Celebrating 60 years
WHEN staff at Ferguson Transport & Shipping encounter a new challenge, they write it down on boards in the company’s offices so that everyone can see it. ‘If we can’t supply what the customer is looking for, we share it because there might be someone else in the company that can come up with a solution,’ said group managing director Alasdair Ferguson.
This way, they all bounce ideas around and collectively create workable logistics for the aquaculture industry, which represents 50 per cent of the business, or the other sectors, such as forestry, agriculture, aluminium and whisky, that they serve.
It is this kind of practical approach that has seen the family firm grow to become one of the Highlands’ biggest independent hauliers and contractors, and reach its milestone 60th anniversary this summer.
Today, Ferguson employs around 200 people- ranging from HGV drivers and mechanics to marine staff, shore based engineers and office management staff- and had a group turnover last year of around £18 million.
There are three generations of Fergusons in the business now, with Alasdair and his siblings, Carol (group company secretary and financial director), Jack (operations director) and Leslie (group director), at the helm.
It has been ‘an incredible journey’, said Ferguson, from the modest venture his parents set up in Ardrishaig, Argyll, in 1959.
These days, the company, headquartered in Corpach, has a fleet of more than 170 trailers, 70 trucks, six vessels and its own port and warehousing facilities at Kishorn in Wester Ross.
It is far removed from the firm’s origins, which in fact can be traced back almost 100 years, to 1920, when Ferguson’s great uncle, Andrew Grinlaw, became one of the first haulage contractors in Argyll, operating horsedrawn carts and coaches.
Ferguson’s late father, Archie, worked with his uncle after completing National Service, with the focus then on agricultural supplies, forestry and coal.
Archie, with his wife Anne, eventually took over the lorries and, after much of the forestry in Argyll was flattened in a storm in the late
1960s, they moved the business North to Spean Bridge, Lochaber.
‘Once the timber was tidied up there wasn’t a lot of work in Argyll and most of my father’s work was up north,’ said Ferguson, talking to Fish Farmer last month from his boardroom in Corpach.
The move took place in 1974 when Ferguson was 11, but just four years later he would be joining the family firm too.
In Lochaber, the business was mostly loading and unloading ships at the Corpach Basin for Wiggins Teape Pulp and Paper Mill, as well as transporting Roundwood to Riddoch of Rothemay Sawmill at Corpach, the sawmill site that Ferguson Transport & Shipping now owns.
But then, about 50 years ago, a new industry began to emerge on Ferguson’s doorstep, with the first salmon farms established by Marine Harvest at Lochailort.
‘Because we had timber lorries with grabs on them suitable for handling the cage sections and rafts, my father was approached to help out with some of the cage building and movements,’ said Ferguson.
They transported and helped put together the first wooden and polystyrene fish cages for Lochailort, made by a local joiner.
As the industry graduated to steel, Ferguson shifted the steel cage sections from Blackhall Engineering in Edinburgh to the galvanisers in Elgin. Once galvanised, the haulier then delivered them to the fish farm sites. Some years later, the industry moved on to circular plastic pens.
‘We’ve seen the whole industry adapt over the years,’ said Ferguson, admitting he was ‘chuffed to bits’ at how his business has evolved alongside the aquaculture sector. From moving cages around the lochs on the west coast, Ferguson Transport & Shipping established strong links with the growing salmon farming industry. They soon progressed to lifting and moving smolt tanks and then transported feed by road, as well as fish harvests and bins.
To begin with, the feed was in small volumes, coming up by road from a supplier in Norwich and Bury St Edmonds, before the big feed companies such as Ewos, BioMar and Skretting started manufacturing in Scotland.
By 1997, Ferguson was commercial director of the business and had been invited by Marine Harvest to oversee the logistics of its entire feed distribution.
His father was interested in the venture and was due to attend the meeting with Marine Harvest executives, when he was killed in a forestry accident.
‘He had recognised the potential in the growing industry, and it’s good that he was a part of it,’ said Ferguson.
On the evening of his father’s accident, Alasdair phoned the drivers and explained what had happened; he asked them to come back to the yard in the morning and park up.
But later that night, walking around the yard with his sister Carol, they realised that life would have to go on. They had wages to pay, contracts to fulfil and customers to reassure.
Ferguson called all the drivers back at midnight and said: ‘You all know what you are going to be doing in the morning, so please go ahead as planned and we will take each day at a time.’
Recalling those days now, he said: ‘Everybody rolled their sleeves up and pulled in one direction, which is what our father would have wanted, and it was this galvanising of the team and the family that is one of the core strengths of our business today.
‘We’d grown up with the business and didn’t know what we were capable of because my father was always there to deal with any issues.’
It was still a small company, with a staff of 35, but the Marine Harvest
“My father recognised the potential in the growing industry and it’s good he was a part it” of
contract was soon secured. Ferguson said they had ‘great fun’ going out to the islands and along the coast ‘to places you wouldn’t believe lorries could go to’.
