Deep in rural Cambridgeshire, Dews Coaches is celebrating its 70th anniversary. Rural it might be, but this is a family company where a team approach really is delivering results
Simon Dew, Managing Director of Dews Coaches, has a view about attracting and retaining drivers.
This year sees the company, established in 1953 by Simon’s grandfather Ron, and based in the village of Somersham, mid-way between Huntingdon and Ely, celebrate its 70th anniversary.
The company is a member of CoachMarque (Simon is Vice-Chair) as well as belonging to The Guild of British Coach Operators (General Manager Nick Tetley is a Director). It’s an indication of how Simon and his team see the business.
“The driver situation isn’t easy,” says Simon. “But I get really frustrated when I hear of companies complaining about the lack of drivers when they appear to be doing nothing about it. Operators that take a pro-active approach to driver training rarely seem to have the same issues. But it’s hard work and a lot of effort is put into this challenge.”
For Dews, that ‘challenge’ is met by having an in-house driver training and recruitment facilitator.
A balanced approach
“We’ve built up a strong reputation for being a company that respects its drivers,” explains Simon. “Over the last five years or so we’ve changed the way drivers are allocated work. This new approach, led by my General Manager, Nick Tetley, has been to take into account a drivers’ work/life balance. We discuss what works for them and allocate work accordingly. The days of saying ‘you do that’ are over. We have around 60 full-time, part-time and casual drivers. It takes some managing, but you know what, it’s working.”
The Dews fleet comprises 55, made up of eight full-size tour coaches, 15 single-deck and 27 double-deck buses, and five preserved coaches. The company may be called Dews Coaches, but with tendered and commercial bus operations taking up around half of the work, this is an operator where the bus is important.
“Our involvement in bus routes only began in 2006,” explains Simon. “The tendered network grew in 2017, then again last October, when Stagecoach relinquished some routes. That doubled the number of our service bus runs overnight. But in our hearts we have always been, and will always be a coach operator. It’s where the story began, and we’re very proud of our heritage.”
The story begins for Dews Coaches
That heritage goes back to 1953. Ron Dew, Simon’s grandfather, decides to start operating a bus, a Bedford OB with 29-seat Duple Vista bodywork. He’s been encouraged to do this because of the poor performance of the village’s existing operator. Ron takes a few private hire bookings and things start to grow. In 1964, age 21, Ron’s son, David, starts working within the family business.
“All I actually ever wanted to do was drive coaches and mend them,” says David. “My father did his best. He ran some trips to the coast, but there were no great plans for growth. He was content just running a few coaches, Bedford OBs in the main.”
As time moves on, and with David’s growing involvement, the business moves from the small yard in the centre of Somersham to a former haulage yard nearby. With more school work, plus a contract to carry staff working for entrepreneur and inventor Clive Sinclair in nearby St Ives, the fleet grows to 15.
David recalls the company’s first continental tour.
“A teacher at a local school who knew me from driving on local contracts came to me and, rather forcibly as I recall, told me she wanted me to take a school trip to Switzerland. I took a Bedford Plaxton Panorama. It was 1971. We were the only coach on the ferry.”
In 1980 the company starts to move away from Bedfords, firstly to Volvo, and then, in 1984, to Scania. During the 1980s and early 1990s, David and his wife, Linda, run a tour programme under the name Dewsway Tours Ltd.
“The fleet carried the Dewsway name until 1993, and then we carried it on with our tour programme,” he says. “But enjoyable though it was we wanted to focus on our private hire and contract work. We were generating a lot of work from schools and colleges. Teachers liked us. “We know what we’re getting” they used to say.”
Diversification of work continues
In 1984 Dews begins a 20-year relationship providing the team coach for Cambridge United football team, business that in later years includes Peterborough United and Cambridge City team coaches.
In September 1989, Simon joins the business having served time as a woodworking apprentice. David is in need of someone in the office to look after the administration side of things.
“I was very happy to get involved,” says Simon. “Dealing with everything in the office means you quickly became familiar with much of the day-to-day operation of the business.”
In 1991, with the business continuing to grow, the company moves to its current site on the edge of Somersham. There’s more room with space to grow.
A move into running open top sightseeing buses in Cambridge in 1996 proves to be a rare failure for the company.
“We gave it a good go,” explains Simon, “but it didn’t work, we closed it down, and learnt from the experience.”
Simon’s involvement brings new contracts including inbound work carrying Americans, as well as a push into adult and school tours. Sport continues to play a high-profile role within the business including a period spent providing the team coaches for the Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and guest rugby union teams. During the London 2012 Olympics, travel is supplied to Coca Cola while working with the team at International Trailways. A second spell as operator for the Rugby World Cup in 2015 is followed up by providing team coaches for the Women’s Euros (football), the Cricket 100s and the Rugby League World Cup in 2022.
Debbie proves inspirational
In 2005 Simon marries Debbie after meeting her through the local BusinessLink organisation.
“Debbie has not only been a wonderful mother to our three children, but she’s also been a positive force for influencing change,” says Simon. “She recognised that as the business grew we needed more office staff. An operations manager was appointed. It was a defining moment. All of a sudden I wasn’t being scheduled out driving every day. It gave me freedom and flexibility. I was working ON the business, not just IN the business. I was able to look for new opportunities.”
Simon explains that Debbie encouraged him to work with a business coach.
“That was another eureka moment,” he says. “It’s made me look at things differently. I’ve learned about timelines and accountability. I get asked why I need a business coach, and how they can be justified. I say we can’t afford not to. They’ve become a key member of the team. Since then we’ve made countless changes including outsourcing our accountancy functions as just one example. To me it’s all about getting the right people in the right seats. It’s hard. Changes and difficult decisions have to be made, but they pay dividends in the end.”
EV operation draws closer
Looking ahead, Simon takes a positive view about electric vehicles.
“I’m a bit wedded to EVs to be honest,” he says. “Surveys have been completed to see what’s involved in bringing the necessary power supply onto the site. We’ve discovered that we can operate up to three service buses with immediate effect. So we’ll be able to jump in when the opportunities come forward.”
Simon says he’s delighted to work with a great team.
“I’m at the stage where I can say to them: ‘I won’t be in tomorrow’. It’s taken a lot of years to get where we are, but now the team just gets on with it.”
So as the relatively ‘new boy’, what does General Manager, Nick Tetley, who joined in 2012, make of things?
“I really enjoy working here,” he says. “Simon’s a good guy to work with. Mine is an operational role, Simon has the overview. We’re a progressive organisation. 70 years after Ron Dew started with that first bus, we really are punching above our weight!”