UKWA CEO, Peter Ward

Sports Direct coverage must not be bad news for logistics industry, says UKWA CEO Peter Ward

'There's no such thing as bad publicity' is a phrase that’s thought to have been coined by the 19th century American showman, circus owner and self-publicist of the first order, Phineas Barnum.

The idea that a lack of publicity can do harm is clearly open to question and, in today’s social media-obsessed society where bad news spreads fast, shareholders in firms that have suffered falls in their market price due to unfavorable press coverage will almost certainly feel differently to Barnum.

One person who I think it is safe to assume does not subscribe to Barnum’s theory is Mike Ashley, majority shareholder in the retailer, Sports Direct.

Mr Ashley’s company has featured prominently across the media throughout the summer months after the working conditions of many of its warehouse staff were described as being closer to "that of a Victorian workhouse than a modern High Street retailer".

Further damaging reports revealed that personnel at the same warehouse were subjected to lengthy security searches, which, in some cases, resulted in their pay falling below the legal minimum wage.

If that wasn’t enough, a BBC investigation shone a spotlight on health and safety procedures at the site and found that ambulances had been called there 76 times in two years.

As Mike Ashley and other shareholders in his business are finding out, the negative publicity that accompanies criticism of a firm's labour practices can hammer its bottom line, as well as its reputation.

The company’s profits for the 2017 financial year are likely to be down by 21 per cent on 2016's figure and its shares have dropped 11 per cent.

It would be easy to conclude that the media storm surrounding Mr Ashley and the treatment of the workforce at his company’s distribution centre, will have negative ramifications for the whole logistics industry by making firms in our sector appear unattractive employers.

And, while no doubt there will be some people who now perceive logistics to be a poorly paid, low-skilled industry where people spend their days being mistreated in cold, dirty warehouses, we know the reality is quite the opposite.

The pay, working conditions and long term career prospects of staff across all levels of the industry compare very favorably with other markets and, as anyone who attended UKWA’s recent conference in Chesterfield or September’s excellent IMHX show at the NEC will know, the truth is that the logistics industry is a dynamic place to be at the moment.

Logistics is the ‘new retail’ and the rapid growth of e-commerce (and Amazon in particular) and the transition of traditional warehouses to fulfilment centres, I call them order factories, are just two of the factors impacting on the way the sector operates.

Training matters

As management at Mr Ashley’s warehouse should know, one of the keys to an efficient and loyal workforce is training and this is why, in collaboration with Logistics Learning Alliance, UKWA has developed a new Warehouse Manager Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC)

I am delighted to be able to report that the first pilot scheme has now been launched, with eight professionals signing up for a course that is focused, relevant and designed to meet the needs of the industry.

The study programme involves both guided learning hours and distance learning and, once successfully completed, leads to a qualification which is equivalent to Level 4/5 of the Qualifications and Credit Framework.

Our aim and expectation is for the UKWA Warehouse Manager CPC to become the recognised industry standard of achievement for Warehouse Managers.

Perhaps Mike Ashley will enroll some of his staff on it?

It is essential that logistics grabs the attention of our brightest school and university leavers and UKWA is working hard to encourage more young people to enter the industry as a conscious career move.

There are positive signs that our efforts are paying off and the Sports Direct debacle will not de-rail this progress.