News - Interview with Plant Planet; The Making of Morris Leslie

Interview with Plant Planet; The Making of Morris Leslie

For those who think Morris Leslie is just about construction plant hire and used equipment sales, then think again. There are eight different businesses within the umbrella of the dynamic Morris Leslie group, operating from 18 locations throughout the UK. Morris Leslie relocated its headquarters in 2019 to impressive new facilities at Caledonian House, in West Kinfauns, on the outskirts of Perth.

As well as plant hire and equipment sales, Morris Leslie has an extensive property portfolio with some 2 million sq. ft. of commercial properties, including industrial, self-storage and office space, along with residential properties. Morris Leslie owns Perth Airport and all its buildings along with Errol Airfield. The Auction division of Morris Leslie host twice-weekly vehicle auctions spanning construction equipment, commercial transport, and all manner of transportation from modern to classic cars.

It doesn’t stop there; we are only skimming the surface.

There are plans in progress for some exciting developments in the leisure and tourism sector in Perth (a proposed £33.8 million leisure led development currently undergoing planning consent). That doesn’t include the most recent launch of Morris Leslie Villages; four luxury lodge parks with locations to be rolled out in Scotland and England. And we should also mention that Morris has some 2000 acres of arable farmland.

This is where it becomes apparent that Morris Leslie is a rather busy man, thankfully supported by a very experienced team of people with expertise in their respective fields. Despite this Morris and his Group Operations Director, Graham Ogilvie, have kindly given up several hours of their time to speak to me, and they are patiently (and candidly) talking to me about the past, present, and future path of Morris Leslie.

In total, Morris Leslie employs some 350 people across the group. This includes the most recent acquisition of Selwood’s Plant Hire Division, comprising five of its depots in Exeter, Birmingham, Chandlers Ford, Bournemouth, and Bristol. Selwood, as many in the industry will know, made the strategic decision to concentrate on their successful pump business rather than plant hire.

The Selwood Plant Hire deal was completed on the 1st September 2021 and it is one that Morris Leslie and Graham Ogilvie are evidently very proud to have won.

A key focus of the acquisition was about retaining the experience workforce employed by Selwood Plant Hire, and the purchase of 1300 core assets including excavators, dumpers, telehandlers & rollers. 70 employees came across to Morris Leslie on completion of the purchase.

Morris and Graham describe how the opportunity came around and how swiftly the transaction was completed. It was Graham who spotted a post on LinkedIn back in July from an employee of Selwood Plant Hire saying the staff had been given notice that their jobs were at risk. He promptly contacted Selwood’s Managing Director to express an interest and signed an NDA. The very next day Graham and Morris were on site visiting all Selwood Plant Hire depots and had set up a meeting with the owners in the afternoon. They carried out their due diligence over the weekend and place a bid on the Monday (there were three parties bidding for the business), learning that they had been successful shortly afterwards.

“We certainly didn’t hang around,” laughs Morris. “I think it is one of the quickest acquisitions we have made. To think that Graham spotted the initial social media post on the Wednesday, we were there with the owners on Thursday and by the the following Monday we had put in the successful bid, is quite an achievement. We are so delighted to welcome so many of the Selwood Plant Hire team to Morris Leslie Plant Hire.

The energy and enthusiasm that both Morris and Graham show as they are telling me about this latest Morris Leslie acquisition is clear to see. I’m interested in how Morris Leslie got to this point and so we rewind the clock to learn how it all began.

Morris explains that he was brought up “in agriculture” on the family farm in Perthshire. “While farming was the traditional family business, I was always interested in construction equipment. My grandfather had sold off a field for gravel extraction for a local bypass when I was at primary school, and I remember coming home from school and sitting alongside the driver on a Caterpillar 977, as it loaded the trucks. I was fascinated, even at that young age, I was about 10 years old at the time. I think that was the start of my love affair with construction equipment.

Morris went on to agricultural college. The college lecturers would repeatedly tell their students that farmers should diversify. Diversification, in their opinion, was the way forward. They would remind the class that small farms were being swallowed up and that agriculture was going to change forever. It got the young Morris Leslie thinking.

