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MiniPlus Article
October 22 2018
By Tim Deakin

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

White's: A firm focus on the small PCV sector

After operating mainly local authority contracts for over 15 years, the tide has turned for White’s Coaches with a shift in focus towards top-end executive private hire work with luxurious vehicles

Danielle and Greg White have shifted focus from contract to private hire

For some operators, local authority (LA) contracts can make up the predominant chunk of their work. Offering a stable revenue stream and the security of having guaranteed work in the quieter months, there are some benefits to undetaking these kinds of duties

However, LA contracts aren’t for everyone, and being able to recognise what works for a particular business and accepting what type of work is going to be viable and profitable is essential for any operator.

This is something St Albans-based White’s Coaches knows only too well. Having operated LA contracts for the best part of 15 years, the firm has slowed down on this type of work in recent years and it now focuses mainly on the executive private hire sector.

Now operating a 13-strong fleet, ranging from nine-seaters up to 43-seaters, husband and wife team Greg and Danielle White run a first-class operation, reflected in the quality of its high-specification vehicles.

With around 70% of its work now private hires, it has found its niche and it has a strong focus on the balance that is right for their business.

Change in focus

From the 1990s-the mid-noughties, White’s specialised in wheelchair-accessible vehicles, with a fleet of around 12 of them. Says Greg: “We did contract work for LAs, which was pretty successful for a while.” When his father passed away in 2002, Greg took over the running of the business and he purchased a brand new Iveco Daily three years later.

LA contracts continued to make up the majority of the firm’s work. However, it was in 2006 when it became apparent that this wasn’t a platform for a viable future because of austerity measures, says Greg.

“My wife Danielle was a solicitor and she worked for the LA at around the same time. She said it was going to get worse and worse. Not only did we feel compelled to look for different avenues, but I was always much more keen on private hire work because it’s more interesting to me than the daily routine of contracts.”

‘I was always much more interested in private hire work than contracts’

With this is mind, a brand new 29-seater was purchased in 2008. “I remember it was a shade over £103,000,” says Greg.

“I had no work for it, but fortunately we secured a contract with a blue chip company shortly after. This was great business and I had to buy a brand new 16-seater Sprinter for it in 2009.

“We had that contract for about three or four years. It paid for the finance on the 29-seater and the 16-seater, and I also bought a two-year-old 22-seater, so we had three executive front-line vehicles.”

Natural progression

The big push towards private hire work ensued when White’s lost one of its biggest LA contacts that it had been operating for around 15 years.

Says Greg: “I can remember the night it happened. It was a Friday and I got an email saying we hadn’t been successful.

“I remember feeling pretty devastated that night as it was quite a big revenue stream for us. We had a three-year-old child and a one-year-old at the time, so it was a worry. Danielle assured me it would be fine, as we had the other work and by this time we had started to build up a decent private hire client base. It didn’t take me long to work out that I didn’t necessarily want contracts. What I wanted was enough decent clients to need us on a regular basis.

“Since then it’s been a natural progression to focus on higher-profile work, where the quality of the service is always going to outweigh the cost.”

Contract takeover

While the firm has significantly limited its LA contract work, with just one vehicle undertaking two services now, it does still operate a number of cherry-picked private school contracts.

Says Greg: “Around five years ago we secured some work with a private school in Berkhamsted, which were the only private contracts we had until now.” Through good fortune, White’s has now chosen to take on a second private school run. Says Greg: “A lifelong family friend is a local operator and he operates all the minibus contracts of a local private school.

“He has decided to retire, and he wanted to leave it to someone that was going to do it properly, so he’s put us in at the school. I had a meeting with the school and we’re known to them, so there’s no problem with us taking over.”

Transits were bought from David Fishwick for private school contracts

Danielle’s experience as a solicitor and working for the LA is invaluable when it comes to this type of work. “She deals with all of the legislation on the contract side of the business, as there is so much red tape when it comes to transporting schoolchildren,” says Greg.

“You don’t get that with executive work transporting adults, which is another reason I prefer that kind of work over school contracts.”

White’s has also been able to take over that operator’s feeder work for Shearings. “We’ve taken on its three drivers that were going to be made redundant. It’s a seamless transition – they come to us and they’re continuing with the same work,” says Greg.

Fleet investment

Two brand-new vehicles have been purchased to accommodate the private school contracts – two 19-seat EVM-converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinters and two Ford Transits from David Fishwick.

“We see no reason not to continue with the excellence of the vehicles we already have on our contract work as well, so we’ve invested £200,000 in these minicoaches,” says Greg. “It’s going to take a few years to put them into profit, but the 19-seaters can also carry out of executive private hire work when they’re not on school work.”

Continued fleet renewal is hugely important to the business, with two of its vehicles – a 2016 Yutong TC9 and a 2015 Irizar i6 integral – being replaced with the new versions of both respectice coaches that will be shown at this year’s Euro Bus Expo at the NEC Birmingham. “Our fleet replacement policy for the Sprinters sees them changed at a maximum of four years old,” adds Greg.

Offering high quality

The high-end, professional fleet goes hand-in-hand with the bulk of the business’ clientele, but also its main aim, which, says Greg, is to provide optimum passenger comfort. For him, it is the standard of seat that plays a huge part in this. “Something we became conscious of is that the seats in coaches tend to be too small, so seating is a big thing for us,” he says.

Seat quality is of huge importance to White’s Coaches when it is ordering

“I will ask every last question about seat measurements. For example, our latest EVM Grand Tourers are generally specified at 425mm, but I’ve got 450mm seats, so passengers will feel more comfortable.”

The type of fabric is also important, Greg adds. “The best thing I think that has come along in years is Ultraleather,” he says. “It’s a reasonably new fabric and we have specified it on the new Sprinters even for the school contracts.

“We think it is softer, more durable than others and just a brilliant product that is a huge advantage to the industry.” There is also free wi-fi across the entire fleet and fridges installed to offer passengers complimentary water.

“Being based near to London, we are lucky to be in a location where people are willing to pay more for a high-quality product.”

Having found its niche with high-specification small and medium PCVs, Greg sees no reason for the business to dip its toe into the full-size coach market.

“I have zero interest in full-size coaches,” he explains. “We did have a look at the Irizar i8 when it was launched, but all it’s going to do is throw us into a much more competitive market. We’ve been lucky enough to secure a position in the minicoach and smaller PCV sector and we are happy with that.”

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