The Harris Group is a great example of a business grown through the vision of its iconic founder. For more than 60 years Pino Harris had grown the Dublin-based business to become a commercial vehicle distributor with a global supply chain, pan-European customer base and an extensive network of dealers. After his death in 2017 his wife Denise Harris took over as Chief Executive Officer. The Group are now creating a new base in Birchwood Park, Warrington to grow its MAXUS Commercial Vehicle operations in the UK. GM Business Connect were invited to find out more with John McEvoy, Chief Operating Officer of the Group.
When you took the role of Chief Operating Officer, what were your challenges, and what experience did you bring to the job?
“When I came to Harris Group, I was following in the footsteps of an industry legend. Everyone’s perception of Harris was Pino Harris, the late founder. He was the figurehead, the leader, the brand personified. After Pino, the company’s identity had to evolve, so when I came on board, my job was to pull people together and help them find belief in our new ways of working, which was no longer about the person in charge. I could not, and did not, want to fill Pino’s shoes. So, I had to try to restructure the business for the future and get people to believe in Harris Group’s mission and believe in Harris as the business. We have been incredibly lucky that Denise Harris has stepped into the role of CEO. She is an amazing, influential woman with a tremendous vision of her own. She appreciates new thinking and new technology and is doing a tremendous job of leading our business. My experiences at Kerry Group and Wincanton and the people I met there have had a huge impact on who I am today. Did they prepare me for the next stage of the journey? Of course they did. Every day is a school day!”
What challenges do you see in the future market of electric commercial vehicles?
“I don’t see challenge as a negative thing. You have to deal with them, no matter what or where you are in life – you deal with them, you just keep moving. They are there to make you and your business stronger. That’s why I think new thinking is so important to us. As part of our core values and methodology, it’s ingrained in the company’s history. And you can’t talk about new thinking without mentioning EV. We have taken this challenge and invested in research and key partnerships to build new vehicles that offer zero-emissions technology, lower running costs and reduced environmental impacts. We have an ever-expanding range of electric vehicles from LCVs to buses. In fact, our growing range of electric LCVs and buses rivals diesel in terms of power and mileage. Our current offering includes the road-ready Maxus e DELIVER 3 and Maxus e DELIVER 9 electric vans and the Higer STEED, a 100% electric, metro-ready bus.”
What does Harris Group specialise in and how much involvement in R&D does the company have?
“As Ireland’s pre-eminent distributor of commercial vehicles in Ireland and the UK, Harris Group has set itself apart from the competition for the last 60 years through a spirit of innovation and a commitment to excellence in customer service. At the end of the day, we specialise in supporting our customers. We work very closely with our partners in China, who are so far ahead in EV technology. We are even exploring alternative fuels such as hydrogen and are looking at all opportunities. It’s what’s going to happen – it’s the way forward. There are people in the sector who still believe that they have to have diesel because of better mileage and power, but that is changing, and soon this thinking will be consigned to history. At Harris Group we are proud to play our part in leading this change.”
What’s the biggest challenge for commercial vehicle users moving from diesel and petrol?
“In terms of challenges – range anxiety, battery efficiency, charging times and battery life-spans are definitely factors that people are concerned about on the journey to move away from fossil fuels. That is why we have now been accredited and certified to repair and service batteries here. So for the people who may have been concerned about the expense of replacing a battery, five, ten years down the line – they need to understand, that’s not the case anymore. We can repair them here, now. That fear is over. We have a new 8-metre bus here and it’s incredible, it is astounding the people who are testing it. This has a charging time of approximately one hour and twenty minutes and a range of over 300km. We also have 12-metre options coming up – and these will change the game completely. I have to say, we are really excited about these innovations.”
What services will the Warrington base be concentrating on in the UK and what size workforce will the Group be looking to recruit for the new base?
“We are really excited about our expansion into the UK, and our new home in Birchwood Park, Warrington will be instrumental to our continued growth. The new premises is strategically located near the M6 and M62 motorway interchange, providing seamless access to the surrounding markets and beyond. This facility will accommodate MAXUS’ UK-based employees as well as acting as a Harris CAS distribution centre and Parts Depot with offices and a warehouse on site, headed up by Simon Bunn. It will also include its own EV technical centre as part of our commitment to sustainable transport, and a training facility will also be established for engineers taking part in MAXUS’ technical training academy which will be headed up by Harris UK Engineering Manager, Tony Close. We will continue to grow our support team in Warrington in line with our ambitious growth plans.”
What investment does Harris Group offer its employees as in personal development and promotion, are there any recognised qualifications or skills that can be transferred?
“At the core, our business is all about people. We refer to our extended team as the Harris Family. We actively promote within the company, in recognition of the commitment that individuals make. We actively encourage people from a professional and personal development point of view. In addition to our investment in in-house training technology, and of course our new MAXUS Academy here in the UK, we also engage with specialist external training and development resources.”
What legacy would you like to leave behind for the Group, and what has been the biggest lesson you have learned in business which you can pass on?
“The key learning which I would like to pass on is simply, to turn challenges into opportunities. It’s important for everyone to remember their history, and Harris Group’s history is Pino and his way of interacting with customers. With him the kettle was always boiling before you walked in the door, no matter who you were, you were very welcome; it was that kind of place, and that’s never going to change.
“It might be an old-fashioned approach to the customer, but it’s important to us and is still alive today. Only now there are more of us doing the meeting and greeting. One of the lessons which we have all learned from COVID is to adapt to new ways of working with people. This has encouraged us to embrace new technologies, which have become the new normal. We have modernised and upgraded our IT systems and telecoms, all to keep us MORE in contact, not LESS. In terms of leaving a legacy – well I have no intention of retiring just yet! Our future is very bright and I do hope that my legacy will be to have protected and enhanced the legacy left to us, by our founder Pino Harris.”