The Three Generations
A series of articles exploring the history of our third-generation family business, Tru7 Group.
Here we delve right back into the family archives to find out more about Percy Nicholls who set up as a sole trader in 1964 with no idea that in doing so, he was forming the foundations of the £70million turnover enterprise his son and grandson run today.
Tru7 Group - Past, Present and Future
Percy Nicholls was one of 13 siblings and grew up in the heart of the Suffolk countryside.
The youngsters rarely went to school and their father Robert, who was always exploring ways to make money, took full advantage of the availability of his large brood as he tried to get new enterprises off the ground.
This meant that Percy – like his brothers and sisters – was usually drafted in to help and when the family started buying up farms around Suffolk, he was among the children sent off to manage them, living on site without parental support when he was young as eight or nine.
As Percy got older, he joined his dad as the family started buying up garages – setting up in the motor trade and supplying many with their first cars after the war.
There was a captive audience – with only two competitors in the whole of Suffolk – and throughout the 60s, they started to smarten their showrooms up to become the premium choice in the county, naming the company Nicholls Car Sales.
While business was booming, Percy, who had recently married his sweetheart Shirley, had started to get itchy feet.
He was doing the lion’s share of the work and was frustrated at taking orders from someone else.
So, a year after his son Guy was born – in 1964 – he left the family firm to set out on his own.
Guy said: “I’m not sure he really had much of a plan. He had knowledge of machinery and he had business prowess he had picked up from his father. He had also set aside money he had earned through the motor trade.
“So, at the age of 31 he cashed in £1,000 of premium bonds – which was an awful lot of money in those days – and started up as a sole trader buying and selling vehicles, trucks and diggers.
“He quickly worked out how to use the skills from the motor trade to spot a bargain and had an incredible ability to turn pennies into pounds while working every hour under the sun. He was amazing to watch.”
And watch he did. From the age of three, Guy would join Percy at work and would spend all his time getting grubby cleaning vans and machines.
“Dad always had a new Mercedes and I remember being bundled in the boot at the end of every day,” said Guy. “He never wanted me to get muck on the interior.”
Percy’s wife Shirley would despair. After all, the couple had set aside money to send Guy to the private school Everton House in Ipswich – which closed in the early 80s – and she was keen for him to get an education.
But Percy was adamant that reading and writing was surplus to requirements and that Guy would learn more by getting his hands dirty. As soon as school was finished, Guy couldn’t wait to get to officially join his dad.
And so, Guy remained by his side and was aged nine when, in 1973, Percy bought a yard in Felixstowe Road from a Mr Prentice called Prentice Aircraft and Cars Ltd.
On the yard was a lot of plant and Percy decided to move away from buying and selling vehicles into hiring out plant.
Due to some contractual obligations, he was stuck with the Prentice name so informally called his company Guy’s Hire until in 1977 when he formed his own limited company.
The business became Fork Rent – the real foundation for what is now Tru7 Group.
Guy said: “Everything my dad did seemed to happen by accident, but he was very clever and he could spot an opportunity. This allowed him to adapt so as it grew, Fork Rent included tipper hire and plant hire.”
In the 1980s, Percy managed to convince his daughter Trudi to join him and Guy in the family business.
She said: “Dad was an absolute workaholic. We never went on holiday, and he never took a day off. He used to tell Mum that ‘holidays were things other people did’. He loved every single minute of being on site. But it’s likely this contributed to his very premature death.”
At just 64 years old, Percy collapsed and died of a stroke.
He left behind wife Shirley, son Guy, daughter Trudi, youngest son Jason, grandchildren Holly and Jake, and a fleet of 140 vehicles.
That was 25 years ago. Percy would have been extremely proud at what came next…
Guy Nicholls - From Shadowing Dad to Bringing The Company Into The Light
In the second of a series of articles exploring the history of third-generation family business, Tru7 Group, we meet CEO Guy Nicholls who has been instrumental in the growth of the plant hire, construction, and demolition firm.
He explains how he built on the foundations of the company his father left behind to turbo-charge the firm to its £70million turnover – and incredibly bright future.
