“My first job—a Saturday job—taught me a lot. It gave me the confidence to not only understand business, but to understand people too.”
That grounding has served Asif Latief, managing director of Boels Rental, very well during his climb up the corporate ladder. Now in charge of the UK operations at one of Europe’s largest plant and machinery hire companies, he’s had something of a baptism of fire over the last 12 months, with barely enough time to get his feet under the desk before the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world on its head.
“People are the most important ingredient in business. Focus on doing the right things then the results will come. Communication is the key,” explains Asif.
Such a mantra explains the path Asif has taken to reach his current position. One of seven children growing up sharing a three-bedroom house in Manchester, UK, Asif’s pursuit of pocket money first unleashed his entrepreneurial spirit. At a time when VHS and early gaming consoles were the pinnacle of home entertainment, he started a video tape and computer game exchange.
‘Business’ expanded when a local computer shop asked him to become their supplier. Then they took him on as an employee. Branching out into ‘shareware’ sold at car boot sales, Asif funded himself through college, setting the die for his future career with a BTEC in business and finance.
That combination of young entrepreneur plus college success gave his CV sufficient stand-out to persuade a marketing agency that Asif was the right candidate for an office junior position.
“That’s the only time I’ve ever applied for a job,” laughs Asif. “Within four years, I went from office junior to running the division. When the company was bought, I transferred client-side: started there on the Monday and was promoted by Friday.
“Then out of the blue I was approached to join A-Plant (now Sunbelt Rentals UK) and, through hard work and achieving some quick wins, I was promoted to the position of marketing director after six months.”
In this position he cut his hire teeth; at least, until after more than 17 years of service at A-Plant he couldn’t resist an invitation from Boels Rental company founder Pierre Boels himself.
“Well, equipment is equipment,” he points out. “Joining Boels presented several opportunities, not only in evolving the business itself – we’re not number one in the UK but we can be number one in the areas where we have depots – but in continuing to apply that people mantra.
“People make the difference. I won’t grow tired of saying so.”
Asif argues that today’s hire industry has become overcomplicated. “There’s all this talk about innovation and systems and development. Those are all great things, but only if you can get the right product in the right place at the right time.
“Can we get the right piece of kit to someone, at the right time, to solve our customers’ needs? Be that needing to drill a hole, dig a trench, or move something, they want to know that they can get the right tool for the job, and all this has to be packed in a way which gives the customer value for money.”
Understanding that concept, says Asif, is at the heart of finding solutions to his customers’ problems. “If we focus on doing the right things, the results will come.”
Those ‘right things’ encompass breakdowns and repairs, addressing customer dissatisfaction and providing resolution, and cross-selling. Good communication has a role to play, he says, but so too does the culture.
“I call it the three Ps,” he says. “Take Pride in your work, be Passionate about what you do, and focus on Personal Growth. Get those right and we build a motivated workforce, enjoying an environment that doesn’t feel like work.”
Of course, people alone do not make a great hire company. “Yes, I stand by my statement that equipment is equipment, but the quality and composition of the fleet really does matter.
“UK regulations pertaining to hire equipment are very strict. Every piece of kit coming off-hire needs to be checked and made safe. But with our staff taking so much pride in their work, and a rigorous checking procedure, we’re always confident that no-one’s cutting corners. Everything’s done correctly.”
Asif says the backing of the wider Boels group – 750 outlets across 17 countries – is invaluable, allowing the UK operation to maintain its investment in a fleet that’s largely less than three years old. Reliability is rarely an issue.
Brand also feeds into the reliability equations. “Some customers say they are less bothered about the brand, while for others it’s their first question,” notes Asif. “In the main, most brands are reliable enough, but then one must also consider familiarity. If something goes wrong, or even during everyday maintenance, the customer wants minimum downtime.”
Asif explains: “We look for companies that reflect our own values. Companies like Perkins, who not only enjoy a good reputation for its engines but are clearly focused on environmental impact, efficiency, ongoing research and development and who enjoy a solid supply chain.
“It’s clear the Perkins team has a great understanding of the customer, something that resonates with us. They’re thinking about what matters from an end-user perspective. Accessibility and ability, for example – how easy is it to change a filter or the DPF?
“And that, of course, helps us with our own customer service.”
Achieving energetic and responsive customer service isn’t the only manifestation of Asif’s people focus. As the pandemic started to take hold in 2020, he was increasingly concerned about mounting job losses.
“That’s what spurred me into developing the #HireTogether initiative. On my LinkedIn timeline I was seeing more and more people in the rental industry searching for jobs because they’d been made redundant—some of whom I knew personally—so I knew that these were good people. I thought we, as an industry, needed to try to do something to help these people who were out of work through no fault of their own.”
Launched through LinkedIn in July, the initiative has two strands: a job search facility, for those who’d been made redundant - #HireTogetherJobSearch; and a job vacancy ‘noticeboard’, to enable companies to highlight open roles - #HireTogetherJobVacancy.
“I did have my concerns that competitors might not join us, but over 18 years in the industry I’ve made some great contacts at senior level. Knowing them as I do, I thought they would see the common purpose in working together for the common good.”
Sure enough, the likes of Gap, HSS and Speedy joined Boels – and before long, people started using it. “We saw people getting roles as a result of their posts and now a lot of companies are using it, ourselves included.
“It’s been great to see the support and it’s reassuring to know that the human spirit exists within the industry. This is a time when leaders need to roll up their sleeves and make their teams feel supported.
“That kind of support is particularly important for the younger generation, some of whom may have been just starting their careers as the pandemic broke.
“I would say don’t be afraid to change your plan, don’t be afraid to be curious.
“Just don’t be curious and then not do it. Everybody has a fit; you just need to find it.”
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