There was a burble of surprise in March when Mark Clissett was appointed Managing Director of the Woodall Nicholson bus division, which comprises the Mellor and Treka Bus businesses. For a strong, safe and respected pair of hands in the accessible minibus sector, it represented a return to the fray after over three years of semi-retirement.
That time away from day-to-day involvement with the industry followed Mark’s decision to sell Treka – the business he built – to Woodall Nicholson in 2017. Treka is now headed by Mark’s son Morgan. Potential to widen the scope of each manufacturer’s customer base and grow group market share was a factor in why Mark returned to the front line, but it was not the only reason.
Another was the scope for both marques’ development brought by the establishment of ProMech Technologies by Woodall Nicholson. ProMech is a standalone technology division that will work with all the group’s brands. It is led by John Randerson, Mark’s predecessor at the helm of the bus division and who has been credited for building Mellor’s momentum in recent years.
Although Mark’s appointment represents a return to the industry, he never entirely left. In semi-retirement he remained engaged through consultancy work with some key customers of Treka. That allowed him to keep a weather eye on goings-on in the accessible minibus sector.
“A couple of the clients I worked with were looking for some larger vehicles that were beyond Treka’s portfolio,” he says. Some Treka buyers had enquired about battery-electric technology – something that already exists within Woodall Nicholson – and there was potential for other group customers to be introduced to products new to them through closer collaboration.
Collaboration and competitiveness at the fore under Mark Clissett
Such an approach “is working well already,” he says. “We have orders at Mellor from all three of Treka’s large rental customers for product that is accessible, but not in the traditional Treka rear-mounted lift sense. The flip side is that some longstanding Mellor customers will start to take Treka vehicles.”
Ensuring that a focus remains on the customer is a further priority. While much of Mark’s role is across both businesses, he says that a core policy since Mellor and Treka came under common ownership – that they will compete on tenders where product ranges allow – will remain in force.
“I am the only person who sees both sides of the coin. Morgan is responsible for the input from Treka and General Manager James Vince does the same at Mellor. If you want to be honest with customers, that is how you must behave,” he says.
An aspiration for Mellor is that it will further develop its ability to secure larger orders. That work is already coming to fruition, with 23 Strata Ultras having been supplied to Transdev Blazefield recently for use in Lancashire. But its Rochdale site is space constrained. More rearrangement to increase throughput has been carried out, although Mark adds that big orders progress through build more efficiently.
Other efforts involve maximising the preparatory work that is done before vehicles arrive at Rochdale. Vehicle framing and wiring loom installation is largely carried out off site and thoughts are turning to doing subassembly tasks on the same basis. “Treka has been good at that,” Mark says. There will be further opportunities to share best practice in that regard across the two businesses.
Work with ProMech Technologies is key to the range’s future
Collaboration between the two manufacturers under Mark’s charge and ProMech Technologies will be two-way. Mellor and Treka will forward market feedback and intelligence, while ProMech will sound out new ideas to gain an idea of how they fit the passenger-carrying market.
Engagement with ProMech will be “a major part” of the future development of Woodall Nicholson’s bus division, Mark continues. A significant element of the dialogue will encompass zero-emission technology and materials-related developments. As an example of the latter, he uses advancements in framing processes and interior materials and how they relate to weight reduction.
“We have got to save weight. If we can reduce it in the base vehicle without compromising quality, reliability and safety, and regardless of whether power is from diesel, battery-electric or hydrogen fuel cell-electric, we provide the customer with a more efficient product. Weight will be a prime subject for us to work on with ProMech.”
As zero-emission comes to the fore, Mark expects that customers will become more demanding of weight reduction and range.
A close relationship with ProMech will be vital to satisfying them. There is indication that zero-emission is already prominent in some Mellor and Treka buyers’ thoughts. Many local authority tenders now include a section for an alternative fuel option, and charities are increasingly aware of battery-electric power.
The ZEBRA in the room: Battery-electric minibus funding
With that in mind, Woodall Nicholson’s bus division is looking forward to further developing its zero-emission line-up. But the recent decision by the Department for Transport to exclude minibuses with less than 23 seats from the Zero-Emission Bus Regional Area (ZEBRA) scheme in England generated a highly critical response from Mellor
ZEBRA will part-fund up to 500 zero-emission buses. It is an early step on the roadmap towards the 4,000 such vehicles that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged the government will help to deliver as part of the National Bus Strategy (NBS).
Mark believes that the exclusion from the scope of ZEBRA funding of minibuses of the size used by charities, community transport groups and for SEN transport is fundamentally flawed. He points out that those segments are an integral part of the transport landscape, and that smaller vehicles often provide public bus services in rural areas and where demand is lower.
Funding towards the purchase of zero-emission minibuses would be a major incentive for OEMs to focus on them and expedite the transition away from diesel in those applications.
Mark notes that a move to emission-free operation the minibus sector is inevitable over time. He questions why the chance to foster that shift sooner rather than later is not being acted upon.
“This was a real opportunity for the government to puts its money where its mouth is.” He semi-flippantly questions whether the NBS should have been titled Big Bus Back Better.
Mellor is the only manufacturer to vocalise its unhappiness with the exclusion of most minibus size classes from ZEBRA. Other OEMs have dipped a toe into the zero-emission minibus market, and Mark believes that demand for such vehicles would mount quickly if funding was available. Woodall Nicholson is doing its best to get the message across, but it thinks that cross-industry lobbying is needed.
“It is going to take more than us,” Mark notes, although he accepts that not all industry stakeholders might be happy to become involved. Some hope may have been given by comments from Zemo Partnership that it is making the case for minibuses with fewer than 23 seats to be included in future funding schemes, but there is a clear line of thought from Woodall Nicholson’s bus division leader that an early chance to start the transition has already been missed.
A positive and tech-heavy future for Mellor and Treka Bus
Despite disappointment with the ZEBRA failure, Mark Clissett is undeniably positive about what the future holds for Woodall Nicholson’s bus division.
Shared high-level learning across Mellor and Treka stands to benefit both brands, while Mellor’s battery-electric Orion E is doing well despite the general lack of external funding for its vehicle class.
Work with ProMech promises much, but it is imperative that the government recognises and supports the ability of businesses like Mellor and Treka to help deliver its green agenda, he adds.
Why Mark returned to the industry on a full-time basis is a question that has already been asked of him on multiple occasions. “It’s the excitement,” he says. “I have skin in this game. My customers are the people who allowed me to build Treka into something successful and enjoy semi-retirement. It is now about driving forward with that.”