From the backstreets of Bolton to the Dragons’ Den: How Hilary Devey made her fortune

Hilary Devey’s no stranger to overcoming adversity. The tough-talking businesswoman has endured her parents’ bankruptcy, domestic violence at the hands of her husband, her son’s heroin addiction and a stroke that left her partially paralysed.

But has she ever given up? No way. And it’s her tenacity and will to succeed that has seen her not only found a company that’s made her a multi-millionaire but be poached from the BBC to front her own series on Channel 4.

So how did the Bolton-born businesswoman become such a leading name in industry and twice named businesswoman of the year?

It started at seven

When Hilary was seven her parents’ central heating business went bankrupt and the bailiffs came knocking. “Bit by bit they stripped our entire house – mattresses off the bed, crockery from the kitchen and the cooker – as we stood and watched,” Devey explains in her autobiography ‘Bold As Brass’.

The family was forced to live with Devey’s grandmother; Evil Emily, as Devey refers to her. The whole experience sparked a fierce determination in her not to end up the same way.

By 11 she was working for her father, pulling pints after he went into the pub business. She hasn’t stopped working – “grafting” as she would put it – since.

Unlike her two brothers, Hilary didn’t go to university, she left school at 16 and served in the Women’s Royal Air Force for a short time before entering the business world.

By 20 she was in the industry that would make her fortune – Devey went to work as a sales clerk in the offices of a distribution company. She worked her way up in the logistics industry with positions at Tibbett and Britten, Scorpio Logistics and TNT.

“I ended up as national sales manager for TNT but to spend more time with [my son] Mevlit I left to become a freelance marketing consultant for the haulage industry,” Devey explained in the book ‘How I Made My First Million’ by Tammy Cohen.

“One day, I overheard a client saying that it took 12 days to deliver a pallet of freight from Cardiff to Carlisle, because he had to wait for enough orders to fill his lorry.

“That gave me the idea for Pall-Ex, a next-day delivery service for palletised freight. I would group hauliers together according to postcode, get them to deliver goods to a central destination, and then carry other hauliers' loads back. I needed to hire an aircraft hangar in Leicester, and recruit staff to man the phones.”

Belief and determination are more important than banks

But after she decided to take the plunge and set up her own business in 1996, she found securing funding was impossible. Despite having 17 years industry experience behind her and a sound business plan, her bank manager told her: “You’re a woman trying to do business in a man’s world and a single parent. I’m afraid that I’m not going to give you a loan. Or an overdraft.”

As a result Devey was forced to sell her house and downgrade her car to fund her start-up. At times she could barely afford to eat.

“When the bank refused to lend me the £112,000 I needed to set up my business, I sold my house. Things were tough at the start. I was broke and renting a flat above a chip shop. It was so cold, I had to wrap my son in tin foil to keep him warm,” she explained in ‘How I Made My First Million’.

But despite the setbacks, freight company Pall-Ex was indeed set up in an old aircraft hangar. She initially signed up 35 haulier members, enabling the company to cover the length and breadth of the UK.

What started as a one-woman business is now the UK’s biggest freight distribution network with an annual turnover of about £75million. Pall-Ex now distributes up to 9,000 pallets a day from its hub in Leicestershire and is currently expanding into Europe.

“In the last year alone, we’ve launched networks in the Iberian Peninsula, Romania and signified our intentions to begin operating in Turkey,” Devey said last month at the launch of a new European service.

“Two further networks are also due to be up and running in the coming 12 months. In the UK, we’ve developed new bespoke service offerings, welcomed a host of new members and launched our new Northern Hub," she added.

Success at a price

While she worked and worked to set up her business, Devey’s personal life suffered. She has three failed marriages behind her as well experiencing domestic violence at the hands of the father of her only child Mevlit – who himself has fought problems.

“My son has battled heroin addiction for years. I found out in 2004 - he'd been selling my jewellery, TVs and DVDs to get drugs,” Devey said in ‘How I Made My First Million’.

“It’s as if the foundations of your life start to crumble as you look back and try to find the signposts to what started your child on drugs,” she said.

However, her efforts paid off and her son is now clean, working and in a stable relationship of his own. The setbacks weren’t over though. In February 2009, after an operation for a tummy tuck, Devey suffered a stroke, which has left her partially paralysed.

But she kept going, kept grafting and now despite all the physical and emotional setbacks she has a portfolio of other business investments as well as being a regular on the public speaking network. The Sunday Times Rich List estimates her personal wealth at about £50million and she has ambitions to move into politics.

With homes in Florida, Spain and Marrakesh, as well as a wing of a stately home, Rangemore Hall, in Staffordshire, her upbringing in Bolton probably couldn’t seem further away.

“I'd do it all again,” she said in ‘How I Made My First Million’. “I've always lived life at a phenomenal pace, and I wouldn't know how to do it any other way.”