“The message of diversification really resonated with me, and I believed the way ahead was to look at machinery. At that time farmers were being encouraged to make fields bigger, tear out hedges and upgrade drainage, and it occurred to me that I should invest in a machine and hire it out. I bought a Hymac 370, my first investment in machinery. I realised I had picked it up at a reasonable price and could make a profit on it,” explains Morris, who obviously had that entrepreneurial talent from a young age.

Morris recalls advertising one of the first machines he bought in a local farming newspaper, Scottish Farmer, and having about 30 people wanting to buy it, which soon confirmed in his mind that “this was the industry to be in.”

“In those days, you could roll up to a company and ask if they were interested in selling any of their machinery. They’d look to see what surplus assets they had and then check the value the assets stood at in their books and agree a deal at book value (usually at a good price too) to me, and then I’d sell it on to a farmer. The farmers were doing well out the grant situation at the time, so they had money to spend. The business grew from there.”

This shows the profitability of plant hire at the time, when hire rates per week were in excess of 1% of the capital cost. “A good example at the time was a JCB-3C hourly hire charge with a driver was the same as the hourly charge for the dealer’s fitter & van. Today that same equivalent cost is 46% more! I have no idea how the UK has ended up having some of the lowest rates in the world today!”

In 1947, the next stepping-stone in the Morris Leslie story was when David Miller joined the company. It marked the start of Morris Leslie, the company, as we know it today.

David was a friend of Morris and had a lot of experience in small plant. He had also managed to build up a customer base in Malaysia, and this got Morris thinking (again) about overseas opportunities. “We were operating out of a little office, and I remember we made the decision to install a Telex machine. At the time, we thought this was something great to be able to send messages backwards and forwards to the other side of the world. We really thought we’d cracked it!”

Morris and David were selling all sort of equipment to Malaysia, from dumpers and mixers to concrete pumps. At the time, that was without doubt, the market to be in. Sadly, the situation changed when David became ill and passed away about three years after he started with Morris.

Morris carried on and went on to build a good second-hand sales business. It became apparent that, for the business to progress especially for the foreign market, it needed to create its own supply. Soon after (in 1980), the company started its plant hire operation in Scotland, where it quickly established itself as a  major player in the Scottish hire market.

There are amusing memories from that era. One of the first significant purchases of hire assets was for 20 brand new 580 Case excavators. These were all for hire to customers. Feeling buoyant, Morris had the notion of joining the Scottish Plant Owners Association but had his hopes quickly deflated, when they refused him membership. “I laugh about it now. I think I’m the only person ever to have been blackballed by the SPOA. After being rejected, I managed to get chatting with the President at a show we were attending. I can remember his words clearly: ‘Listen Laddie, get yourself some operators and we’ll get you joined. You can’t be doing this self-drive, it’s not right!’. I think I was ahead of the game because we were one of the first to be offering a self-drive hire service,” says Morris with amusement.

Growth in the 1980s continued in plant hire and used equipment sales. Morris was also eyeing up the property market. In January 1988, he purchased Errol Airfield in Perthshire as well as the main hangar that had just been vacated by a whisky company. This purchase certainly wasn’t made on a whim. The airfield had been disused for a while.

Morris had for some time been thinking about equipment auctions, and always saw the potential value of investment in land and property. Errol Airfield was the perfect setting for an auction. And so, the first Morris Leslie auction took place in 1988. (How that side of the business has grown since then, with Morris Leslie now well known for its numerous and varied vehicle auctions.)

“I had been thinking about it for a while. I was at a plant auction near Leeds, and got into a conversation with John Greenshields at Finnings. I happened to mention my idea about holding an auction, and John thought it was a great idea, saying he had a lot of equipment to sell too. This led to the very first auction at Errol Airfield, and the start of many more to follow.”

Unsurprisingly, there was a story attached to that very first auction, which gained Morris Leslie a lot of publicity. He smiles as he tells me about his first ‘press encounter’.

“We decided to invite the local press along to see if we could get some nice write-ups about what we were doing. I can remember, we were really excited when people attended, but it happened to coincide with the Conservative Party Conference which was taking place in Perth, when Margaret Thatcher was in power.

