MT Business Lifeforms: The self-made man

Derek Tarling may look like a Costa-tanned rich geezer but he's a real diamond.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

To visit Derek Tarling's Surrey estate is to enter the land that taste forgot. Stone-effect lions flank the gates. A Versailles planting 'n' portico scheme takes you up to a Tudorbethan pile that looks like a Barratt home on steroids. Mercifully, the superannuated Footballer's Wife that is Mrs T put her stilettoed foot down when it came to a novelty doorbell chime.

Tarling himself does not disappoint. He's portly, with a Costa complexion and shiny suit. Fond of a drink, enjoys a cigar, likes his golf, loves his motors, votes Tory, hates Tony, loves Spain, hates the EU ... In fact, if you want stereotypes, we're not doing badly: Derek seems the self-made archetype - the scrap metal merchant (in his case, fresh produce haulier) made good, a fat, happy ex-yobbo living the life of Riley, cocking a snook at the middle-class business types, who despise and envy him in equal measure.

But who is the businessman behind the man?

The DT story has an inauspicious start. Our man was born in Luton, a town famous for the now-defunct Vauxhall plant and, lately, a bright orange airline. He likes to joke that he is an 'Old Lutonian', and that all you need to know about life and business can be found on the streets of the 'Paris of Bedfordshire'. He left school at 16 with a clutch of respectable O-levels; no Stephen Hawking, but not dim either. As a teenager, he was blessed with far more than his fair share of eQ (entreprenurial intelligence).

And, as he points out, there are plenty of Oxford graduates on very average salaries these days.

He started work humping crates for a fresh-produce delivery business, but - thanks to his sharp wits and lightning mental arithmetic - quickly moved on to stock and inventory control. Two years in and he knew he could run the business. Refused promotion and a pay rise, he quit, bought a van and started to do everything better, quicker and cheaper. Some said his price advantage was down to a dodgy mate at the wholesaler, but no-one ever proved it. Three years later, Derek bought out his first employer.

He celebrated by marrying the fabulously brassy Emma Green, who, a rather impatient eight months later, bore his son and heir, Derek junior.

And this - in business and life - has been his modus operandi for the past 20 years. Through organic growth and acquisition, he has built up the largest produce-haulage business in England. His ubiquitous trucks with the distinctive Derek Tarling logo have become an everyday sight on the nation's road network.

What's he like to work with? A bit in yer face, certainly, but the worst you'll hear is that he's 'harsh but fair' and 'doesn't suffer fools gladly'.

There's another side to him, too. Go down to Companies House and you'll discover that his umbrella company, DT Holdings Ltd, makes sizable donations to charity. In fact, this is pretty much the only place you'll find this information because it's not something he makes public. Moreover, his workforce enjoys decent wages, pension schemes and healthcare. 'I look after them and they look after me.'

Derek's also active in the community. He sits on numerous local committees and chairs many worthy bodies. There's a story going round about a spat he had on one of these with another local dignitary, a consultant with letters after his name. Arguing over how best to spend a substantial grant aimed at encouraging small businesses in the area to train more staff, the consultant suggested that the self-taught Tarling was way out of his depth. Derek sighed and replied in his wide-boy accent: 'That's all true, mate. But how many jobs have you created in the last 12 months?'

Any resemblance to a real person is coincidental and unintended.

TARLING THE LONG HAUL 1961: Born Luton, Bedfordshire. Educated: South Luton High School 1968: Warehouse assistant, BHB Fruit & Veg 1969: Stocktaker, BHB 1970: Founds Derek Tarling Ltd 1972: Buys BHB, marries Emma Green 1982: Buys largest local competitor 1990: Derek Tarling Ltd becomes biggest fresh produce business in southern England 1998: Buys 20% stake in international freight distribution business 2003: Buys 40% of Belgian transcontinental produce haulage firm 2005: Stands in general election as local Veritas candidate. Loses deposit

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Mike Ashley: Does it matter if the public hates you right now?

The Sports Direct founder’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn criticism, but in the...

4 films to keep you sane during the coronavirus lockdown

Cirrus CEO Simon Hayward shares some choices to put things in perspective.

Pandemic ends public love affair with Richard Branson et al

Opinion: The larger-than-life corporate mavericks who rose to prominence in the 80s and 90s suddenly...

The Squiggly Career: How to be a chief strengths spotter

When leading remotely, it's more important than ever to make sure your people spend their...

"Blind CVs don't improve your access to talent"

Opinion: If you want to hire socially mobile go-getters, you need to know the context...

The highs and lows of being a super-achiever

Pay it Forward podcast: techUK boss Jacqueline de Rojas and Google UK's marketing strategy and...