An Exciting Future at Mixed Freight

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Leadership And Insights From One Of Mixed Freight’s Directors, Steve O’Keeffe

How Can We Prepare For Our Industry's Evolution?

When Steve was 21, he believed he’d be pursuing a career in hotel management for life. That was until he spent time in Windsor, where he recalls watching planes flying overhead and wanting to know where they could be going.

With his background growing up in hotels with his parents around the country, he got the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life and different cultures. It was this curiosity and ambition to meet and work with people from around the world, that vision to look beyond borders, that drew him to Heathrow.

He made the decision that he would follow this curiosity, and so he left the world of hotels behind and joined Mixed Freight in 1989 as a driver. He decided at a young age to give up a nomad lifestyle, moving from hotel to hotel, and that instead Heathrow would become his base for the next chapter of his life.

Now, over 32 years later, he is one of the directors of the country’s leading aviation transport logistics and handling companies. Steve has played an influential role in transforming not only Mixed Freight over the last 32 years, but with his knowledge he’s also influenced the industry itself. Now, he is looking to the future.

”Our industry has faced some of its biggest challenges in a generation; with the impact of Brexit, compromised supply chains, post-pandemic recovery, drivers’ shortages, and the demand for sustainable energy, we need to prepare for evolution.”

Steve tells us about his journey, career, and vision for Mixed Freight’s future.

How did you go from being a driver to one of Mixed Freight’s directors? Did you imagine you’d get to the position you’re at now?

I imagined there would be a future for me if I stayed in the company for the long-run, but I didn’t know what that outcome could be. I started off driving which gave me an insight into Heathrow and the South of England. Eventually I was asked to join the office, and then worked my way into operations, through to the role of Operations Manager, then to the role of General Manager.

During that time, I got more involved in all aspects of the company, specialising particularly in transport, aviation logistics and security screening. Although I’m one of the directors, I always work alongside people on the shopfloor. Our ethos is: if we need to, we’ll do - we always collectively work together. That’s the character of this company.

We can’t achieve what we do as individuals. Because we have to work as a collective, that often removes a sense of hierarchy. Everyone’s efforts matter, from our HR team to accounts, maintenance, warehouse, drivers and beyond.

How did you become more directly involved in industry at Heathrow? 

Over time, I was invited to join a number of the working groups within the industry, to share my knowledge and expertise gained from the aviation and transport logistics sectors. These working groups involved the likes of the Department for Transport, Civil Aviation Authority and Heathrow Airport. They were engagement platforms for discussing industry topics, ideas and modern learning, which aid the growth and development of our industry.

I was very interested in the Research & Development (R&D) within aviation security screening of cargo and the future generation of employees within the global supply chain. In conjunction with my transport and cargo knowledge gained over the years from working at Heathrow, I offered a comprehensive and insightful skillset which helped to facilitate and support these groups.

Many years ago, I saw that Heathrow was missing an opportunity. At an industry event which I attended, the acting CEO of Heathrow at the time was talking a great deal about passengers but not so much about cargo. I had to ask the question why? I followed up with an email supporting the proposition that passengers may be a fundamental revenue stream for Heathrow airport, but every airline is also a customer for Heathrow, and on every airplane, cargo carried an equally important revenue stream for the airlines’ operational capabilities. If Heathrow was to expand, they needed to embrace the global world of cargo and logistics.

When studied and analysed, it was discovered just how much revenue was brought into and out of the country through imports and exports. Heathrow is the global modern market and a perfect place to do business with the world. I don’t think many people truly realised the power of the UK PLC branding around the world. There had been minimal research conducted on cargo and when we approached Co-Innovate in combination with Brunel University, it soon became apparent from working with international graduates there was a desire and thirst to gain knowledge about such a unique industry which cannot be learnt within schools, colleges or universities.

Over time, I became flattered by approaches from incredibly educated international students looking for that unique opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge of industry. I shared my knowledge with them and learnt a lot from the students’ learning in return; we both gained so much from the partnership. Giving a presentation in the Houses of Parliament accompanied by a petrified graduate, offers an insight into one of these unique experiences. Some of these graduates became assets to companies working around Heathrow, bringing their cultural and international knowledge to grow their business markets.

