Mellor has developed its business into new areas over recent years, and with the arrival of James Vince as General Manager it added someone with experience in several core disciplines to continue that work.

Through a career that has involved some time on the supply side of the coach and bus industry, James brings a wealth of experience in customer-serving, production and technical roles.

His CV includes time with MAN and Volvo, a major rental company and his own family’s business. It starts with a workshop apprenticeship and includes time spent in Asia. More recently, James worked for South Wales-based NAT Group.

That gives a strong grounding for a senior position with Mellor. What attracted James to the GM role?

“There is a good vibe here,” he says. “Our customer base includes commercial operators, community transport organisations and local authorities (LAs). We have a multitude of sales avenues and a flexibility that some other manufacturers lack.”

Big shoes for James Vince to fill in the Mellor hot seat

James joined Mellor on 6 January. He reports to John Randerson, Managing Director of parent company Woodall Nicholson’s bus division.

John steered Mellor’s development before stepping up to the Woodall Nicholson board. His input and interest in all things bus-related are undiminished, but the tasks of growing Mellor further and day-to-day manegement of the business now fall to James to continue.

And continue it will. Mellor, like all major manufacturers, was impacted by restrictions introduced by the government in response to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Production staff were subject to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, and management time was focused on developing solutions to allow a safe restart when appropriate.

That quickly turned into an overhaul of how production is undertaken. Those who have visited Mellor’s Rochdale site will understand its space limitations. Vehicle manufacture has restarted with social distancing precautions in place, but thanks to changes made in the meantime there has been no impact on capacity.

James Vince Mellor
Changes enforced by the coronavirus COVID-19-related shutdown will leave Mellor with an enhanced capacity at its Rochdale premises

“We have reset what we are doing,” James explains. “Our hours of operation have been increased to allow fewer people to be on site at one time,

“Changes have allowed us to re-analyse how we operate the flow of production. A lot of improvement has been going on behind the scenes.

“In the future, that will permit us to increase capacity. There is also a wider scope of opportunity in the changes we have made from the points of view of quality and customer experience, and the availability of driver protection equipment across the Mellor range.”

In terms of numbers, revisions to working practices will ultimately allow production to rise significantly. How quickly that capacity will be required remains to be seen, but Mellor has not removed its foot from the product development pedal.

James anticipates a degree of turbulence on the operating side of the industry over the coming year as customers react to a changed landscape. Nevertheless, several orders have been confirmed during the shutdown period.

‘It’s now all about customer support’ for Mellor

James recognises that during the coming months, customer support will be king. How that is translated into actions will include an ongoing focus on aftersales.

“We build a quality product, but our business is not just about that. We must also be the key service partner that our customers expect,” James explains. “Aftersales is at the heart of delivering on customers’ expectations. The industry has changed in that regard over the past 20 years.”

Mellor Strata Plus interior
Mellor’s development under the guidance of John Randerson has seen it become an established supplier to the commercial bus market

His background prior to joining Mellor leaves him well placed to deliver on that, but his plans can only be delivered if Mellor continues to enjoy good relationships with its own suppliers. That is an aspect that will not be ignored going forward.

A further part of the customer service offering is consultancy. For LAs, staying largely with the same product has long been appealing. But the upheaval brought to operations by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic might change that approach.

“We are not going to return to the same environment that we left three months ago. Our range extends from the small Pico to the 30-seat Maxima. For LAs it is worth examining our product range in its entirety. The sales team can offer support, look at operational needs and see which member of our range is right for the application in question.”

As an example, the fully low-floor Orion and Tucana ranges have fewer touch points and offer rapid and easy loading of a wheelchair user via a ramp. Things such as those may be points of thought in the post-pandemic landscape.

Product development: No sign of slowing down

The pace with which Mellor has delivered new products to market in recent years has been rapid. Its Strata low-entry range was a radical take on what the bus industry saw as a small vehicle. The battery-electric Orion E broke new ground in its sector and the smaller Pico has been designed for the demand responsive transport market.

Mellor James Vince
Battery-electric Orion E will soon be joined by a further zero-emission model in Mellor’s range; smaller Pico is also available with ZE option

Work continues on what is Mellor’s next zero-emission project. Little can yet be revealed, but James says that it will be aimed at the stage carriage market.

“The coming 12-18 months will be exciting as some of the prototypes we are working on come to fruition,” he adds. “Coronavirus COVID-19 may have temporarily stopped production, but it did not halt engineering. We have kept pushing forwards with an enlarged range of zero-emission products.”

Orion E has seen good sales success, particularly in Scotland. Pico is available to order now in both battery-electric and diesel forms, with Mellor having made some minor alterations to the prototype design that was shown at Busworld Brussels last year.

Mellor Strata: Strong at home and strong abroad

Key to Mellor’s range for commercial operators is the coachbuilt, low-entry Strata. Mounted on a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis, it has seen strong orders from operators large and small.

Complementing the standard 22-passenger Strata are the 26-passenger Strat Plus and the 30-passenger Strata Ultra. They were later additions to the range and have been more minor players thus far. That is because their higher capacity more directly competes with other manufacturers’ products.

Despite that, before the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic Mellor took some key orders for the Ultra. It is also generating international business.

“The Ultra has perhaps taken off gradually because the standard Strata has proved to be of such an appropriate size for many buyers. It has a niche, where it does not compete with other products. Many operators have seen a real benefit because of that.”

Five months at the GM’s desk: What comes next?

It’s clear that the current crisis has disrupted the projections of operators and manufacturer alike. Mellor is no different to others in that situation. But looking further ahead, James is confident that the business’s five-year plan is robust enough to withstand current headwinds.

Mellor James Vince
Mellor Sales Managers will be happy to offer consultancy to customers as part of the ‘new normal’, says GM James Vince

“The immediate priority is to support our customers’ operations and business needs. Our long-term plan is to continue with significant growth.”

Mellor is in the fortunate position to have a solid order book for the coming nine months. With the addition of James Vince to the senior team at Mellor, it is in a good position to capitalise on that.

Meanwhile, Woodall Nicholson is keen to see Mellor push forward and continue the rapid development that has been its recent hallmark. James’s task is to ensure that those advances are made while a focus on the customer is retained and strengthened. He is up for the challenge.