For Lawsons, being the first builders’ merchant in the UK to field a gas-powered truck was something of a gamble. But according to company MD, Paul Sexton, the move is paying off in spades.

“We didn’t think the truck would make such a big impact. Customers are specifically asking us to use it when we deliver their supplies, and our driver says it’s the best one he’s ever driven!” So says Paul Sexton, managing director of Lawsons, one of the largest independent builders’ merchants in London and the South East.

He’s talking about the company’s first gas-powered truck: a 26-tonne Iveco Stralis NP 6×2 rigid. It arrived at its Camden depot in early 2018, running on CNG.

As we’re waiting in the company’s head office in Colney Heath, we notice a copy of Professional Builders Merchant magazine proudly on display with the vehicle in question emblazoned on the front cover.

Leap of faith

The industry as a whole has taken note, as Paul continues: “It was a perfect opportunity to shout from the rooftops on being the first builders’ merchant in the country to operate a gas-powered truck.

“We took a leap of faith, but have been really impressed with its performance – and so have our customers.”

Serving local builders and tradesmen as well as DIY enthusiasts, John Lawson is the third-generation owner of the family business.

His son Simon – now chairman – joined in the early 1990s and Lawsons has grown to become a big player in the repair, maintenance and improvement market, supplying building materials, fencing, garden buildings, specialist loft conversion products and timber.

Made up of three brands – Lawsons Whetstone, Crowthorne Timber and Fencing and Sharvatt Woolwich – and with a combined turnover of more than £100 million, its network of 17 branches stretches from Bedford in the north to Crawley in the south.

Despite all the fears around Brexit, there are no signs of slowing down anytime soon either. The Colney Heath depot – its head office since 2003 – is currently undergoing an impressive £2 million makeover. A new warehouse and additional office space are all set to be completed later this year.

Along with a proposed £3 million redevelopment of its New Malden depot, the company reckons the future is looking bright.

Thermal gloves and goggles are vital when refuelling with natural gas


Finding the right solution

Lawsons operates a 93-strong fleet comprising 67 trucks ranging from 12-44 tonnes, plus 26 vans.

And before 2018, you wouldn’t have seen an Iveco badge anywhere in the fleet – it was previously comprised almost solely of DAF, MAN and Scania wagons.

So why the change? The man with the answer is Lawsons’ group transport manager, David Harvey, who has been in charge of the company’s fleet since 2010.

“As the government is trying to drive diesel vehicles off the road, we found ourselves in an automotive industry obsessed with moving everything to electric,” he tells us.

“That’s fine if you want to drive a Tesla or run a light van, but it doesn’t work for us currently; we’re moving very heavy building materials where payload is king.”

“Simon is very big on sustainability and the environment, so we began talking to manufacturers about the possibility of gas. The first time we looked at it was around 2014, but the only place we could refuel a vehicle was in Milton Keynes – and estimates suggested building our own refilling station could cost £250,000!”

“So the idea was put to bed for about six months, until I went to an FTA seminar and was told Camden Council had opened a new gas refilling station. But the company due to operate it later pulled out of the deal!”

“However, I went to another FTA seminar in October 2016 and spoke to Iveco, which said
the facility in Camden was finally going to open.”

David looked at the various gas truck options on the market, and a very helpful Terry Pocock at Northern Commercials in Dunstable confirmed Iveco was able to supply and deliver a gas-powered vehicle faster than the rest.

Perfect match

Built for operation primarily around Greater London and conveniently based just half a mile from Camden’s CNG refilling station, the 6×2 rigid is mounted with a flatbed body by Colliers Truck Builders and features a Hiab X-HiPro 142E-2 crane, which uses an electric power take-off (ePTO) for silent loading.

This low-noise operation is drawing plaudits from both drivers and customers alike. The
ultra-clean 7.8-litre natural gas engine is around 50 per cent quieter than the equivalent diesel.

Yet it is perfectly matched in terms of on-road performance. This makes it well suited for Lawsons’ deliveries to residential areas.

“We’ve got several customers doing building work on basement properties in Kensington and Chelsea, mostly in small mews or really tight cul-de-sacs,” Paul explains.

“No-one likes the sound of digging and excavation work being done at the property next door, and these can be two-year builds sometimes. But with this truck, we can now turn up on site and operate with hardly any noise.”

“The difference compared to diesel is incredible. We’ve talked to lots of competitors and some of the larger ones in particular are very envious!”

“It’s still too early to get a clear idea of savings, but we’re hoping to see some good returns once it’s been in operation for around 18 months.”

Refilling is easy: driver swipes a fob to authorise the pump

Going for Gold

Lawsons’ fleet currently meets Silver requirements for FORS (Fleet Operators Recognition Scheme), but to meet Gold it needs to demonstrate a drive towards better fuel efficiency.

“This latest purchase will certainly help us to make that step up,” says Paul. Maintenance work is being carried out by Iveco dealer Acorn Trucks in Waltham Cross, backed by a comprehensive Iveco Elements R&M package.

Strong aftersales support is crucial for Lawsons, and Paul says it hasn’t just been the performance of the truck which has impressed him.

“The support from Acorn Trucks has been second to none,” he says. “We take advantage of overnight servicing to reduce any issues of downtime, as our driver can run it to Waltham Cross after finishing his deliveries and they have it ready for him the next morning.”

“With our strict delivery schedule, it’s absolutely crucial we don’t impact on fleet uptime during the working day. Losing a truck can cost us thousands of pounds – but Iveco has tailored the package to ensure that never happens.”

David adds: “They made the whole process very easy and had all the answers to the questions we asked. Although this was our first experience with the brand, the quality of the truck and aftersales package has been fantastic.”

“It’s earned Iveco a place on our shopping list, alongside marques we’ve been purchasing for years.”

Keeping up with the times

With David’s experience of the fleet industry going back nearly 40 years, he has seen a lot of change in how builders’ merchants like Lawsons specify their fleet.

Reminiscing, he says: “Like most, our delivery fleet has got a lot heavier over the years. In the late 1970s, operators in this business would run a lot of 3.5-tonne and 7.5-tonne tippers.

“But as councils became more alert to the amount of sand and debris that was finding its way into the drainage system, they started to clamp down on a merchant’s rite to tip in the roadway, leading to how sand is delivered in bulk bags today.”

“This resulted in the near death of the smaller tipper and an increase in the capacity of the cranes, hence the trend shifted to merchants concentrating on trucks from 18-tonnes upwards.”

“Vehicle specifications also depend very much on where you are based and the areas you are delivering to. A lot of our fleet works in London, so we must cope with some fairly restricted access, particularly in the narrowest urban streets.”

“That means manoeuvrability is paramount, so we look very carefully at the overall vehicle length, wheelbase and turning circle before buying anything new. This was just as important with the gas truck – we couldn’t afford to make any trade-offs in performance versus the rest of our fleet.”

Since buying the Stralis, Lawsons’ move towards alternative fuels is now starting to gather pace. Two 3.5-tonne Iveco Daily Blue Power vans running on CNG were delivered to Lawsons’ Camden branch at the start of April, coinciding with London’s new Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) coming
into force.

Paul and David are also hopeful the company’s Camden branch will be able to operate its own dedicated CNG- refilling station in the future.

“Camden is the nearest branch we have to central London and the ULEZ, so it was the obvious base for our first gas truck. But one of the issues we’ve got is refuelling, as the vehicle is queuing with all of Camden Council’s vehicles and other operators in the area,” Paul says.

“But if all 13 of our vehicles based there can one day be fuelled by natural gas, that would make it viable to look at our own refuelling solution.”