Oliver North: From dark days, the new boss of ambulance manufacturer O&H with a determination to succeed

Oliver North is the man Endless has called upon to help turn around ambulance manufacturer O&H. He spoke to Ismail Mulla about the tragedy and triumph on his career path.

Oliver North took over as managing director of O&H Vehicle Technology earlier this year.

Back in 2008, Oliver North had just launched his own business supplying firefighting equipment when tragedy struck.

A month after setting up North Fire, he found his mother drowned in a river in Huddersfield.

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“I jumped in and pulled her out but I was two days too late,” says Mr North. “It was worse than any nightmare that I’d been in.”

Speaking about the harrowing ordeal is the only time the former army physical training instructor’s voice falters.

Despite this, there was little opportunity for Mr North to grieve. He was a “one-man band” and for the sake of his three-month-old son, he couldn’t afford to.

Two days later Mr North was in the Isle of Man trying to secure the nascent company’s first order.

“I kept all my emotions in a box while I was in a meeting and then I’d grieve in private when I needed to grieve,” he said.

Established players were already trying to shut North Fire out of the market and the sterling had just crashed against the euro meaning the firm’s margins were almost wiped out.

However, he managed to get the contract that would prove to be the foundation for North Fire’s growth over the next few years.

If being in the army – he was in the Royal Engineers for seven years – turned Mr North from boy to man then that dark period in 2008 took him to the “next level of learning”.

North Fire eventually merged with Austrian fire equipment manufacturer Rosenbauer International in 2014 becoming Rosenbauer UK.

At the beginning of this year, he left Rosenbauer UK to join Goole-based ambulance manufacturer O&H Vehicle Technology as its new managing director.

The struggling ambulance manufacturer has been acquired by private equity house Endless with Mr North taking on a shareholding of around 17.5 per cent in O&H.

Endless specialises in repairing broken companies. The private equity firm has a knack of putting the right person in the right job to turn a business around.

In Oliver North they certainly seem to have found the right person for the job. As well as undergoing a rebrand, the Goole-based firm, which employs around 170 staff, is undergoing a cultural shift as well. These changes are already paying dividend for O&H.

Mr North said: “It was a company that had been starved of orders for months and months. It was at a turnover of about £23m. Then within the first month of coming into the company we rebranded.

“We pulled in £19m of new orders in the first quarter, which is one of the biggest quarters for the company on record.

“We’ve entirely changed the culture. We’re really driving a positive culture.”

O&H supplies ambulances to the NHS. It buys a chassis before fully kitting it out with the relevant technology needed by paramedics.

The vote to leave the European Union played a part in Mr North’s decision to leave Rosenbauer, which is headquartered in Austria, for O&H.

“I thought instead of competing against British companies and beating British companies to orders I should really concentrate on working for a British business with UK taxpayers on the shop floor,” he said.

Mr North also became “bored” of the “Germanic way” of operating that he says stopped him from flourishing.

He said: “I’d lost interest years before but I still had to get my head down and get everything over the line and make sure the company Rosenbauer UK was as good as it could be as a UK entity.”

By the time he had left, Mr North had grown the business by 255 per cent.

Garry Wilson, managing partner at Endless, told Mr North to run O&H how he would run his own business.

Mr North believes the business has been flagging because of a poor culture.

“I’d say poor culture is the quickest way to kill a company,” he said.

As a result, the company has pushed the button on what Mr North calls the O&H 2.0 project.

He said: “I, as the managing director of O&H, am here to support my shop floor workers and they will always be given VIP status by me. In turn they look after me when it comes to manufacturing.”

Mr North added: “The grand plan with O&H is that we become a clear market leader within the UK ambulance sector.

“I want us to be a specialist regarded as the best quality of builder for the fire and police markets.

“But before all of the quality, all of the profitability or turnover, I want the place to be a great place to work.

“I’d rather the company win awards as a great place to work before it wins profitability awards because I think that’s the most important thing in terms of commercial ethics.”

Having served in the military has instilled a winning mentality in Mr North. Back then he wanted to beat his peers.

Mr North said: “You always want to run faster than the last guy. You want to do more press-ups. You want your boots to be shinier. You want your clothes to be ironed better. You want to be a better soldier than any of your peers.”

His mentality hasn’t changed. He still looks at what peers are doing albeit now in the manufacturing industry.

The public sector purse has been squeezed in recent years. This has led to O&H’s market being squeezed, which Mr North says “makes it all the more important to improve your own company from within”.

“We should always blame ourselves before we blame the market,” he says. “Whether it’s due to a reducing size of market, Brexit or anything.”

The challenges in his role are not lost on Mr North. O&H doesn’t offer the same blank canvas that he had with North Fire. Instead he’s having to change a corporate culture at a company employing 170 people.

Endless will inevitably exit the business once a viable future path is established. Mr North won’t necessarily call it quits at the same time.

“Once the company becomes a success I will see it into the new owners’ hands and retain my shareholding for as long as I’m making a difference,” he says.

The right decision

With his shoes shining and his shirt smartly pressed, the discipline Oliver North picked up in the Royal Engineers is still there.

However, joining the army was “a bit of a knee jerk reaction” for Mr North. He finished his GCSEs with what he calls “quite average grades”.

He’d never really been interested in classroom learning.

Mr North said: “I’d say it proved to be the right decision. It really did teach me how to work hard.

“It makes me think however tired I am, I’ve been a lot more tired. However hard I’m working I’ve had to work as hard. It just focuses the mind I suppose.”

He left the military in 2003 and went into truck sales before moving into the firefighting vehicle and equipment market.