It was evident we had to bring in new blood; 16 and 17-year-olds from the local community. That’s why we offered apprenticeships that would help structure the future development of Mixed Freight and give some young people hands-on experience and training. With guidance, industry support and learning, the apprenticeships were incredibly successful and have since progressed to become managers and heads of their department at Mixed Freight.

How has Mixed Freight been at the forefront of industry for over the last 35 years?

I don’t think we necessarily set out to break boundaries, but we’ve always had the mindset of what can we do to help our clients, and how can we improve? Just because we’re doing something right now, that doesn’t mean it has to be done in the way we continue to do it.

When we look at something challenging like transporting a rare black rhino, preparing vehicles for Notting Hill Carnival, or handling prestigious cars, we come up with ideas and possible solutions rather than thinking that’s too difficult or it’s not the norm in what we do.

We engage with lots of different aspects in the industry, not just transportation, which means we’ve learnt to diversify all of our systems including security screening, warehousing, offering comprehensive services to clients and facilitating R&D. We’re curious. We like to learn, and we like to try and help our customers, and I think that curiosity and willingness has been the key to our success and evolution.

More than that, we’re open 24/7, 365 days a year. It’s not a usual 9-5 place of work. Heathrow is a gateway to the world, and it’s constantly on the move, which is why we’re constantly on the move too. It’s really a place unlike any other.

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What are the challenges facing the industry in 2022 and beyond? How can we prepare for its evolution?

2022 is going to mark the regeneration of aviation, which has been so badly compromised over the last couple of years. We need to find new ways of moving forward and supporting UK PLC. Now that we’ve come out of Europe, we need to build new air bridges – we made the decision, and now we’ve got to make it work.

At Mixed Freight, we’ve already engaged and interacted with new talent whose backgrounds and heritages come from around the globe. Their cultural understanding is important for doing business with the world; having people on our team who can speak a variety of languages to international customers is a great asset. Heathrow has tremendous influence over Britain, we must make sure it’s prepared and ready to support new trade routes, emerging markets, and business relationships.

Another challenge is, of course, to find sustainable energy solutions for transportation. This requires us to find solutions for commercial vehicles that need to travel to the other end of the country whilst keeping within their delivery timeframes; this is particularly important for sensitive supply chains such as food and drugs. Even a popular, mainstream solution like electric vehicles couldn’t meet the challenges for long-haul journeys. However, there could be more long-term solutions in development, such as vehicles that run on hydrogen, which could offer a much more rational option.

No matter what, ideas and solutions have to be found.

What are the challenges facing the industry in 2022 and beyond? How can we prepare for its evolution?

At the beginning of January, I wrote down my 3 goals for 2022: restructuring in preparation for the return of more activity across industry and aviation, recruiting new talent, and finally, training and equipping everyone with new skills and confidence. With the wider team and directors’ ideas combined, we believe we can facilitate the growth and evolution of Mixed Freight.

Last year, we invested heavily in our fleet of commercial trucks, which, we knew, was a hefty expenditure but had to be done to prepare us for the future. We developed our security infrastructure, ULD Rollerbed Systems and expanded our warehouse facilities with additional operating, handling and working spaces.

Finally, what advice would you give to the next generation?

If I gave you a pound a day that doubled in value for the next 30 days or 5 million in cash right now, which one would you take? 5 million might be the obvious answer, but that one pound a day gains you a much bigger reward down the line. There are no real shortcut gains in business and in life. It takes time and a lot of hard work, but it pays off in the end. Point yourself in the right direction, make some smart choices, sustain yourself and go for it.

Mixed Freight is committed to being at the forefront of the UK’s transportation, logistics, aviation, and handling evolution; and so much more. When you need expert, capable hands at any time round the clock, we’re here, and ready to help. If you’d like to speak to Steve or any members of the Mixed Freight team, don’t hesitate to contact us today.