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Growing at a rate of knots

Wednesday 14 November 2012 5:00

In a sector populated by age-old firms with long histories, one young shipping company has fast emerged as a major challenger to the established fleet.

When Tim Finley first set up his freight forwarding business five years ago, it didn’t take long for him to realise the huge international potential he was tapping into.

Within 18 months he was already racing past the £1m-a-year turnover mark and, amid a global clamour for his services, he is now close to posting £6.5m in yearly sales.

TF Shipping, based in Boldon, was launched after Finley spent almost two decades working in freight forwarding and related roles.

His initial aim was to develop a sustainable business within two years but, after seeing strong demand in the sector for firms offering a more personal service than larger operators, the business quickly grew.

Finley later decided to diversify the business, enabling it to continue its rapid development, and the move certainly paid off with the firm’s exports forwarding service quickly growing to become a major part of its earnings.

While the firm has retained many of its imports forwarding customers, exports now make up 75% of the group’s business.

“The majority of what we do goes to Africa, which is an economy that’s developing at a rapid rate and has had a lot of investment recently,” says Finley.

“We send a lot of trucks and cars over there and it’s probably a market that makes up about 50% of our business. On any given month we could do maybe 100+ tractor units into various ports in Africa and we deal with anything from an individual sending their car there to orders from truck manufacturers.

“It’s a broad range but our success stems from the fact that we offer the same rate, package and service to everybody, instead of offering tiers of rates to different people.”

Unusually – and perhaps enviably for many cash-strapped business leaders – the company has had to invest minimal resources in its sales function to maintain year-on-year growth.

“Over the last few years we’ve found that around 75% of new business has come from personal recommendations from our customers,” he says. We don’t employ salespeople; there’s just myself and the staff in the office who look after customers and that helps us get a lot of recommendations, so people are coming to us instead of us cold-calling them.

“There are other firms that have been around for hundreds of years offering similar services to us but it’s the way we do it and handle our customers that makes a difference. A lot of bigger agents treat clients as a number but we deal with customers more as an individual. We might send one car to Africa or have a customer who sends 1,000 containers of scrap metal to China every year. We treat them all the same and if there’s a problem, we’ll stand by and sort it out.”

In terms of emerging markets for the company, Finley says: “We do a lot of work with waste products, such as exporting scrap metal and plastics to China, India and Pakistan. It’s a fast growing market which we seemed to get into at the right time and it’s snowballed ever since.

“We import a lot of garments from China and Bangladesh and we’re also getting more involved with manufacturing as well as foodstuffs and animal feed.” The business is also currently thriving in the retail market, working with clients who supply to major high street brands and supermarkets.

“Clothing sold in supermarkets is an area that is particularly growing which hasn’t been affected by the recession in the same way as high street stores have.”

Invariably, as with any business, there are challenges which threaten TF Shipping’s growth. Among them are the increasing environmental pressures which continue to squeeze many of the company’s clients.

The group handles the movement of a lot of goods through London, bringing the Low Emissions Zone costs into play, although Finley is a vehement supporter of such environmentally friendly measures. But much of the company’s ability to overcome such challenges and remain globally competitive can be attributed to the region’s ever-improving port facilities.

“Using the Port of Tyne and Teesport facilities has had a massive impact on what we can offer our customers and minimised the impact of the environment costs down to a level where, in the North East, we can be as competitive as the guys based down close to Southampton and Felixstowe because the rates are just as good.

“Most shipping lines will now bring cargo into the North East on feeder vessels whereas, when we first started, we had to try to persuade them to come here,” he adds.