feature, he’s recently ridden a Royal Enfield 500 (made in India) over the Himalayas, which is no mean feat for a 60-year-old design (the bike, that is…).
Not, perhaps, a lot of waterways connection there, but there is with cycling – he’s always ridden a bicycle, and since the inception of the Canal & River Trust, he’s been a strong supporter of its remit as a charity and undertaken a number of thigh-sapping rides to raise money; the first was London-Amsterdam -Brussels and there have been four or five since, which have raised between £7,000-£10,000 for the Trust.
His latest trip this summer, though, was more personal, Land’s End to John O’Groats, an end-to-end, near two-week epic of 1,041 miles that not all those who start complete. He did, and perhaps that demonstrates the determination which has driven ABC from a small hire boat concern to one of the leading players in the market in 17 years.
So where does that campervan fit in to running a company that stretches from the south of England through Wales and up to Scotland? Like many people who own a classic vehicle, it provides a break from day-to-day work pressures, allowing simple tinkering and problem solving with spanners, plus pride of ownership of something that nowadays can be considered a piece of mechanical art – and, you suspect, it’s also an enjoyable way to revisit times past.
Now a classic –
the Ford campervan
Out on the run with Harleys