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January 23 2019
By Tim Deakin

Tim is Editor of routeone and has worked in both the coach and bus and haulage industries.

Profiled: The one-of-a-kind engineering mind

Belle Vue Coaches Engineering Director Kenny Walsh contributed in a major way to the operator’s growth since joining in 2001 - and he has now passed his knowledge on to his youthful successors

Kenny Walsh joined Belle Vue in 2001; his contribution is ‘immeasurable’

During any operator’s infancy, the hard work of a dedicated team is vital. It’s what the company’s chances of survival hinge on. Some fledgling businesses are lucky and able to rely on people who will foster success, and Belle Vue Coaches of Manchester was one of them.

Kenny Walsh joined as resident engineer early on, when Belle Vue’s work was undertaken with taxis and minibuses and a small number of full-size coaches. That was in 2001. Now, with his 65th birthday approaching, Kenny is about to hand over the reins to the next generation.

It could have been different, though. Barring one short spell of driving, Kenny’s whole career has been spent in the world of vehicle repair, with most of it focused on commercials. Prior to his appointment at Belle Vue, he had a rule: After five years in a job, it was time to move on.

The right stuff

“I worked for some main dealers and I was self-employed for a period,” Kenny explains. The latter was how he first came into contact with Belle Vue, which was using an independent garage where he worked at the time.

One of its coaches suffered a difficulty one evening on the Woodhead Pass while bound for Sheffield. Kenny was summoned, and he dealt with the issue. He also drove the coach onwards and then back later, its driver having elected not to linger.

That episode highlighted his capabilities to Belle Vue, says MD Phil Hitchen. “I said to my business partner Ian Bragg: ‘That’s somebody we need on our team’. He agreed with me.” So it was in September 2001 that Kenny called on Belle Vue to collect payment for freelance work. Afterwards, he planned to head to a Ford agent to be interviewed for a mechanic’s position there

“When he told me that, I said: ‘Sit down and close the door. I’ll get the kettle on’,” continues Phil. “He looked at me as though I was mad. We had no garage and no tools yet. I told him not to worry. Kenny never did go to the Ford dealership. Instead, he started with us the next day.”

Under Kenny’s watch Belle Vue’s fleet strength has grown to 68 vehicles

In the beginning

Over 17 years later, Kenny’s retirement from Belle Vue is approaching. Such has his success been as Engineering Director that he is a shareholder in the business and he will retain an ongoing involvement in an advisory role.

One of the most important things that Kenny has instilled in his successors - all of whom have come through Belle Vue’s apprenticeship programme - is the need for self-sufficiency. That goes back to his earliest experiences.

“I started working on cars 50 years ago in 1969. It was at a small garage and all of the other mechanics were ex-forces. Saying that I couldn’t do something was a mistake; they educated me in a way that I understood,” he says.

“They had a saying that sticks in my mind to this day: ‘What would you do in the desert? You’d have to fix it’. I have always thought that there is no such word as ‘can’t’ when working on a vehicle. You have to find a way.”

Although he developed a team of skilled engineers beneath him, Kenny still subscribes to that mantra. His tales of attending breakdowns in far-off places are legion, not knowing exactly what he would be faced with until he got there.

“The longest time I was away came before Belle Vue existed. It involved a coach operator on Ashton New Road in Manchester. One of its AECs had broken down at Babbacombe. I left the yard with an old recovery truck and got back with the coach four days later.”

Maximum impact

Kenny accepted Belle Vue’s job offer with one proviso. In his first month, he would make the biggest impact possible. If he thought he had failed in that, he would move on, but things never got that far. His work was a major contributor to the business’ success, and partly because of that traction, Belle Vue was able to move to its current home off the A6 between Stockport and Manchester.

Kenny managed restoration of a Leyland Royal Tiger for wedding duties

“Before that happened, we went to 15 vehicles. Phil and Ian were cautious and wanted to make sure I could handle it. Now, we’re at 68. When we moved, it was a roll of the dice; it was a massive outlay and it was all or nothing.”

Early on, Belle Vue began to recruit apprentices. They learned coach and bus engineering from the bottom up, and it is a point of great pride for Kenny that only a small percentage of them are not with the business today.

He’s also proud that some of those same apprentices will pick up where he leaves off when he drops his day-to-day involvement.

“The difference between me and them is that they are looking to the future. They are focused on how digital tools can streamline the business and benefit compliance and standards. I’m old school. It’s vital for the future that they come through and take over.

“I’ve been clear with them: If ever they need any help or advice, they’re to call me. But the training that is available now is excellent, and the company does not hesitate to send engineers on any courses they need for them to do the job properly.

“That is particularly important for modern vehicles, where electrics are complicated. I learned on the basis that components were to be removed, cleaned, overhauled and replaced - and if it could not be refitted, it was kept in case it may be useful in the future.”

What next?

Kenny and his brother Ray are well-known in classic commercial vehicle circles. That has benefitted Belle Vue; a Leyland Royal Tiger was restored and returned to the road with a Class 6 MoT as a project that brought many employees together.

The brothers have a garage of their own in Ashton-under-Lyne, and that is where Kenny will spend much of his time after retirement. “I decided 12 months ago that it was time to step back,” he says. “I don’t want to leave Belle Vue, so I will still be involved in my advisory capacity, but I want to spend more time doing my own thing.

Another of Kenny’s projects was restoriation of a Plaxton-bodied Commer

“The younger engineers have come in and they learned as they went. They did so the hard way at times, but they have grown up and it’s now their time to take the baton and run with it. I’m all about challenges, which is what I get restoring old vehicles.”

The company’s view

Kenny has been an integral part of Belle Vue’s growth. Its fleet includes modern coaches and a large number of yellow school buses operated on behalf of Transport for Greater Manchester, and his contribution to that development is immeasurable, says Phil.

“Although he’s a superb mechanic, I don’t believe that his outright engineering skills are his best asset. Instead, it’s his ability to solve problems.

“I don’t actually like to use the word ‘problem’; it can lead people to think the worst. If I was to tell Kenny that a coach has a technical issue, he will have started to think it through and what it could be even before I have finished the sentence.

“When he first joined us, I had seen that he understood the importance of getting the group to Sheffield. That told me that he had the right attitude to succeed in business. He has helped to take Belle Vue from nothing to what we are all very proud of today. There is no way that we could have done it without him.”

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