Andrew Blundell joined Irizar UK as Managing Director in March. The days since then have been the strangest ever seen by the industry. And while much of his time has been spent guiding the business through the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, he has also been considering what the future holds.
In the short-term, it will largely consist of continuing to protect the Irizar UK business and its staff, while seeking to support customers wherever possible. Further ahead, sustainable growth of market share in the evolving coach and battery-electric bus markets are on the agenda
Andrew is not new to the coach industry. A portion of his earlier career was spent as Operations Director with Alfa Travel. He is highly qualified in the transport, logistics and supply chain management fields and he has also worked for several big names in the freight transport sector.
“Business fundamentals are the same on the operational and the supply sides of the industry. They are about excellent customer service, cost management and inspiring people to deliver results,” he says.
While skillsets are transferrable, an attribute of both Irizar UK and its Spanish owner Irizar Group that appealed when researching the MD’s position was their long-term vision, Andrew adds. Irizar’s approach to sustainability for the future was also noticeable.
“The further I got into due diligence, and the more I understood the Spanish business, the more I saw that things are done with a long-term view.”
Being a co-operative helps in that regard; there are no demanding shareholders with short-term priorities, for instance.
An example of that is Irizar’s work to establish an electric bus factory.
Equally, its research and development programme for coaches is angled towards developing alternative powertrain technologies, although it retains an eye on diesel, where it is looking towards a likely Euro VII.
Those are the slow burners that will deliver in the future. Existing Irizar UK customers will be equally interested in the dealership’s plans for the here and now, and how it is doing its bit during a troubling period for the industry.
Early warning about impending COVID-19 difficulties
Being wholly owned by its Spanish parent, the Worksop dealership had around a fortnight’s early warning of what was about to unfold as coronavirus COVID-19 approached the UK. Decisions were taken based on events in Spain to prepare the Irizar UK business for what was coming.
Irizar UK’s current focus is wholly on supporting its customers. Irizar Group has brought to market four solutions that offer protection for drivers and passengers, and it has been active in a wider movement to present the coach industry’s case for government backing.
“Things now are centred on customer focus and customer support,” he says. “We have some outstanding orders that we hope to fulfil, but we are also standing by ready to respond to any demand for temporary additional capacity where social distancing comes into play.”
That will involve Irizar UK’s stock of new and used coaches. The dealership is willing to work with operators to place those vehicles on a short- to medium-term basis to meet capacity needs. Irizar UK will be as flexible as it can as part of that process, says Andrew.
Additionally, the aftersales division is ready to help the industry as coaches return to service. Safety precaution products can be fitted quickly and technical advice and assistance on other matters can be given either remotely or at operators’ premises.
“We are active, and we will remain so through the current crisis. We continue to make decisions to ensure that we are in a good state as we get towards the end of 2020. But in turbulent times it is important to look beyond where we are now.
“Irizar and the wider industry will come out of this. When we do, we cannot be on the back foot wondering what will happen next. We need to be on the front foot. As a management team that is what we are now looking towards and how we can continue to work with customers.”
Continuing the development of a business
The environmental agenda is clear on Irizar’s longer-term roadmap. Diesel-electric hybrid powertrains, with geofenced engine-off capability and the use of an electric motor, are the next step in meeting future zero-emission obligations, it believes. But Andrew is mindful that the total cost of ownership must stack up in that situation.
“The journey towards zero-emission across the coach sector has started. Earlier in 2020 National Express said that it had bought its last diesel vehicle. It is bold statements like that which will be the industry’s catalyst and energy for continuing development. They will allow us to embrace technology for a better future.”
Equally, the fall-out from the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic will deliver further leverage for acceleration of that move, he adds.
“It has given a vision of what the environmental agenda is about. We have seen scientific evidence that as vehicles of all types stopped moving, the standard of urban air quality improved. When society returns to normality, that will feed demand to come back in a more sustainable way.”
For buses, Irizar believes that battery-electric is the way forward. Irizar UK is in “advanced discussions” on two opportunities that it hopes will come to fruition.
“In coaches the technology progression is not as clearly defined as it is in buses, but we now see that at some point the internal combustion engine will be confined to history. That journey has started.
“It is likely that different solutions to that will come to the market. That includes a parallel hybrid package that would utilise battery-electric power in urban areas and retain the efficient use of a diesel engine when outside them, and in the longer-term for higher-mileage use, a serial hybrid using a hydrogen fuel cell.”
Irizar UK ‘all about its people’, says Andrew Blundell
Products are nothing without a strong business to sell and support them. Andrew’s view is that Irizar UK’s foundation is its people and how they interact with customers.
Although his face-to-face market exposure has been limited thus far, telephone conversations have already demonstrated the depth of those relationships, he says. An absolute priority is that they will be built upon in coming months and years.
“It’s about us continuing that customer service ethos and understanding. Doing so will bring its own success.
“On the coach side, there is a finite number of operators. People do business with people. If our customers connect and associate with our employees, that is the basis of a strong relationship.”
Work is ongoing that will soon see the beginning of a move to site at Blyth, not far from Irizar UK’s existing Worksop base. Brexit considerations mean that the timeframe of the transition is difficult to predict, although regardless of Brexit’s eventual implications, they will not impact Irizar’s commitment to the UK market.
“The coach and bus industry is fundamental to how society functions. The shape of future demand will undoubtedly change from what it was pre-coronavirus COVID-19. But it is inconceivable that we can function without having the means to move people en masse. For that reason, I am confident of what lies ahead.”