When Fred Smith, the founder of Chorley-based Blakedale Limited, sat down to pen his memoirs, he says it was in an unlikely source he found his inspiration – English actor and comedian Steve Coogan.
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For whilst their career choices and backgrounds couldn’t have been more different, it was reading Coogan’s own story of an ‘average upbringing’ in Middleton, Manchester, that Fred found a common interest.
Reading, ironically, was not and has never been Fred’s greatest pastime, yet it was on a flight home from Australia in January 2016, he ‘accidentally’ found himself absorbed in the autobiography, which his son had packed for an airtime read.
Fred says: “He had fallen asleep and this book was just there on the seat, I picked it up and that was it, I read it from front to back. His early life was very regular and that’s what I found interesting.
“It made me think about my very ordinary beginnings and my father, a farmer, who was very successful in his own right, yet in years to come there would be later generations of his own family who would not know who he was – I didn’t know my own grandparents and I wondered how I would be remembered.
“The book was then a project, a legacy for generations to come to know how everything started.”
Fred arrived home and began to put pen to paper. He completed his final draft of Milk to Motorways in just over two years, writing from his home in Brindle and his caravan in the Lake District.
The dad and grandfather of four, married to Margaret since the age of 22, talks with great honesty on how it is was a series of ‘accidental conceptions’ throughout his 75 years which paved the way for much of his extraordinary career, which quite literally took him from a milkman to the master of motorways and a self-made millionaire, taking in gardening, marathons and a record-breaking pension-age powerlifting career along the way.
He says it was willingness to work hard at whatever came his way that earnt him just rewards as an entrepreneur.
He says: “I sat down and started writing first about my childhood and upbringing on a farm and it was amazing how quickly things came back to me.
“Writing the early chapters it felt like I was bringing my mum and dad back to life again.
“The other great thing was reflecting on some of the opportunities I’d had and mistakes I’d made, I maybe hadn’t thought too much about at the time but those mistakes came to be some of the best I’d ever made.
“I found a great pleasure in writing it all down and I’m very proud of it.”
Fred talks of a very happy childhood, son of a farmer – his parents rented and later owned farms near Chorley, later moving to Heath Charnock.“My dad started out in arable farming as
you didn’t need much capital investment to start with, but as he became established he was able to buy surrounding land and eventually branched into cattle.”
One of three children, Fred says they were encouraged at working age to take jobs in the mines for the pay, but as he found much more gratification in being a farm labourer, he assumed this would set in motion, as his dad before him, life as a farmer.
His first business venture was taking on the milk rounds, which he did throughout his early 20s, but a favour for a friend then found him pondering a career change into landscape gardening.
“I knew nothing of landscaping but I just had this idea, I’d like to do it,” he says. “I was 27 years old had a steady job and three children – yet there I was knocking on doors in Euxton asking people if they wanted me to do their gardens. Why anyone would have taken me on but they did and I stuck at it, soon I was doing all sorts – turfing, fencing, rockeries.”
The game changer came when he invested in a small rotavator to help with digging on jobs. Fred recalls: “Someone had asked me if I could dig them a trench. The rotovator cost me £480 and I realised for that investment I’d have to start making more money on that side of things.”
In a chance meeting through a client with a Great Manchester County Council employee, Fred was asked to do some trenching work along the M62 to help lay some piping.
“I realised this was that opportunity for the bigger jobs I’d been after, but the trenching machine I had wasn’t capable. I made an appointment with the bank and asked them for the money to buy what I needed.
“This was the mid-70s and the machine cost £8,900 – the bank manager told me I’d never make the repayments. “
The move would, in fact, help Fred build the largest privately owned operations company for motorways in the UK.
He made the repayments within three years, and a healthy profit too.
Fred became the ‘go to’ man for digging the problematic trenches required on the growing network of motorways that were springing up in the North West of England.
A great deal of his work was through the GMC and soon with a few more men, the business grew, diversified and prospered, with responsibility for the lighting on many of the road and motorways in the region.
“The motorway is the biggest and greatest shop window there is, the added bonus was a name Fred Smith! It is as memorable as ‘Joe Bloggs’
“I couldn’t even change a lightbulb let alone manage all the lights on the motorway.”
Margaret Thatcher’s move to abolish four of the big councils, including Manchester, under the Local Government Act of 1985 transformed the business once again.
“Suddenly we had the monopoly on the motorway contracts which had been managed and shared with the councils. I took on a lot of the redundant employees, and we grew to a staff of 90 .”
It was also this time Fred stumbled on his next opportunity, making motorway distance marker posts.
A mistake on a contract could have cost him dear, but instead it became an important part of the business with the manufacture and supply of distance marker posts still part of Blakedale’s work today.
Fred says: “I had an order on a job for 2,00o marker posts and had costed them around £5 a piece.
“It turns out they were £16 - £18 and that was the only page on the job contract not marked ‘free issue.’
“It was still cheaper for me to look at making them myself – I lost money but found a new business at the same time.”
Today, three of Fred’s four children – Carmen, Richard and Jonathan – run Blakedale, which has now evolved to include fleets of operation vehicles and crash cushion safety devices.
Fred’s youngest son Ben is a partner.
The lighting side of the business was sold to McAlpines in 1999.
Now retired, Fred still offers guidance but enjoys time away at his caravan and training at Shaw Hill Leisure Club where he is an active member.If his business accolades were not enough, he has also run six marathons including London, New York and Dublin.
A keen power lifter from his teenage years, Fred is a British champion, winning his latest title in 2012 aged 69 and has broken UK records four times.
He also enjoys writing poetry.
Copies of Fred’s book are available to buy via amazon https://www.amazon.co.uk/Milk-Motorways-Fred-Smith/dp/191201419X