Spotlight on entrepreneurs: Hilary Devey CBE

Self-made businesswoman Hilary Devey triumphed over adversity to achieve her £100 million business empire through sheer hard work.

The former investor on TV entrepreneurial show Dragons’ Den had a traumatic childhood – when extreme poverty led to bailiffs taking her family’s furniture.

The 65-year-old Bolton-born businesswoman recalled all the furniture being removed from their family home, after her father’s heating company went bust and he was declared bankrupt. Eventually, he recovered from financial disaster to run a series of pubs and hotels.

Early years

Devey was expected to work in the family business, while her brothers continued with their education. Being a girl, it wasn’t considered as important that she stayed in school and she left at 16. Rather than this being detrimental to her career, she saw it as an opportunity, as it enabled her to learn how to run a business from an early age.

At the age of 20, she started work as a sales clerk with a distribution company. Gaining plenty of experience in the industry, she worked her way up at Tibbett and Britten, later becoming sales director at Scorpio Logistics. She then joined TNT, spending seven years as national sales manager.

Finally deciding she wanted to be her own boss, she applied for a bank loan to start her own business in 1995 but was turned down. Undeterred, she sold her house and car to fund the start-up. She faced incredible challenges and suffered hardship to follow her dreams.

Business launch

In 1996, she launched Pall-Ex in a disused RAF hangar. Her pallet exchange business consisted of one truck – it had one employee. She signed up 35 hauliers and this enabled her company to cover the whole of the UK.

From humble beginnings, her multi-million-pound business empire now distributes around 30,000 pallets per day from a central hub in Leicestershire. It has more than 90 network members and annual turnover  of £85 million.

Devey sold the business to its network membership and management in October 2019 for an undisclosed sum.

Dragon’s Den

In February 2011, she became a “Dragon” on Dragon’s Den after investor James Caan left the series. In an interview at the time, she spoke frankly about the personal challenges she had faced in her life. She had a stroke following surgery, but remained upbeat, despite it leaving lasting effects, including one of her hands being paralysed. She wasn’t able to drive due to the after-effects but said her “brain is still as sharp as ever” and she could afford to pay a chauffeur, so it didn’t impact on her life in a huge way.

She won several business awards, including being named the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2007 and the 2008 British Chamber of Commerce Entrepreneur of the Year. She made history in 2009 by being the first woman to win the Sir Robert Lawrence Award – the UK’s premier award for transport and logistics.

Known as a great philanthropist, she supported many charities. In particular, The Stroke Association and the Princess Royal Trust for Carers were very important to her.

Secret Millionaire

More recently, she was a key business speaker at conferences and events, while also investing in and coaching people within the industry. She appeared on The Secret Millionaire – the TV show where millionaires go back to their roots incognito, meet local people and invest in worthwhile community projects and individuals.

She travelled to Rochdale’s Falinge estate, a few miles from where she grew up, living undercover for 10 days and posing as a documentary-maker. The estate has a high number of people claiming incapacity benefits. Devey visited numerous community projects, including Syke Base Community Centre, where she met the founder and volunteer Sheila Acton, aged 70.

She was so impressed by what she saw that she doubled her initial planned donation, saying that the whole experience had changed her views. She was quoted as saying, “Money’s not my God, it’s people that matter.”

Inspirational speaker

Described as having the ability to inspire others, her down-to-earth approach to business made her advice easy to follow. When offering advice to those trying to start their own business, she would say the business plan must have a “realistic projection that’s accurate and concise”.

Devey advised would-be entrepreneurs to “understand the market, people, competition and the opportunities”, adding, “Don’t over-complicate yourself or your product.”

When asked by interviewers about the worst job she ever had, she insisted, “This does not apply. I have made it good.” She always remained open-minded about the things she would consider investing in, saying, “I wouldn’t alienate anything.”

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