However, within a couple of years driving along single track roads delivering feed, with the trailers getting bigger to supply the growing salmon farming industry, Ferguson realised that the traditional road based transport operation was not sustainable in the long term.
His plan was to develop Corpach as a central location for transporting feed by sea; however, for a number of reasons, this didn’t work out and he had to think again.
‘A light bulb flickered on,’ he said. ‘One Sunday morning I woke up at 6am and asked my wife if she wanted a day out in Kishorn.’
He had remembered the massive dry dock, a former oil and gas fabrication yard which, in its heyday, had seen 3,000 to 5,000 people working on the site.
The yard had closed in the mid-80s and by 1999 nothing much had happened there for nearly 20 years, apart from some work on the Skye Bridge in 1995.
Ferguson- unaccompanied by his wife, Jill, also now a general manager in the company- headed north to explore Kishorn’s potential.
‘I jumped the fence and walked the whole site, about 2.5km long, with four big deep water berths and the dry dock. It was quite dilapidated but breathtaking at the same time.’
After contacting the Crown Estate and the Applecross Trust (who were keen to regenerate the area), he deployed his machinery to tidy up the yard even before he had a stake in it.
Ferguson said he had to prove his concept for feed distribution by sea and, if it worked, he would take out a lease on the port and dock area.
He chartered a small, 300-tonne vessel, the Von, to show the producers and feed manufacturers that they could deliver feed directly to the hoppers on the barges by sea.
As the Von made her trial voyage, Ferguson, following by road, filmed the trip, from Cuddy Point to Mull, to demonstrate how distribution by sea could work. The customers were duly impressed and soon Ferguson Transport & Shipping was operating as a fully integrated land and water based transport business.
As the feed tonnages built up, the company’s fleet gradually increased to six vessels, with more than 90 per cent of its fish feed deliveries by sea.
However, change is inevitable with industry growth, said Ferguson, and the recent development by Mowi (formerly Marine Harvest) of its feed plant at Kyleakin on Skye has had an impact on his firm’s role.
The feed facility, which recently began its first supplies to Mowi sites, will be serviced mainly by two Mowi vessels from Norway, including one silo to silo boat that eliminates the need for packaging.
Ferguson will continue to support Mowi with some of the feed logistics by sea, also including transporting feed to the farms, road logistics from the factory and delivering early start up feeds to the hatcheries and inshore farms.
The company will also be playing its part with
storage, warehousing and distribution facilities at Kishorn and Corpach.
‘Whilst the dynamics are changing, and some elements of this work we may not be doing the bulk of in the future, through good working relationships, continued logistics and affordable solutions, we can still be part of something bigger,’ said Ferguson.
Because of the Kyleakin factory’s capacity, there will be other opportunities, he believes. While they have been distributing 60,000 to 80,000 tonnes of feed a year to date for Mowi, the new Skye mill can produce up to 170,000 tonnes.
‘Going forward, although we may not be doing 100 per cent of the work from the factory, even moving a small percentage by sea and road is still a reasonable tonnage and worthwhile doing and being a part of.’
Mowi’s vessels will also use Kishorn for berthing and collecting cargo for distribution. And, of course, Ferguson works with most of Scotland’s other salmon farmers and feed companies.
‘Each of our customers are very important to us. We want to continue to distribute feed as the opportunities arise,’ said Ferguson.
‘We have a very good marine team and marine crew. We knew the factory was coming and have looked to see where we can diversify.
‘It’s a transition phase now, and we’re supporting Mowi with that. We will look to fill any gaps and see what other opportunities arise within this industry.
‘We’re looking at additional vessels we want to put in the market now, including multi cats and workboats for the aquaculture industry, and also to support the activities we are developing at Kishorn Port.’
The company has had vessels fitted in the past with thermolicers and hydrolicers and, with the industry’s ambition to grow 40 or 50 per cent, Ferguson sees scope for further investment in its shipping.
The business also operates in the Northern Isles and it distributes cleaner fish, working with other specialist logistic companies.
‘We’re keen to support the whole industry, we’re a contractor and a supplier in the logistics chain and are keen to continue to grow within that,’ said Ferguson.
‘There have been all these changes in the sector and we’ve been very much a part of these changes, which we are very proud of.’
“We knew the Kyleakin factory was coming and have looked to see where we can diversify”
Left: On the quayside: Carol Mackinnon and Jack Ferguson Opposite: Family firm (from left to right): Alasdair Ferguson, Leslie Innes, Jill Ferguson, Carly Ferguson, Jodie Ferguson, Carhie Mackinnon, Kevin Ferguson and Christopher Innes
Clockwise from top left: Alasdair Ferguson’s brother-in-law Colin Mackinnon, transport and general manager, and transport manager Michael Oliver; the newly developed logistic hub – 160,000 square foot of warehousing and hardstanding, representing a further investment of £750,000; the Von deployed on bin harvests; the Harvest Caroline II at Corpach; anniversary celebrations