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Hilary Devey – Doctor of Laws - Pall-Ex CEO and entrepreneur

Oration by Dr S J Gurman

Hilary Devey is the founder and Chief Executive of Pall-Ex (UK) Ltd, a transport company specializing in the distribution of palletized freight. The company is based at Ellistown in the west of the county. Since its formation in 1996 the company has expanded steadily and is now a major employer in North West Leicestershire. In consequence, Hilary Devey was named Midlands Businesswoman of the Year for 2004. She has received many other awards, including the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

Hilary Devey was born in Bolton, where she attended Bolton Grammar School. At the age of 17, she joined the Royal Air Force and trained to be an air traffic controller. Her father’s terminal illness meant that she had to leave after three years. She found a job in sales and logistics and learnt her craft with Tebbutt and Britten, a company well-known around Leicester since they transport much clothing. Hilary Devey had twenty years’ experience of the transport business before deciding to set up on her own.

Prior to her formation of Pall-Ex, it was impossible to transport small consignments of palletized freight quickly and cost-effectively in the UK. Palletized freight is a comparatively recent innovation, in which goods are stacked on a wooden pallet, some four feet square, and sealed in plastic. The pallets may be easily handled by fork-lift truck, the goods are protected and secure during their journey and the pallet is easily unpacked on receipt. Palletized freight is akin to the familiar containers used for sea-borne cargo, scaled down for road distribution. Hilary Devey conceived the idea of a central hub where hauliers could off-load and collect deliveries for onward transport. This hub-and-spoke model minimizes transport costs. It sounds a very simple idea, but so do most great ideas – once someone else has thought of them.

There is, however, a great difference between thinking of an idea and implementing it. Hilary Devey could obtain no help from the banks. She sold her house and car to raise finance, living in rented flats whilst she travelled around England in a second-hand Ford, convincing transport companies of the merits of her business plan and seeking a convenient site for her operations. By November 1996, she had thirty companies signed up and began to operate from a disused RAF hanger. The first day of business saw seventeen pallets moved, representing a total revenue of a trifle under fifty pounds. However, the business plan was sound and, under the careful and experienced management of Hilary Devey, the company grew steadily. Its main hub is now located in a two hundred thousand square foot building at Ellistown, Leicestershire, which daily receives 300 lorries in a twenty four hour period and handles up to 9,000 pallets in a day. This hub is unique in that it is not a drive-through, another example of the innovative vision of Hilary Devey. Its design prohibits vehicles from entering the interior, so maintaining an emission-free environment for sensitive goods such as foodstuffs and electronics. Its quiet, clean interior is in pleasant contrast to most trans-shipment operations. The company has recently extended its operations into Europe and its turnover now exceeds £100 million pounds per annum. The innovative and successful nature of Pall-Ex has resulted in many awards over the years, so many that Hilary Devey and Pall-Ex may well have more awards on show than even Sir Alex Ferguson.

Running a major logistics company is clearly not sufficient for a woman of Hilary Devey’s energy and drive, for she has recently become, in addition, a documentary presenter for Channel Five. She first appeared in a television documentary in 2008, when her programme in the “Secret Millionaire” series on Channel Four received wide acclaim. The success of this programme led to her presenting a four-part series broadcast on Channel Five earlier this year, “The Business Inspector”. This series was, I believe, the first to be sponsored by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, so Hilary Devey and the programmes’ makers are in the fortunate position of having extracted money, to the extent of nearly £400,000, from the Inland Revenue! The premise of the series was that many people who set up in business doing what they love fail because of a lack of business expertise. Hilary Devey’s enthusiasm, expertise and experience, coupled with her down-to-earth grit and common sense, made her the ideal presenter for the series. She endeavoured to save failing businesses by showing their owner practical skills to improve their commercial knowhow, marketing, cash flow, record keeping and even their enthusiasm. The Inland Revenue supported the series because it reckons that poor record-keeping costs it in the region of £6 billion per annum: a small decrease in this figure will represent a good return on their investment.

The wealth of the County of Leicestershire has long depended on independent businesses. Today we honour one of the best of our present entrepreneurs.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and of the Council, I present Hilary Devey, that you may confer on her the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws.

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