When Percy Nicholls died, his son Guy – his sidekick since the day he was born – fell to pieces.
“Even 25 years later I find it hard to talk about him without getting upset,” Guy admits. “I spent every single minute with him – following him around since I was a toddler, on site throughout my childhood, at his elbow as a teen and with him every waking day as an adult.
“He taught me everything. He was my best friend as well as my role model and he left a giant gaping hole when he left us. The only thing I had to cope with the enormity of it, was to throw myself into the business we had created together.”
In 1997 when Percy Nicholls collapsed, suffering from a fatal stroke, the company – Fork Rent – had 140 machines.
Sixteen years later, Guy – with the help of his sister and co-director Trudi – had turned this into a multi-million-pound operation with 4,500 pieces of plant.
“We reached a point where we felt we had done enough together in memory of my dad,” Guy said. “Trudi wanted to retire, and I wanted a new challenge, so we decided to sell up.”
It was a lucrative deal. After all, Fork Rent had featured in the annual Sunday Times BDO Profit Track 100 league table, where it was ranked 77th, with an annual profit of £6.82m representing average annual growth of 48.61% over the previous three years.
Guy agreed to a non-compete clause for two-and-a-half years – but the cogs were already whirring, and he had his sights set on a bigger enterprise that would be established using the seed funding from his share of the sale.
The new chapter of the business began when he bought the Sinks Pit in Kesgrave and then he spent £5.5million on clearing the site and building an impressive glass and steel headquarters.
The company was initially made up of two divisions – Trucks ‘R’ Us and Tippers ‘R’ Us but while these two brand names still exist, they are now under a wider enterprise of Tru7 Group along with Clarke Demolition which Guy purchased in 2017.
“Seven is my lucky number,” Guy said. “I’m weirdly superstitious about it.”
Unlike Fork Rent, which specialised in telehandlers, Tru7 offered the widest selection of quality plant equipment in East Anglia, available for hire nationally including excavators, dumpers, dozers, chippers, telehandlers, lighting towers and ancillary equipment.
Guy also took the helm with the company branding – choosing the bright yellow and black stripes that the company is now famous for.
“I was asked if I wanted something muted to tie in with the environment and make our vehicles less visible,” he said. “I said ‘absolutely not’. I wanted us to stand out like a sore thumb and really get noticed.
“Not only are we yellow and black but our trucks all have a little wasp on the back – because we sting the competition.”
He added: “I like doing things differently and I like being one step ahead. That’s why all our telehandlers had air conditioning long before anyone else – we set the standard for the industry.
“We are also all about our people. They are everything. We attract and retain the best and we treat them well.
“Every single baby born to someone on my team gets a £100 premium bond from me. I give out my Rolls Royce to staff to use at weddings. I try to see everyone throughout the week and my door is always open to have a chat.
“I just don’t like hierarchy. You need good people around you who you can trust and that’s the most important thing. I want to work with friends.”
Like his father, Guy is a workaholic. And when Covid-19 hit, it was the first time in his entire life where he had been unable to be on site.
“I don’t do holidays very often,” he said. “So, shutting down the operation for a month was horrific for me. As a family we have always taken chances in business, but I was never going to take a chance on risking the health of my staff.”
Despite the blip, the company still saw a 25% increase in turnover in 2020/21 – and again in 2021/22.
“There’s no chance of me ever retiring,” said Guy, who celebrated his 34th wedding anniversary to wife Julie this year, has two children – Jake and Holly – and three grandchildren Beau and Jenson, both seven, and little River, just two.
“Luckily, I now have a succession plan since Jake joined the company and that means the pressure is off me a little bit.
“He is so determined, and he will be a much better businessman than I have ever been.”
This remains to be seen but just as Guy is a “chip off the old block”, Jake shows the same character traits as his forefathers.
Trudi Nicholls - The Artist with a flair for business
In the third of a series of articles exploring the history of Tru7 Group, we meet TrudiNicholls who, with her brother Guy, took over the running of the family firm following the death of their father. The pair boosted the business from 140 machines to 4,500 in 16years, forming the foundations of the enterprise that exists today.
