BOATING BUSI­NESS

Ed Helps is MD and part-owner of ABC Leisure, and there’s a lot more to him than that

Canal Boat - - This Month - WORDS BY NICK WALL PIC­TURES BY ED HELPS/NICK WALL

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

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