An interview with Peter Bibby

Wirral Life talk to Wirral’s Peter Bibby of Liverpool’s legendary Bibby Line Group Limited on family history, business and his love of Wirral.

peter bibby

The Bibby Line, the world’s oldest family owned shipping company and the UK’s largest family owned distribution company, was founded in 1807 by the first John Bibby (1775–1840). He was a penniless Eccleston farmer – who aged 25, came to Liverpool to become a ship’s iron merchant. He spotted an opportunity and tried his hand at shipping to reach overseas markets. He became very successful before he was brutally murdered for his pocket watch aged 65. The business then passed to his sons, who continued to successfully develop the business, which has continued as a shipping line to this day.

After some seriously stormy waters in the mid-1980s, the Bibby brand intelligently diversified into financial services, haulage, retail and private-equity-style investments in businesses. This helped it to survive and grow while local rivals, such as Cunard and White Star, disappeared or were swallowed up by others. Bibby Line Group today is headed by the sixth generation of the Bibby family, and is a £1.2 billion business, operating in more than 20 countries and employing over 4,500 people in industries including retail, offshore, financial services, distribution, shipping, marine based businesses, and plant hire.

Peter’s Father, Sir Derek James Bibby was born at Hooton in 1922. He was the son of Major Sir Harold Bibby, who was created a baronet in 1959. From 1935 to 1969 Sir Harold was chairman of Bibby Line; he was also Deputy Lieutenant for Cheshire and High Sheriff in 1934-5. After Rugby and Trinity College, Oxford, where he read Economics, Derek Bibby joined the Royal Artillery in the New Year of 1942. He was commissioned a few days before his 20th birthday, and his unit was posted to 331 battery of 133 Field Regiment of the 53rd Welsh Division. For almost two years they were employed on exercises at artillery ranges around Britain. Bibby fought through Belgium and Holland, once getting lost in a minefield in thick fog, and on to Germany. After the war Bibby joined the family business and was the fifth generation to do so. On his first day his father called him into his office and told the new recruit: “Never borrow any money, so that you can never go broke”. But the young Bibby disagreed: in future years he was prepared to borrow money, a calculated risk which some believe secured the long-term future of the business. In 1986 Bibby succeeded in the baronetcy on the death of his father. Six years later, aged 70, he became honorary president of the group. Derek Bibby’s other main interest was the Birkenhead Boys’ Club, which he supported from 1953 until his death. He married, in 1961, Christine Okell, daughter of the Bishop of Stockport. They had four sons and a daughter and resided in Wirral.

Peter Bibby is the son of Sir Derek Bibby and great-great-great-grandson of the founder. Wirral Life talk to Peter in a very down to earth interview.

Tell us a little about yourself.
I would consider myself a fun loving person, who enjoys a challenge but lives a modest life, working hard and playing hard. I lived in Willaston until my mum sold the family home and made me homeless at nearly 40, then I went from being young free and single to married with children in 2 years. I am equally as at home at a lock-in in a rough Birkenhead pub as a black tie ball at the polo club.

Your dad encouraged you all to get different jobs first and make your own way, before deciding if you wanted to work for the family business. How did your story begin?
After University I didn’t want to become an accountant like my brothers and sister but wanted to go into industry and became a management trainee with British Rail. I was then offered a job to run a small lifejacket company on Merseyside, which was going bust, it was an opportunity to get some experience and potentially make good – we turned it into the World’s largest manufacturer of marine inflatable lifejackets. Having turned it around I was approached by a watersports company, Typhoon, which was also in financial trouble and we took it to become the world’s largest manufacturer of drysuits. I also helped turnaround Downland Bedding in Liverpool growing it from £3m to £15m, Denbridge Marine based in Birkenhead, Jarmac Oil based in Eastham and Garic based in Bury. After running Typhoon for 20 years I sold the business and left there last year. I have purchased my next business venture, British Bespoke Workwear, which manufactures aprons, tabards, chef jackets etc as well as embroidering or printing workwear for the likes of Morrisons supermarket and local Councils. This is my latest challenge.

We’ve only just scratched the surface on your fascinating family history, what values have been passed down?
There are many values passed down from our parents, which can be seen in us as individuals as well as in the business.

  • Giving Something Back (GSB) – not only are all 5 children directly involved in charitable activities but the family business has run a GSB scheme for the last 10 years with its staff, donating nearly £10m to charities. We have been brought up to help those less fortunate than ourselves.
  • Integrity – we were brought up to act with integrity and treat others as we would expect to be treated. The family name and reputation is worth more than making ‘an extra buck’ here and there and again this is part of the business culture and values.
  • Value – we are known for not spending our money (my VW car has done 275,000 miles and won’t be replaced until it gives up) and I’m always looking for efficiencies and improvements.
  • Loyalty and pride are also characteristics that I think are undervalued, be it to your staff, company, local football club or country – this attribute is invaluable but needs to be two way.

As a 6th generation family business, we own the business technically – but in reality we are just custodians of the business and it is only ours to pass onto the next generation.

Are you still involved in the day to day running of Bibby Line or do you have other business interests?
I don’t work for the family business directly as I have my own businesses, but I do project work for Bibby Line Group, such as running one of their smaller subsidiary companies, Garic, which needed turning around and growing, and once put on the right path (turnover was 30% up on previous year) we recruited a full time MD, as I couldn’t do it full time due to my other businesses. In truth, although we are all very proud of the family business, it is so large it is very corporate and I am too used to running my own business without a lot of corporate rules and governance – I prefer to get on and do it, rather than reporting and discussing it!