Here she explains her role in the journey and how proud she is of the £70million firm that her brother founded as a result.
Trudi Nicholls is the picture of elegance. Her hair is perfectly coiffured, her nails polished and she is dressed immaculately in a royal blue sweater and white trousers. What she says next is therefore no surprise.
“I wasn’t like my brothers,” she laughs. “I couldn’t see the enjoyment of being on a muddy, dusty site playing with machinery. I was much happier with mum at home.”
Mum is Shirley – who, to this day, Trudi describes as her “very best friend”.
But Shirley, wife of the business founder Percy Nicholls – like Trudi, his only daughter, is instrumental in the story of the success of Tru7 Group. And so is Percy’s son Guy’s wife Julie and his grandson Jake’s wife Blu.
“They say that behind every successful man is a good woman,” said Trudi. “And the Nicholls family women have certainly helped make the business what it is today. Primarily because they all put up with men who are stubborn, determined, ambitious and complete workaholics.”
Trudi is the only female out of the four who has actively worked on the business.
But she did not start off with this career path in mind.
Very creative, with a love of art, she moved to London at 18 to complete a Textile Design degree at Central St Martin’s.
After this she was snapped up by luxury children’s interior design company Dragons, on Walton Street, which created the nursery for Prince William and Harry at their home in Kensington Palace with a strawberry print carpet, and green trims including cupboard handles and stripes on the walls.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have continued to favour the brand, also loved by Victoria Beckham, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Madonna.
“It was all very exciting,” said Trudi. “I remember being left on my own one Saturday and having a customer come in who wanted a quote then and there. I pulled together a cost, and they signed on the dotted line. My manager was thrilled – it was the biggest sale of the month.”
It was this nous for business that eventually pulled her back to Suffolk to work for her father.
“I told him I would give it one month and if I hated it, I was out of there,” she said. “But I loved it and stayed for the rest of my career.”
Trudi’s role in the business – which was then called Fork Rent – was to maintain the bookkeeping and oversee the plant hire operation.
“Percy and Guy did all the deals – buying things and so on,” she said. “I dealt with the banking side, the solicitors, the admin, and paperwork. Stuff that the two of them couldn’t get their heads round.
“I had to learn very quickly and needed to be very efficient but generally speaking, I like things in order and as we grew, I was an intrinsic part of keeping us in line.”
“We are a Suffolk family and Suffolk is in the roots of our business,” she said.
As orders grew, Guy strategically opened two depots; one in Chippenham and another in Erith. However, the pair preferred the personal touch and knowing their employees and clients.
Percy died in 1997 and Trudi and Guy took over – growing the business over 16 years to 4,500 machines and eventually selling it to venture capitalists.
“We were lucky in many ways because dad had always been completely transparent with Guy and I so we could pick up where he left off,” she said. “Selling however, gave me a chance to retire.”
Although Guy then used his capital to invest in Tru7 Group, Trudi bought a new home across the fields from her brother in Brightwell.
“Although I no longer work in the business, I keep an eye on everything from a distance,” she said.
“I am immensely proud of Guy and what he has built, and I think my father would have been too.
“In Jake he has the perfect succession plan, and in Guy and Jake, I see the same dynamic that existed between dad and Guy. It’s like history repeating itself watching the two of them on site.”
Jake Nicholls - From Racing Podium to Boardroom Pole Position
In the fourth of a series of articles exploring the history of one of Suffolk’s stalwart businesses – Tru7 Group – we meet Managing Director Jake Nicholls.
The third generation of the Nicholls family to run the plant hire, construction, and demolition firm, he explains his plans for further growth, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather with the same “stubborn” streak that’s catapulted the enterprise to a£70million turnover operation running 2,000 machines.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
It’s a well-known proverb that expresses the idea that a person inevitably shares traits with his or her parents.
Teenage Jake would have laughed his head off at the very idea.
At the age of six he emphatically told his father he had no intention of working for the family business and by 15 he had left home to pursue a career as a professional motocross star.
