Waterways World Mag - Dec 08

Big, Bigger… Biggest?

The expansion of ABC Leisure Group – better know as Alvechurch – continues apace.
Managing Director Ed Helps talks to Keith Goss


ABC Leisure Group are now the largest hire boat operator in the UK . How many boats do you operate?

We now have 290 boats available for hire on the waterways of Britain . That's from our four hire companies: Alvechurch Waterway Holidays, Viking Afloat, Red Line Boats and Wessex Narrowboats, as well as our Canaltime craft – based at Blackwater Marina on the Llangollen Canal , Alvecote on the Coventry Canal and Market Harborough – the management of which we took over on the 8 th September.

So in total, how many bases do you have?

Fourteen, including the Canaltime locations referred to above.

I guess that covers pretty much the whole canal system, does it? Or do you look at areas of the network and think: “I wish we had a base there?”

We have a presence in Scotland (Falkirk) and Wales (Goytre on the Mon & Brec) – or we will do once the latter is reopened again. And we're well represented in England , from Anderton in the north to Hilperton on the Kennet & Avon in the south. Ideally though, we would like to have a base on the Leeds & Liverpool, perhaps somewhere on the eastern waterways, such as the Fens – and maybe in the London area too. But that's all for the future.

Which are the most popular canals for hiring?

From our experience, it's still the Llangollen, followed by the K&A and the Mon & Brec.

How did ABC Leisure come to be such a huge player in the hire boat industry? Was it planned – or did it just evolve?

We always knew we would grow the business and set out to achieve national coverage. We started out with just three bases and aimed to acquire one further base a year – an ambition which we have been able to achieve.

Can you tell me anything about ABC Leisure – does it have other interests in the holiday market?

Not really. We do own a pub at Alvechurch, a small caravan site at Whitchurch and The Moorings restaurant at Anderton, but otherwise our interests are solely within boating. ABC is a privately owned company with three shareholders, one of which is me. Some people have questioned the name ABC – but it quite simply standards for Alvechurch Boat Centres, which was our first hire company.

Is the company headquarters still based at Alvechurch?

It is now split between Alvechurch and Worcester. Accounts and administration are largely handled at Alvechurch, whilst the booking office, marketing and other staff – including myself- work from Worcester .

Do you believe that a large company such as yours is better able to withstand the fluctuations of the hire trade than a smaller, family firm?

In many respects, yes we are. But we are conscious of the need to diversify our field of activity – and not just concentrate solely on hiring. We build boats – both for our fleets and for private customers around 24 a year; we offer brokerage and sell, on average, one or two boats a week; we sell chandlery, at our marinas and online; we carry out boat maintenance and repair work; we offer helmsman training; and provide moorings at our various marinas. In addition, we manage boats too. Not just for Canaltime, but also for shared ownership syndicates, corporations and Government agencies. We look after narrowboats for, among others, the Bank of England, the RAF and the Royal Navy. The latter's boat isn't painted grey though – we thought it might be!

Are you still able to offer the same standard of customer service and care as the smaller companies?

We think we are. Each base operates independently from one another and our employees all pride themselves on the level of customer care that they provide.

But do you still see a place in the market for the family operator?

Yes, we can all live alongside each other in the industry. A lot of locations do not lend themselves to anything but owner management.

The hire industry has contracted over the last decade. Has it bottomed out now, or will we see even fewer hire craft on the canals in the future?

I suspect that other operators will come out of the hiring industry in the years to come. It has to be accepted that this is a capital intensive/ low margin activity and that can and does result in casualties.

How do you think the industry will survive the present financial crisis – we are allowed to say recession now – with incomes being squeezed and rising unemployment?

Whatever happens, people will still value their leisure time and will do their utmost to take a holiday each year. I am confident that sufficient numbers will still be able to afford a holiday in this country.

Your brochure says that you “offer greener holidays”. How does this work?

We launched our “Greener Holidays Campaign” in 2008. For a start we use only bio-degradable cleaning materials on all our boats, as well as other products designed to reduce waste. The one thing we couldn't do was to get our boats to move without diesel, so we have entered into an arrangement with the Waterways Trust whereby we donate a percentage of our profits to ‘The Waterways Trust Green Fund', to offset the impact of each boating holiday. Some of the projects initiated as a result of our donations include: the installation of a geothermal heat pump at an activity centre beside the Union Canal in Scotland ; provision of a cycleway and cycle hire along the Montgomery Canal ; construction of a length of towpath from the Worcester & Birmingham Canal to the Droitwich Canal to encourage walking and cycling. We are delighted to have been awarded a ‘Green Apple Award for Environmental Best Practice' for our efforts.

Continuing the green theme, could growing concern about overseas holidays,, carbon footprints etc, together with the increasing cost of flying, bring a great opportunity for the hire industry to expand again?

That remains to be seen, of course, but yes that may well be the result of greater awareness of green issues, not to mention economic factors. I do believe that more and more holidays will be taken in the UK over the next few years and we are well placed to take advantage of that trend.

How do you feel about the state of the waterways in general – the standard of maintenance etc?

Well they're not perfect, anyone can see that. And we are, of course, directly affected by the closure of the Mon & Brec Canal whilst the breach down there is repaired. But I believe – and this may not necessarily be a popular viewpoint in some circles – that British Waterways do a jolly good job, given the level of funding that they receive.

Speaking of adequate funding, is this an issue that concerns you, particularly in view of the DEFRA cuts to the budgets of British Waterways and the Environment Agency?

Absolutely. Anyone whose business is entirely dependent on the maintenance of the canal system has to be concerned. And to be brutally frank, things aren't going to get any better in the future. The government are quite naturally more concerned at the moment with propping up Lloyds TSB than propping up a collapsed culvert on the Mon & Brec Canal .

If you possessed a crystal ball, how do you think things will look in, say, 50 years' time? Will we have an immaculately maintained canal system, with the Cotswold, Montgomery and Wilts & Berks canals all fully restored – and ABC Leisure with hire bases on all of them?

My guess is that the canals will look much as they do now – I certainly hope that is the case. And yes, I believe that restoration will continue and that the waterways you mentioned will be restored. But I think such work will be increasingly carried out by voluntary groups and trusts without support from statutory bodies like British Waterways or local authorities. The volunteers may seem to make slow progress, but they always get there in the end. And I would certainly hope that we shall have bases on those canals you mentioned.

Finally, how did Edward Helps get to be managing director of the nation's largest boat hire company? Have you always been a boating enthusiast?

No. When I lived in London , which is where I come from, I had little knowledge of or interest in waterways. For many years I worked in the motor trade and eventually moved to take up a new position in Birmingham . Soon after I was asked to join Alvechurch Boat Centres and it all took off from there. By coincidence, my Midlands home overlooked the Droitwich Junction Canal , which at that time was little more than a stagnant ditch. Little did I think then that I would end up as a trustee of the Droitwich Canals Trust. And I'm very much looking forward to the completion of the Droitwich Canals project in 2010.

So how do you spend your holidays – boating round the Avon Ring… or chilling out in the Seychelles ?

Neither really. Last year, for example, I motorcycled through India to raise money for the Rainbow Trust and the World Wildlife Fund. It was a fantastic trip, starting in Mumbei and ending up in the far south of the country in Kerala, where I enjoyed exploring the fascinating network of canals there.

So could that be the location of the next ABC base then?

That's a nice idea, but perhaps we'll go for the Leeds & Liverpool first.