Your dad stepped in to save Birkenhead Boys Club from closure because of his belief it could make a massive difference to the local community in 1953 when he was 31 – earning respect from the local lads by teaching them Judo and other real life unconventional self-defence moves, he’d learned in WW2. Derek literally helped turn the corner for the place as it struggled to survive after the war, by moving them to a much bigger and better place. The club was aptly renamed in 2004 “The Derek Bibby Centre” to commemorate his time and generosity. Both you and your brother Geoffrey are now responsible for the running of the club continuing your dad’s legacy, tell us more…
The Youth Club is a great facility in central Birkenhead, with lots of activities, 2 outdoor 5-a-side pitches and 2 indoor gyms (one full of trampolines and free running). We have nearly 1,000 members with up to 100 per night in attendance, along with 12 football teams playing at the weekend. All thanks to private donors and lots of volunteers, as we run on a small budget and need to raise £20,000 a year. Most kids have limited experiences as the following example at the weekly barbecues during the summer holiday at our home revealed: When playing on the manicured lawn, called “the back yard”, I was asked where we buy all the birds in the trees from. Trying to explain that apples grow on trees not trays and you can eat them off the tree was also pretty tricky. We at least give them wider experiences and opportunities to develop, which many of us take for granted.

With so many aspects to your businesses keeping you busy, how do you relax?
I don’t do relaxing very well, as I don’t read books, watch TV/films or sit around. My hobbies are activity and people based – football, tennis, cricket, dancing and parties! Much to the disbelief of the people I meet out partying – I don’t drink – I am mad enough without it!

Do you and your siblings, Michael, Geoffrey, David and Jennifer get together for family occasions often?
Yes, we all meet up for family occasions, which with 13 children between us, are now rather large affairs.

You have resided in Wirral for many years, what are your favourite things about the Wirral?
It is a great place to live as everything is so close and well connected, within 45 minutes there are beaches, hills, four major cities, two international airports and you can even be in London in just over 2 hours. There is something for everyone with the countryside, beaches, and plenty of sporting and social activities. The best thing about the Wirral is the people – everyone is so friendly and being a defined area everyone knows everyone and so it is easy to make friends and meet new people – as my wife found when she moved up from London (she was used to a city full of strangers) and was soon telling me who people were!

As a Founder Patron of new Wirral Youth Zone, The Hive, how did you get involved?
I have run the Birkenhead Youth Club for 20 years. 9 years ago I visited the Bolton Lads and Girls Club, which set a new standard for Youth Clubs, and came away wanting a similar one for the Wirral. Luckily an organisation called Onside was set up to build more of these clubs. So we worked on the Council and eventually got them on board, the Fire station donated the land and then we had to raise £6m – I said no chance, we should scale it back. But Onside set about helping to raise this money and incredibly raised it, then also raised the first 3 years of running costs. Design, planning, build, recruitment, etc, all begun to happen until we finally arrived at The Hive – far better than I ever imagined. With over 3,000 members in 3 weeks and 300 to 400 young people attending every day, it is incredible and makes it all worthwhile. We try to compliment existing facilities and clubs and in doing so the Birkenhead Youth Club continues to thrive as well as The Hive.

Where is your favourite holiday destination?
I am more than happy with a week in North Wales in the summer or a weekend in autumn, doing activities and meeting people. I am no good at sitting on a sun lounger and having travelled with work, I am quite happy to not get on a plane.

Sea dog or sea sick?
A bit of both. My first work experience job was to work on a ship going from Scotland to Europe with a Spanish crew. As 6th generation of a shipping family I was mortified to be seasick most of my time at sea – I blamed the Spanish food! However, I do enjoy sailing small sailboats when I can, but haven’t been offshore since my work experience!

Where do you like to eat out? If so where?
Again, I am rather dull on my likes – I can say that I am plain and simple. I am happy with a burger and chips, with a roast or a steak being a treat. Leila, my wife, is a foodie so this does cause a bit of trouble – I charm her with a carvery! She has to go for exotic food with someone else (unless it’s with meat & two veg).

What’s your guilty pleasure?
No guilt – just chocolate. Cola, chocolate and I am buzzing!
Pet hate – waste. I can’t stand waste, be it space, time, wasting paper, anything. I love recycling and take home rubbish to recycle.

Looking to the future, what is important to you and what else would you like to achieve?
The thing that is important to me is making people happy and doing things that can achieve that. So when I have made money I have put it into a Charitable Trust, which I use to support people to help them achieve their worthy cause. There are so many people working so hard to improve things, such as Ema at Neo Café, who works tirelessly to feed Wirral children in poverty, Kevin Allen (aka Banana man), who helps feed starving orphans in South Africa and of course the staff and volunteers at both Birkenhead Youth Club and the Hive. There are too many good causes to support them all, so I help where I can personally see the difference. A fine example is this month (Sunday 14th May) when the Oxton Secret Gardens, which attracts thousands of visitors to see over 20 gardens and donates the income to local charities. It is run by volunteers and I do my small bit by driving the minibus from the free car park to the village – everyone has time and so everyone can donate in their own small way.

What would your one piece of business wisdom be?
Assuming you have a product that will sell, then it’s all about managing the people. In every business that I have turned around, I have done it with the same people and just refocused them accordingly. Make sure that you have each area of the business covered (sales, finance, operations, product knowledge/technical/quality) because if one of these areas is poor the business will probably fail at some stage. Maximise people’s strengths and minimise their weaknesses – I know my own weaknesses so I minimise them by asking the right people the right questions. Keep your staff informed and explain decisions, otherwise they will be become disengaged and assume the worst – the easiest time to motivate people and get them pulling in the same direction is when you are in trouble. Sink or swim.