But ironically, this determination was actually the first sign that Jake possessed the exact same characteristics as his dad.
It’s therefore unsurprising perhaps, that Jake now sits alongside Guy Nicholls in the boardroom of Tru7 as its Managing Director – and that the pair are replicating the incredible relationship between Guy and his own father Percy Nicholls – which is where the roots of the company began 65 years ago.
“Dad and I have the exact same mix of bravery, stupidity and vision,” Jake said. “As a kid I couldn’t see it. But we both have ambition, tenacity, and fortitude – and neither of us like to be told ‘no’. In fact, if someone says we can’t do something, it makes us even more determined to do that very thing – and do it better than anyone else.”
Jake, a former pupil of Woodbridge School, was three when he first rode a motorbike and six when he took part in his first race – and won. At 14, he begged his parents for the opportunity to go to America to learn how to ride motorbikes professionally.
“They were not happy about it at all,” he said. “But I think I wore them down and they thought that if they sent me, I would hate being away from home and probably get this whole bike thing out my system. In fact, it was the opportunity I needed to progress and when I returned home two months later, I turned pro.”
He moved to Belgium for five years, which is where the sport is based, and was just 17 when he competed in his first World Championship, placed 4th in the World Championship 2012 and reached the podium at the British Grand Prix a year later.
But his career was interrupted by several injuries – one of which caused a lightbulb moment for him.
“I was racing in Italy and had a really bad crash and dislocated my hip,” he said. “I remember waking up from the operation and it was like a switch had been flicked in my brain. I recognised that I needed something more, something different.”
This was the Eureka moment his father Guy had always been hoping for. But Jake wasn’t prepared to be a “silver spoon kid” who just gets given golden opportunities without working for them.
“I knew I had a lot to prove,” said Jake, who is married to teenage sweetheart Blu and has a two-year-old daughter River. “And so, I asked my dad if I could start out driving machinery for him which I did for four months.
“Weirdly my experience racing taught me a lot of transferable skills – mainly the knowledge I have about dirt. I’d go as far as to say that was a specialist subject for me. In motocross, you must understand soil types and different conditions and how machinery responds to it. The same applies with big machinery.”
Working on the plant gave Jake an excellent rapport with the other drivers.
It also demonstrated his willingness to get his hands dirty and start at the bottom.
He admits that when Guy eventually moved him into an office role, he felt out of his comfort zone.
“Actually, I hated it for the first 12 months,” he laughed. “But there’s another thing dad and I share – stubbornness. We don’t give up on things. And I’m glad I stuck it out. I eventually found my feet and now every day is a buzz and I feel like I am adding value.”
In the last five years Jake has introduced a fleet of bulldozers and single-handedly created a new division to the business specialising in earthworks which now contributes £9million to the annual turnover.
“I saw that we had good drivers and great equipment and were doing a fantastic job for other people. I recognised we could do more. All I needed was an estimator and contracts manager because we had everything else,” he said.
Today the company is best known as owner of the Trucks ‘R’ Us and Tippers ‘R’ Us vehicle hire brands, but it also supplies a wide range of premium vehicles, operators and materials to the British construction and allied industries.
It employs 300 people, offers van, truck and plant rental and sales, and demolition and remediation, earthworks, asbestos removal, concrete, and aggregates services.
“My ambitions for this business are to keep evolving,” Jake said. “Plant hire is still the mothership, but our fleet is large and consists of 1,500 plant, 300 lorries and 350 commercial vehicles. There is scope to cross-sell across the different areas of our business and there are ways to keep growing while remaining here, in the heart of Suffolk.
“I’m lucky – dad and I are doing this together. But I think the fact that my grandfather died so young and so suddenly is always in our minds. It makes you realise how short life is. I want to spend every minute with dad, learn from him, pick his brains before it’s too late.
“I’m third generation so all the pressure is on me. They say less than 10% of third generation businesses survive but for me this is just another driver.
“In fact, it brings me right back to the start. Tell me I can’t do something – and I will do it better than you could have ever imagined. Just like my dad.”