“The press duly showed up and we did get some really good editorials, apart from one, which was something I hadn’t expected. I opened the Daily Record to find they had given our auction two pages of coverage, but with the headline ‘Sale of Shame’. Their slant being, that the Tories had cut capital expenditure in Scotland, and this was where all the surplus equipment was being sold off. They wanted to make a point because the conference was just 10 miles down the road. Little did we expect to be on News at 10. That was my first brush with the press, and a very memorable one too!”

It did, however, certainly publicise Morris Leslie auctions, and several more were held that same year in 1988…and they have gone from strength to strength, especially when Morris’s son, Gregor joined the business back in March 2007. In 2013, the first classic car auction was held, and the diversification in auctions has been very much driven by Gregor over the years.

Going back in time again, expansion continued in the late 90’s. Morris Leslie made its first important acquisition of three depots from Maxiom in the southwest, which heralded the company’s entry into the plant hire market in England.

1990 also saw Morris Leslie set up Cautrac in Colchester, Essex. Another company and another depot to add to the Morris Leslie collection as part of its expansion plans. At the time, they had been buying some used equipment from Japan, and it was through this they were introduced to Morooka. This led to Cautrac being awarded the franchise for Morooka (in the UK).

“It’s funny how things unfold. I knew John Hillman who had been working for Colchester Tractors, prior to Ernest Doe taking ownership. We got chatting and started making plans to set up Cautrac, with John having a small stake in it, but we needed premises in the Colchester area.

“By chance, whilst I was on a debt-collecting trip in Inverness … (I stop Morris at this point because I’m amused to think about the day when he would personally go out to collect cheques from customers.)

“… Yes, I used to puck up the cheques!” he laughs. “On one such trip, I happened to get talking to the company owner. He enquired about what my business was up to, and I told him that I was looking for a depot in Essex. The timing was perfect because he had just been reading an article in Construction News about May Gurney closing their Colchester depot.”

On sharing the news with John, he couldn’t have been happier, saying that it was “a great yard” and Morris Leslie ended up buying it the following week. Initially it was used for selling second-hand plant and equipment. Then the Morooka franchise opportunity came about. This was the start of Morris Leslie selling new equipment.

“John successfully grew and built a fantastic business over the years supported by a great team of people. John was fully committed to growing the business putting in long shifts and travelling the world sourcing plant. He always insisted on travelling first class so he could work immediately upon landing. This resulted in him having one of the largest collections of KLM China Dutch houses they gave to first class customers!”

The business continued to expand, and the depot was opened in Bolton to serve customers in the North of England.

“We continue to have a very happy association with Morooka. I was very honoured to have been invited out to Japan for Morooka’s 50th Anniversary three years ago and I felt privileged because only myself and one other western dealer from America, were invited up on stage to participate in what was a very lavish ceremony attended by government ministers.”

Never wanting to stand still, another opportunity came Morris Leslie’s way following a management buyout at Cox Plant Hire in 2000.

“The team who had bought Cox were short of funding so we would buy their equipment and hire it back to them which subsequently gave us products to sell as and when they were replenishing stock. This arrangement worked for a while until the point that Cox ran out of funds. We agreed the best way forward for us was to buy their three depots.”

Since the turn of the new Millennium, Morris Leslie Plant Hire has pursued a trail of acquisitions, having already acquired three Cox depots and the southwest depots from Maxiom prior to those. In 2013, three depots and its assets, were secured from Ambrose Plant Hire, which was followed by Morris Leslie’s most significant plant hire acquisitions: the four depots from Hewdens following their demise in 2016. The Hewden acquisition doubled the number of assets owned by Morris Leslie Plant Hire at that time to around 5000.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that Hewdens would ever come up for sale, and being able to buy a large swathe of the business was a real milestone moment for us. We brought all the employees over too.”

Then in 2018, Surrey based Chertsey Plant Hire was acquire, followed the next year by LPM in Nottinghamshire. The most recent, of course, being the five Selwood Plant Hire depots. Little surprise then, Morris Leslie is one of the fastest growing rental companies in the UK.

In the background, Morris Leslie was also very busy adding to its property portfolio ad farming business which, today is nothing short of extensive.


To be continued in a future issue of Plant Planet – They continue to chart the success of Morris Leslie Group and talk in more detail about his many ventures.


To learn more about the history of Morris Leslie follow this link: Our History – Our Story – Morris Leslie