ocean_gatewayThe Independent once described it as “The Biggest Company You’ve Never Heard Of..” but once you’re aware of Peel you’ll spot their ship logo everywhere throughout MediaCity and the Trafford Centre.

They own ports and airports; Cammell Laird; windfarms, warehouses, hotels, housing developments, leisure centres and soon, a golf course. All from the vision of John Whittaker, whose family once owned cotton mills named after Sir Robert Peel.

High Peak Business Club heard from Peel at our first meeting back in 2014. This September our visitors Anthony Hatton, Director of Strategic Projects and Rachel Hinton, Head of Sales at Mersey Ports updated the story, leaving members feeling dazzled at the sheer scale or their activities, and full of admiration.

Mr Whittaker now lives in the Isle of Man, still owns most of his business and features in the UK Rich List as you’d expect. But it’s hard to begrudge him, for where others in the 1980s saw only wasteland and despair in old docks, canals, gas works and redundant factories, he saw opportunity.

He also saw, as did George Osborne decades later, that these vast derelict acreages could offer cost-effective facilities far more cheaply than costly new development down south. Anthony pointed out that already Salford has more jobs (6,000) than it did in its teeming Edwardian heyday (5,000).

Peel don’t just plan; they put big money where it matters. In 2008 they envisaged the “Ocean Gateway” connecting Liverpool and Manchester. Since then, £400 million has been invested in Liverpool’s new deepwater dock with 5 huge cranes; it opened for business a year ago, when Rachel Hinton was appointed to drum up business. The next stage, “Liverpool2” with 9 more cranes is coming in 2019. Docking container ships used to involve navigating dock entrances with a hair’s breadth of clearance. Now a 300 metres long ship (that’s three football pitches) with a whopping 6,400 containers has been berthed, and they will only get bigger.

Rachel’s job includes getting those containers onto barges, see above – taking up to 30 each up the Ship Canal, a huge saving on lorries – and increasingly onto rail, taking goods all over the country. Your Tesco wine arrives at a bottling plant in Salford in one such container. Europe is onto this, with a 10% increase already in smaller shipping coming from Rotterdam, Algeciras and other nearby ports. With the revived port of Liverpool, with improved connections throughout the north,  Peel believe we’ll become the food and drink manufacturing centre for the whole country – and, indeed for export.

“You call them warehouses, we call them sheds,” said Rachel, “but these days logistics are all about IT,” such that Peel are always looking for more IT expertise. The two university students attending Business Club pricked up their ears; perhaps the next Anthony or Rachel was already in the room.
Anthony, an engineer who started working for Peel on windfarms, was candid about difficulties. John Lennon Airport, he said, is “an interesting challenge – lots of work to do.” The word “unprofitable” did not pass his lips. He even managed to make a new cardboard factory in Ellesmere Port sound exciting: “It’s state of the art.” Recyclable packaging? Tick.

It can take ten years to develop a windfarm like Frodsham, but non carbon sources are now providing the UK with half its energy supply. At this point club member Dr Nigel Eastmond challenged our speaker. “If you are so keen on renewables, how can you encourage further use of ships burning fuel oil?”
The answer, of course, is complicated. “It comes down to cost,” said Anthony, “bigger ships save a lot of fuel compared with dozens of smaller ones.” Oil is likely to be an important fuel for some time yet. I’d add, if we shift from importing manufactures to adding the value ourselves, that is only a return to what Britain did for centuries. We won’t be returning to sailing ships, that’s for sure.

But perhaps, I reflected, it’ll be nuclear powered vessels, as produced by Derby’s Rolls-Royce & Associates, which are the future. I should try to get them to speak at a future meeting.

We asked about the Northern Powerhouse; the government has just announced it’s going for Crossrail 2 in London, rather than for HS3 through the Pennines. Might Peel build a railway to Sheffield or Leeds instead? Anthony then made us all gasp, for he put the words “Hyperloop” “Elon Musk” and “Peel” in the same sentence. Wow!! That’s a system already being tested in Japan by the Tesla founder, in which a pod is propelled at high speed by a vacuum through a tunnel. You could put a shipping container in each pod.. or several cars, like the Channel Tunnel… I love new technologies. Please may I book a ticket for that right now?

We could have listened to them for hours, and barely scratched the surface of this extraordinary business. A great start to our autumn season of talks.