Youngest of seven children by seven years, his father worked for a publisher and his mother managed two toy shops. Nick Wells graduated from the University of Warwick with a degree in sociology. But then he spent four years with a marketing company before being attracted by an advertisement from Circular Distributors, a door-drop media company which delivered promotional literature which didn't have a stamp on it. He joined as an account manager at the business, then owned by Brunnings, the advertising agency, and in three years had worked his onto the Circular Distributors board.
Three years later, at the tenderish age of thirty, he led a management buy-out with three colleagues, subsequently selling the company to TNT, part of the Dutch post office, in 2001, together with a lifestyle marketing company he'd set up (which included Emma's Diary, the pregnancy information service). "I sold the companies at the age of forty-two, so there was no way I was going to retire," says Wells. "I find business too interesting, and I would have looked for a challenge." Which is exactly what TNT Post gave him.
"We were the platform for entry into the UK postal market for when the regulator opened up some of the market because TNT Post wanted to lead the charge," explains Nick wells. "We were going to be the major competitor to the Royal Mail for addressed mail." That required a downstream access agreement with the Royal Mail (which deregulation meant they had to deliver), so that while TNT Post UK would do the collecting, touring, and trunking, Royal Mail would do the 'final mile' delivery, all bound together with a service level agreement.
Put like that it seems relatively straightforward - except that Wells started with little more than a blank sheet of paper. No trucks, vans, premises even, let alone a network to collect and sort bulk mail. Eight years later, and TNT Post UK is now carrying 3 3/4 billion items for more than 8000 commercial customers.
The low hanging fruit were the banks and utilities. Those early adopters warmed to the idea of a two-day delivery service which also provided management information as to where their mail was in the delivery chain. Today, TNT Post UK are the Royal Mail's biggest customer as well as being their biggest competitor. Parent company Post NL, listed on the Amsterdam stock exchange, is recognised as the world's most efficient postal organisation - they're number two in Germany, Italy and the UK markets.
When he sold to TNT, Wells thought he would be around for a couple of years or so to collect his earn-out, but he hadn't factored in the thrill of the chase. "I'm someone who enjoys a stimulating business environment, and I suppose my entrepreneurial genes were re-activated," he says. "I've never had a long-term career plan - there are opportunities that you can't anticipate. When TNT acquired my business I didn't think this is great, now I can lead a charge on the Royal Mail.
"The postal industry is in decline because of digital communication, that's true, but we've created a position where we have gained over 50% of the downstream market. What we are looking at are ways of sweating our assets and expertise. Why couldn't we provide e-commerce supply cahin management as a service, or utilise our trucks and vans for other deliveries?"
The ambition is to create their own 'final mile' delivery network, which they're piloting in parts of west London with 'orange postmen'. "But there are three letters, VAT, which make it difficult for us," says Wells. "The Royal Mail don't have to charge it for letter post; we do. So it's not a level playing field."
Wells doesn't buy the argument that the Royal Mail deserves some kind of dispensation because it has the 'universal service' obligation to deliver to every household in the United Kingdom if required, regardless of remote location, six days a week. "In Holland, for example, the incumbent, Post NL, has the same obligation but has improved quality and service with deregulation because that's what competition stimulates," he says. "Would BT be the worldclass company it is today if it wasn't part of a competitive market?
"But there is a real complexity about operating commercially in a regulatory environment, because it influences how you define your strategy, and then to implement it, there can be political issues to address.
"My approach to business is informal but professional and results orientated. I guess my style hasn't changed that much over the years. A cheif executive has to create a clear path for the company, communicate it, and then make sure that people are stimulated and motivated to engage with it. It's that old adage - tell people and they'll forget; involve them and they'll be engaged."
Although deregulation was the catalyst for change, TNT Post UK under Wells' watch is the company which is re-shaping the market. And it's interesting that TNT Post didn't parachute one of their existing executives already experienced in the transition to a deregulated postal market. "I suppose it was a leap of faith," says Wells, "but at the time, and I was involved in the discussions, nobody knew how quickly it would grow. TNT post wanted to give the business the scope to be entreprenurial, but, yes, it was a lap of faith."
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