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No jam tomorrow Traffic jams and the price of diesel prompted construction materials company Marshalls to rethink its manufacturing and delivery strategy.

Higher fuel prices and M25 congestion were the motivating factors behind Marshalls recent decision to spread its network of concrete block factories into the depths of south east England.

Its new factory at Sittingbourne, Kent cost £7M and will produce enough blocks to pave a route from its front gate all the way to New York (that is about 50M paviors). It will not add to total manufacturing capacity, but its location will reduce distances travelled by delivery trucks serving the south east.

'Transportation has been getting more and more difficult,' says head of group transport and distribution Paul Johnson. 'Congestion on the roads and fuel duty is making everyone think about alternative strategies,' he says.

Marshalls' solution has been to position itself as a local supplier of products, manufactured locally for local people. In reality the company employs 2,700 people nationwide and has a £250M turnover.

Its home base is in Halifax but over the years the company has expanded around the country and now operates from 24 sites.

Until May, when the Sittingbourne factory came on stream, all goods for the deep south were supplied from bases in St Ives in Cambridgeshire and Sandy in Bedfordshire, but these sites are still not considered close enough to many customers in the south.

'Our definition of local is a maximum of 50 miles from base - which took us to the top of the M25,' says Johnson. But then his lorries had to make the uncertain journey around the motorway and over the Thames to reach the depths of the south east market.

Traffic jams meant delivery times could not always be guaranteed to customers who are increasingly operating a just-in-time policy for laying blocks. 'Contractors are getting plant and men in for particular times and we have to make sure we turn up at the right time and with the right thing,' says Johnson.

This issue alone made opening another factory an option. Recent increases in fuel taxes made the project a must. The last 6% rise prompted the lorry drivers to stage go-slows around the country.

'Because our products are not high margin, anything we can save on fuel costs is a benefit,' says Johnson. Marshalls moves around 1,000 lorry loads of blocks a day, so travelling less distance is always a good thing - particularly when the company's new 44t trucks manage just over 2km per 69p litre of fuel.

Fuel prices have also helped Johnson and his team focus on making sure that when the lorries move they are as fully loaded as possible. 'We currently have a team of eight planning loads out so when we have vehicles moving north or south we can ask all our sites if they have anything they want to put on board. We reckon we are achieving 89% effectiveness in use of our vehicles at the moment.'

Next step in the Marshalls delivery strategy that will boost the integrated transport agenda is a strategic alliance with rail freight operator EWS to establish rail heads in the Midlands and North from which to deliver blocks.

Further off is a plan to switch the movement of aggregates from truck to barge. Sittingbourne was chosen as a factory site because it backed on to the Medway.

'It is ideally located to bring barges round by sea and up the river,' says Johnson. 'But at the moment road transport is still relatively cheap and we favour it for flexibility.'

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