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January 09 2019
By James Rudman

Fostering Alfa Leisureplex's family feel

Coach holiday and hotel operator Alfa Leisureplex Group is welcoming the benefits of continuing its family feel through an employee ownership-based succession strategy

A continuing drive to improve performance, profitability and workforce engagement and benefits alongside introducing new coaches and driver safety aids are key parts of the Alfa Leisureplex Group’s award-winning employee ownership journey.

Pictured with the Employee Owned Rising Star of the Year Award at the 2018 UK Employee Ownership Awards are representatives of Alfa Leisureplex Group: (from left) Becky Ingham, Sean Kelly, Emma Russell, Gareth Lunn and Karen Sawbridge

The Group, whose origins stem from the Leisureplex hotel company founded in 1984 by former Shearings Holidays’ Group Accountant Tony Sawbridge, now comprises 20 UK hotels, primarily in popular seaside resorts, the Alfa Travel holiday operation and its Alfa Coaches subsidiary.

It moved from being 100% owned by the Sawbridge family to becoming employee-owned in July 2015, saw turnover reach £42m in 2017 – albeit including a hotel sale - with underlying annual profits of £3.7m, up 17% year-on-year. The Group also announced the third consecutive year of a tax-free dividend – the one declared in May 2018 worth just under £500 – being distributed to each member of the workforce, which currently owns 75% of the business through an employee-owned trust.

“We are on track for 2018 to be another record year in terms of turnover and profit. There is so much opportunity out there for us,” says Emma Russell, Alfa Leisureplex Group’s Finance Director, who will succeed Karen Sawbridge as its Managing Director in June.

“We wanted to nurture the next layer of management to a situation where they had the skillset, the knowledge and the ability to manage the business as we as a family had, and ensure that it would survive,’ explains Karen, who has been MD since 2016 and will return to focus purely on her role as Operations Director of the Group’s hotel division that she has undertaken for 16 years before retiring in 2020.

“The employee ownership journey has been absolutely fantastic,” says Karen, speaking about the move that has enabled Sawbridge family members involved in running and growing the business to retire while retaining a 25% stake but enabling “our fabulous staff” to benefit from its continuation.

This ownership change led to a major accolade in November when the Group received the Employee Owned Rising Star of the Year Award at the Employee Ownership Association’s 2018 UK Employee Ownership Awards.

Engagement

The Group was particularly praised by judges for its engagement with its employee-owners. This includes having three elected members of the workforce serving on the board of trustees, which acts as the governance for the Group’s board of directors.

There is also a network of 25 workplace representatives, a series of communications and engagement activities such as employee surveys, regular emails, a newsletter, roadshows and an annual employee conference.

Engagement among its staff, which numbers about 720 in the main summer season, is an acknowledged key to the Group’s continuing success. Employee engagement has risen from 64% to 81%, it says.

This includes among the 70 people working at the Group’s head office in Chorley and its traffic department at nearby Higher Wheelton, and its 48 coach drivers and 20 employees at five interchanges, and the remaining staff working in the hotels.

On tour at Rest and be Thankful in Scotland

Paul Bull, Alfa Travel’s Operations Director, says engagement for drivers who are out on tour constantly and not based at the Group’s traffic office poses a particularly difficult aspect. However, the latest annual measuring of employee engagement has shown a 16% increase among drivers in two years, “which is certainly within the benchmarks for the best practice employee engagement companies.” 

An annual seminar for the drivers is the major opportunity to make them aware of what is happening in the Group, operational changes and for training in newly introduced vehicle monitoring technology and driver aids.[crosshe

Fleet

When Leisureplex started in 1984, it only operated as a hotel company and solely sold its properties with other companies’ tours until 1990 and the launch of Alfa Travel, when it started hiring other operators’ coaches.

It wasn’t until 1998 that the Group bought its first coaches, and now it has a 48-strong fleet, which carried around 115,000 passengers during 2018. About 70% of Alfa Travel’s holiday business ends up in Leisureplex hotels and the remainder goes to other subcontracted UK hotels or on some Continental tours and river cruises. Alfa Travel currently produces holiday brochures for the North West, its home territory and main source of passengers and also the South, the Midlands, the North East and Yorkshire with interchanges located in each operating area.

“We concentrate on what we are good at, which is tours,” says Paul. 

Each Alfa Travel coach has its own assigned driver, and maintenance and repairs are dealt with by the engineering manager through contracts, mostly with Mercedes service partners. This reflects the fleet make-up, which later this year will consist entirely of 49-seat Mercedes-Benz Tourismo vehicles. Ten new model Tourismos will be incorporated into the fleet in March, with the resulting restructuring seeing the oldest vehicle being 2013 registration.

“We have built a good relationship with EvoBus (UK), and with the service network that supports the Tourismo under the EvoBus partnerships. I think we have got the drivers used to the Tourismo, and I was really pleased with the specifications in terms of improvements in safety for the new model,” says Paul.

Half of the current fleet are Euro 6 compliant and Paul is aiming for all Alfa Travel coaches to be 100% Euro 6 by 2021.

Reducing emissions alongside improving compliance and safety is something he has focused on since joining Alfa Leisureplex two years ago from a background of working in various big logistics operations, including the Royal Mail.

“We have got a very high calibre of drivers, but you have always got to continue to improve them. We have implemented this in the last year through improved technology,” Paul says.

Technology

Safety improvements for Alfa Travel coaches include using FleetBoard, the in-built Daimler system that offers full telemetry tracking and measures driver performance. The performance measures have been used for coaching to improve driving styles, including on aspects such as harsh braking, and has brought some “fantastic” improvements, says Paul.

The Lytx DriveCam system was introduced to Alfa Travel coaches in 2018.

“It is in every coach and that helps to improve driver safety and it has been used to mitigate some significant incidents as well as to exonerate drivers,” says Paul.

The changing of tachograph system to TruTac had also been “very successful.”

Benefits

Paul says the Group’s “absolute aim” is to give the best benefits to its employee-owners.

For its drivers on tours, this has included ensuring they have a bedroom in the hotel where their passengers are staying, and, from February 2018, switching wages from being paid per driving day to a set salary per month.

“This has been very well received, and I think it is helping us attract tour drivers from other companies because it is seen as very honest and open,” says Paul, who joined the Group because it was employee-owned but also because he thought it was an interesting operational model.

“I think employee ownership has brought a lot to the business. The employees are more involved and are encouraged to be more innovative. We have seen record levels of employee engagement since we became employee-owned. As a result, our financial performance has also seen year-on-year record levels every year since we became employee-owned,” says Emma, who is looking forward to becoming the MD, having joined the Group as Financial Controller in 2007 and being part of the senior management team since then.

“We are all about providing job security, rewarding and lasting careers for our employees. They are now seeing real changes in pay and benefits as a result of the change.”

The Group is looking at further benefits it can offer the workforce alongside the tax-free dividends linked to profitability. These include establishing working groups to consider introducing more flexible working and for staff to design their own uniforms.

 “We have been so happy with the employee ownership journey. The business is about the staff and the customers. We have made a fabulous business because we have employed fantastic people,” says Karen.

“Moving from a wonderful family environment, what we wanted to do was make sure we did not lose that family environment. What has happened is that we have gone from a family business of five family owners to a family business of 725 family owners – the 720 staff and the five of my family.”



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