When it comes to business, John Talbot, Chairman of Highway Care is a man driven by two things. The first is a desire to invent and engineer things to provide solutions to everyday challenges and the second is to save lives on the road network. The two of those things provide a powerful combination, something that has been the catalyst for Highway Care’s success in the highways sector to enable it to remain at the forefront of the development of safety solutions for the industry for over 40 years.
That passion and drive to make a difference doesn’t come naturally to everyone but it certainly does to John and that flows through the whole Highway Care business today. Even though he is no longer a part of the businesses’ day-to-day activities, he has built a team around him that share the same philosophy, same ethos and more importantly, the same passion.
But to understand how Highway Care went from conception to success and why the desire to contribute to saving lives means so much to John you have to go back to the beginning of career-something that is both remarkable and insightful.
After graduating at Cambridge University in 1964 he soon took up a scholarship in the West Indies to complete a diploma in Tropical Agriculture. Part of this obligation was to serve in the developing world as part of Britain’s contribution to developing agriculture across the globe. As a result John spent what he describes as a ‘rewarding’ time in Trinidad and Jamaica, but he was keen to get back to the Caribbean and accepted a job at Tate and Lyle where he was put in charge of research and development in a large sugar plantation in Jamaica, giving him ‘a lot of responsibility’ at an incredibly young age. “This taught me a lot about life and work at the same time and the knowledge of how different cultures work in business,” he says. From there, he was headhunted by Novartis as its technical development manager, where he was put in charge of the entire Caribbean and part of South America with a view to developing its sugar, banana and pineapple crop portfolio. “It was an incredible experience- seven years’ worth of travelling across 20 countries living and working simultaneously and again it taught me a lot about business at the same time,” adds John.
What came next was the precursor to what was meant to be his destiny-running his own business. He continued to travel for work, this time to South America and places like Venezuela where he worked on finding the most suitable herbicides to help manage unwanted vegetation that presented a fire risk around important industrial facilities such as oil refineries.
“While this was once again vital and interesting work that I would draw on in the future I felt like a rolling stone bouncing around from country to country and desperately needed some routes of my own, so I decided to come back to the UK with a desire to finally start my own business. I felt I had learnt a lot and had strong ideas of my own, which I contribute towards solving problems.”
So, John carried on in the same line of work building a successful business using herbicides to good effect taming vegetation in places like timber yards, paper mills and once again oil refineries. The company got approached to deal with things like trip hazards where vegetation was blocking holes, barriers and fences as well as railway equipment, buildings and also to help improve the condition of public places.
Then in 1978, interest in the service started to grow from local authorities who wanted to supress vegetation alongside and in the centre of roads and the company Selectokil was born. From treating small stretches for Kent County Council on the A2 as well as on the M1 in Derbyshire, the demand and need for the service grew very rapidly. The feedback was impressive, and the service was working offering local authority operatives the chance to control weeds and vegetation so they could do things like inspect safety barriers properly with a good line of sight.
Before long, Selectokil had a fleet of trucks, especially redesigned and converted, covering the UK at a rate of about 100 miles in one night. “All of a sudden it seemed so far removed from when I started off with one Land Rover and a small knapsack sprayer” he said. It was also John’s first introduction at working next to live traffic and that got him thinking.
But still the business grew, and the company became a popular name among all the road operators (mainly County Councils) including the Highways Agency, who it worked closely with and ended up being instrumental in the start of the TD29/87 regulations for road operators which later became known as Chapter 8. By this time, Selectokil also diversified into the military sector, helping develop a product that could be applied to the surface of all military runways in the UK to make them look like ploughed fields from above, negating any potential air strikes.
It was perhaps the next chapter of his career that became the most relevant to where he is today. All those years working next to live traffic and in other dangerous areas made him realise that there was a need to protect the back of vehicles working on the live network, around the same time of the early development of the mobile lane closure. “I realised there was a need to protect the trucks and their drivers, the workers and indeed the travelling public but there weren’t any solutions apart from one company Triplex-selling lorry-mounted crash cushions.” So, in search of a solution he headed west to the US and travelled 6,000 miles for solutions that might help him. He came back with something that eventually Highway Care has become best known for- a quickly deployable temporary safety barrier. From there he realised the huge need and potential to develop safety solutions to help with challenges on the road network and a Highway Care division of Selectokil was formed.
The ideas and the products kept on coming and the company diversified again to solve a problem with French drains developing a machine to clean the drains but not damage the delicate surface at the same time-putting back the clean and dry stone in one continuous movement of recycling.
It was a machine and system later taken on by another of the industry’s well- known companies with a focus on safety - Carnell. The energy absorption products and quick-change barrier continued to grow in popularity, and as a result, spurred on by some healthy competition in the market Highway Care, under the watchful eye of John , developed another temporary barrier that was made out of continuously smooth steel, was quickly deployable and provided a low deflection vehicle restraint system which could protect all vehicles, including motorcyclists-who were particularly vulnerable to hitting posts- often with fatal consequences. This was the first version of what is now known as the BG800 temporary steel barrier - still a vital safety product today and one that was the first temporary steel barrier introduced overseas. Accepted for use on Highways England’s roads, BG800 offers an energy absorbing feature, which when hit, results in minimal damage to both errant vehicles and the barrier itself due to its distinguished stepped profile design.
“Until then the system that was used in temporary situations, such as the use of cones, was appalling and very dangerous,” he says.
Much development work followed, and in the meantime Highway Care became successful across the globe. Products came fast- including the first 60mph lorry-mounted crash cushion, the first automatic braking system on lorry mounted crash cushions as well as roadside crash cushions, mobile light arrows and end terminals and a quick-changeable moveable concrete barrier as well as several products to keep motorcyclists safe such as the popular Bikeguard.
*It was that early experience working myself and having workers next to live traffic that I was responsible for that has kept me constantly driving to develop solutions to that take safety on the network to another level and I am extremely proud for Highway Care to have played a part in that. Now we have a team in place that is arguably better than ever which is vital for any successful business. We will continue to keep that development going and some of our current and future developments such as the automated cone laying machine are going to be important for keeping road workers safe and removing more of them from live traffic,” says Mr Talbot. “That’s the reason why we keep going,” he adds.
He says the automated cone lane machine, Falcon, is only one part of his vision to eventually help automate the lane closure process where a combination of automated trucks will do the job that roadworkers currently risk their lives every day for. “I have a vision that one day this will be possible. Automation, if used appropriately, can and will play a huge part in our industry and save more lives in the future,” he adds.
But what is really needed to conceptualise safety products in today’s fast moving highways sector? “I think its important to have a real understanding of what the challenge is you want to overcome. There are still too many people, including roadworkers, killed and seriously injured on our road network so you either remove them from harm or protect them in the most effective way possible. Sadly, there isn’t a silver bullet to solve everything in one go, its about building a body of work that keeps on improving things,” says Mr Talbot.
Being a self-confessed ‘motorcycle fruitcake’, there will no doubt be more products that protect motorcyclists as well. “Some fantastic work has been done on progressing clothing for motorcyclists, but I believe air bag protection will be the big thing in the future.” But is he tempted to diversify again? “Well actually I have a few products that are at concept stage including a covid related protection product but you know,” however “the rule for better business is to stick to what you know well,”