The small operator with the big heart

With a full contingency of 12 vehicles Vallances Coaches is still small enough to care. Drivers have been known to leave and six months later be asking to come back

From humble beginnings in 1962, Vallances Coaches in Kirkby in Ashfield has grown to a much-respected local coach-hire company.

The team is now made up of three generations of the same family – along with staff whom Director Steve Vallance calls his ‘family’.

Back in 1962 Graham Vallance was a miner at Bentinck Colliery in Nottinghamshire. Needing to earn some extra money he bought himself a 12-seater Austin J2 minibus and started working it at weekends. At the time there weren’t many operators in the area and eventually he found himself enjoying the coaching life more than mining.

After securing his first school contract in Hucknall, Graham took the plunge and gave up his job. After buying another Austin minibus he found himself working flat out to make a living.

In the early 1970s Graham wanted to expand, so bought a bigger coach; a petrol-engined Bedford J2 Plaxton Embassy 18-seater, followed soon after by a 20-seat diesel version. The most basic of coaches of its day, the Bedford did the job and would run and run. Graham later changed it for a Bedford PJK Duple 29-seater – which was so popular that he bought another.

Graham says: “In those days there was no sat nav, and we had to know where all the toilets in the country were. It’s probably one of the most important things to know when you’re carrying passengers.”

 

The family grows

His son Steve was chomping at the bit to join the family business. “My dad wouldn’t let me come and work for him when I left school at 17” he says.

“He said I had to go out into the real world and get more knowledge, so at that point I went to work in a factory at Nottingham, much to my dismay because all I ever wanted to do was this.”

Fate was smiling on Steve however, when he was made redundant aged 19 and was consequently able to join the family firm.

“I didn’t drive initially but as soon as I was old enough I took my test and failed first time!

“By this time we’d bought a 1988 Bedford YMQ 35-seater. It was a lovely little bus and I literally went out all over the country gaining a knowledge of the roads and getting a taste for the coaching life.

“The workload was growing and I had a lot bigger ambitions than Dad.”

Further expansion

Steve bought in a Cummins L10-powered Duple 425 with 53 seats and a toilet. “That was the coach that put us on our feet,” says Steve. “It was a wonderful machine and we went everywhere with it – thousands and thousands of miles. We had it retrimmed – I was very proud of that coach.”

After that there was no stopping Steve’s expansion plans. Further vehicles were bought and he realised the company had outgrown the yard which was still in the garden of his dad’s home. New premises were found and the vehicles were split between the two sites.

As things progressed, Vallances changed to a Limited Company and gained an international O-Licence. “I wanted to gain international driving experience,” Steve says. “And the only way that you can do it is to get out there and learn, because driving abroad is very difficult, especially in this modern world. There are so many things that they try and trip you up on and if you don’t know the law…”

Son Ben joins

A further asset to the company, Steve’s oldest son Ben joined in 2014 as Transport Manager. Steve says: “He went and did his operator CPC and passed with 98%. Flying colours – I was amazed.”

Ben takes a lot of interest in the company’s two vintage buses. The pride and joy is an AEC Regal, 1946 named Walter which is out and about nearly everywhere weekend. Steve says: “Most weekends throughout the summer Walter is out and it wins best in show everywhere we take it. I’m very proud of it.”

Lady Pamela is a 29-seater Bedford OB and is popular for weddings and private hire. Steve says: “People will book these vintage vehicles as a birthday present or as an anniversary present. Everybody loves them, it’s something different and I think in this modern world it’s what people are looking for.”

The team are the backbone of the business. Office Manager, Laura Cole and Accountant, Carla Jones are also considered part of the family.

Training drivers

Steve’s most senior driver Jim George has been with the business for 15 years. Steve says: “Unfortunately he’s retiring next year. I will be saddened to lose him, he’s so reliable and a great friend.

“If anything goes wrong, if it’s 2am and there’s a problem, you know you can pick the phone up and Jim will say ‘give me 10 minutes, I’m on my way’.”

Steve fosters his drivers’ development and describes how he breaks them in gently.

“I would never train a driver up and then put him into £200,000 worth of coach and send him to London for the day,” he says. “It’s a daunting task when you’re a newly qualified driver.”

School contracts

Steve’s favourite coaches are his executive Astronef Van Hool both 53-seater coaches, a matching pair with glass roofs. He says: “They are theatre style with a sloping floor, they are really superb and we get people phoning up requesting to book those particular coaches.”

The company has a number of school contracts and specialises in delivering and supporting children and adults with special needs and learning disabilities. The school runs are the bread and butter of the business along with the summer contract the company has with The Isle of Wight (IOW) Experience.

The IOW Experience specialises in educational visits for year six children. Steve says: “The drivers love it, we pick up from schools anywhere south of the garage and take the kids to the IOW from Monday to Friday.”

“We are one of their biggest operators and have won all kinds of awards over the years, including Driver of the Year and Coach of the Year.”

The children particularly love ‘Vallance FM’. Steve explained that one of his drivers is a professional DJ and makes a two-hour CD of a pretend radio station to play in the coach. The children actually believe that Vallance’s has its own radio station!

“For the children that’s part of their holiday, it’s little things like that that gets the repeat booking for next year.”

The company’s Berkhof 76-seater double decker is predominantly used for the IOW runs.

Personal touches

Steve’s daughter Molly’s partner Rob McCready has also joined the family firm and Steve’s dad Graham still maintains an interest from afar. His wife Jenny – who he met through the job – also drives, although she is now mainly at home with their two young children.

Steve maintains the secret of their success is the personal touches and the fun had on board the coach. He says: “We create a scenario and from the minute you get on the coach our passengers are doing bingo, they’re having drinks, they’re doing quizzes; before you know it you’re in Dover and then do it all again and before you know it you’re in Paris.”

He’s had his fair share of funny moments himself too. Taking a group of lads to a ‘mud-wrestling’ night in Poole he got roped in to help out in the ring. He says: “I had my mind made up, I’m not coming in, but was persuaded to go. Over the mic they asked for somebody sensible to sit in each corner with the girls with the towel. The lads volunteered me. So I’m there in the corner with the girls and these lads went in the ring, this is where it all went wrong, I got picked up and thrown into this heap of people. I was wearing a shirt and tie and got soaking wet.”

Steve laughed at the memory. “All the money for the job was in my pocket and I had to drive home soaking wet – and then explain that to my wife when I got home.”

“I have one more dream” he says. “I’ve never had a new coach. I’m sitting on the fence at the moment with that one but it’s my final target to hit.”