The Big Interview: Fiona Deas of Eagle Couriers

It's a source of some amusement to the co-director of Eagle Couriers that not so long ago the Business Woman of the Year had to do deliveries herself '“ including one urgent consignment of Christmas puddings on 24 December.

Fiona Deas spearheaded the MBO of Eagle Couriers in 2006. Picture: Scott Louden

But Fiona Deas can’t hide her pride at being honoured at The Scottish Women’s Awards 2018 last month, after 21 years at the Bathgate-based business, where she has had to make the key decisions on everything from ordering vans to integrating acquisitions at Scotland’s largest independent courier.

“It’s been lovely, I must admit… a lot of people have come forward that I haven’t seen or spoken to for ages and congratulated me.”

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Deas was “surprised but very pleased” with her nomination, and after winning was keen to praise the other finalists in her category – Susan Ireland of Hickory Foods, Tracey Hogarth of Freedom Brands, Carol Thomson of drug delivery firm BDD and Frances Rus of optician Duncan & Todd.

The awards looked to honour achievements in a host of sectors. “When you see women who are really fighting in a man’s world, it’s nice to have an event like that where you get to meet them and have a chat and just see how tough it can be out there,” says Deas, whose own sector, with 96 per cent male employees, makes talk of a glass ceiling almost beside the point.

“To try and even have a voice there, to get people to listen to you and not just assume that because you’re female you know nothing about it, that in itself is quite hard work.”

Gaining respect from men for doing a good job “is a massive challenge – but fantastic when you get it”.

Deas landed at Eagle as finance manager in 1997 after working at an accountancy practice, in manufacturing and in health care.

Accountancy was her second choice after her dream of becoming a pilot fell by the wayside because her eyesight didn’t make the grade.

Yet circuitously, she is now working with airlines. In March, Eagle revealed that it had snapped up baggage repatriation provider THS Couriers, broadening its reach and reinforcing its presence south of the border.

THS specialises in providing baggage recovery for major airlines throughout the UK, including Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Emirates and Jet2. It handles more than 100,000 bags a year across 16 airports, from Heathrow to Inverness.

Deas said when the deal was announced that it was a “milestone” for Eagle, and would help it “turbocharge” its network and service.

Not only does the summer peak for airline travel complement a relatively quiet period for the Scottish business, but also the presence of THS in major UK airports provides an excellent opportunity to see growth take off. “It’s quite an exciting time to use all the infrastructure that we’ve got now and expand on it,” says Deas.

Describing Eagle’s broader mergers and acquisitions strategy, Deas says: “We’re organically growing anyway, and then when we see the possibilities to get into slightly different markets, then we’re happy to look into them and take them on.”

Her appetite for expansion reflects the industry’s lucrative prospects. According to the Pitney Bowes Shipping Index, last year in the UK 3.2 billion parcels were shipped, a year-on-year jump of 8.2 per cent, although that market is dominated by the top five carriers, with Royal Mail, Hermes, Amazon Logistics, DHL and UPS, undertaking about 80 per cent of shipments.

Competition for the rest of the market is fierce, with even taxi companies such as Uber “trying to infringe on our market a little bit”.

Against such a backdrop, Deas flags up Eagle’s need to constantly adapt, progress and demonstrate a willingness to do “the extra jobs, the things that other companies just don’t touch”.

“We’re a company that likes to say yes – we will find a solution for our customers,” she says.

As well as being able to deliver worldwide with partners, Eagle covers the whole of Scotland, and the challenging, rural terrain that can entail.

It carries out a large proportion of the Scottish activity for logistics giant UPS, while its work in remote areas includes transporting dead birds of prey, such 
as golden eagles, from the likes of Orkney for a University of Edinburgh project examining environmental threats.

Another of Eagle’s memorable avian deliveries followed a request to return a racing pigeon after it was blown off course and stranded 100 miles away from home. Nicknamed Fife Frank, the bird was retrieved within three hours.

Other tasks that stand out for Deas are taking the Calcutta Cup from Edinburgh to London, and the Scottish rugby team’s kit to Italy – Eagle has even transported an urn of ashes. “You don’t know what’s going to come in until the phone rings or an email pops up,” says Deas. “That’s what makes it so challenging as well… you’ve got to magic drivers out of thin air sometimes.”

The firm, which started out in 1985, boasts around 120 of its own drivers in addition to 30 office-based staff. And while the arrival of fax machines and then the internet challenged Eagle’s reliance on delivering documents, the business has stayed airborne by pursuing a path of “adapting and growing, and changing and going with what’s required”.

It now has about 3,500 clients, including media organisations such as the BBC, with delivered items including sports footage, scripts and props.

A large part of its work is for the public sector, including government and council paperwork, police warrants, and services for the NHS.

Deliveries include heart valves, body parts and medication for people needing palliative care at home.

Additionally, the firm is looking to boost the green credentials of its fleet. In June, it welcomed Humza Yousaf, then Scottish transport minister, to discuss trialling new electric courier vans, which would contribute to the Scottish Government’s target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 90 per cent by 2050.

However, Deas says there are plenty of obstacles to Eagle going entirely electric, with commercial vehicles of this kind “just not ready to do the type of work we do”. Escalating fuel, insurance and staffing costs, and the pressure from retailers and online customers who insist on a cheap, same-day delivery services, make such big commitments even trickier.

“It’s really difficult to balance it all up and get the numbers to square at the end of the day,” says Deas.

She runs the business with co-director Jerry Stewart, whom she describes as being more on the operational side. They own equal stakes that together comprise the majority of the business.

Her leading role in Eagle Couriers dates from 2006 when she spearheaded the company’s management buyout. “It does make it interesting and challenging for me… I’m really keen for it to stay that way.”

And as for succession planning, she favours another MBO further down the line by the next generation which would see Eagle fly higher as it becomes known as the “go-to” name for distribution.

“That would be a great way to take it forward”.