The voluntary accreditation scheme has been a ‘proven success story’ and gave ‘tangible benefits’ says Director Jason Thornton
First Choice Minibus Services was one of the first operators to earn accreditation with the voluntary Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme (FORS). routeone drops in on the company’s Egham offices and speaks to Associate Director Jason Thornton to find out more about what the scheme can really do for operators.
Q: When did First Choice decide to become a FORS member, and why?
A: From 2011 First Choice started to focus on its environmental impact and how it could develop its health and safety processes. Over time, the company joined the Energy Saving Trust, ECOStars, and SafeContractor schemes.
At that point, we felt FORS could help fine tune First Choice’s processes and help develop management training and policies. The company joined as a FORS Associate member in 2013 and went on to achieve FORS Bronze accreditation in 2014.
Q: Were there any significant changes necessary in order to pass the FORS Bronze audit?
A: Management buy-in with the extra workload was the biggest hurdle when going for FORS Bronze. I think that was mainly because we were a small team and implemented too many changes alongside all the other accreditations in a relatively small space of time. By becoming a FORS Bronze member, we completely changed the whole culture of First Choice to a more professional outfit – which I feel has given it an edge over many of our competitors.
Q: What benefits has First Choice seen since becoming FORS accredited?
A: Since joining FORS, we have not only grown the business significantly, we have reduced all our insurance claims and developed strong relationships with the insurance industry. This in turn has reduced our insurance costs by 25% in the last five years and included ‘low claim rebates’ in the last four years. This is when other operators have seen increases in their premiums.
So, it makes sense to work closely with a good broker who will find you the right insurance company that will reward you for reducing risk. The insurance cost savings alone have paid for any investments in the business for our commitment to best practice. We have been with our broker One Broker since 2014 and ERS UK insurance since 2012.
Q: Did you need to invest in any new systems?
A: A major part of First Choice’s commitment to best practice is understanding and then finding the right technology partners to be able to implement the changes to its back office and fleet. Fortunately, I had 15 years in the IT industry which has helped us understand and choose the right IT partners.
Recently, First Choice developed its own driver induction training app that enables it to create and deliver unique eLearning training and policies for drivers’ phones, including ‘gamification’ to create competition between drivers. This is a massive cost saving to the business as the drivers are able to find time between driving duties, while still at work.
Q: The FORS Standard acts as a rule book for operators – how has it been updated for coach and bus?
A: Over the last few years First Choice felt that the FORS Standard was not adapting enough for the coach and bus sector which was always part of its road map.
We invited John Hix and Anne Johnson to our offices to see where FORS was heading for our sector. Over the following six months, we were invited to join FORS PCV working group along with the Confederation of Passenger Transport, the Guild of British Coach Operators and other key operators. There was a lot of debate and strong opinions from all involved and I think we should be happy with the changes to the latest version of the FORS Standard.
Q: You are also a member of the FORS Governance and Standards Advisory Group (GSAG). Why was that important to your business?
A: Early in 2018 we were invited to join GSAG, which we were delighted to accept. Ultimately, we decided to get involved to help support change in the coach and bus sector, and I hope that we can continue to provide support for any future changes. We believe that we are a proven success story of how operators can invest in best practice and still grow their business – and be in a strong position for the future.
With the right knowledge and commitment from business owners, operators have a great chance to thrive in an ever-changing future. One of the biggest hurdles operators will face is the change in culture in both drivers and management, and that does take time. I can only hope that our story inspires operators to look to the future and embrace change for the success of their business. FORS is always looking to evolve, so with more and more operators looking to join, they will also have an opportunity to get involved in shaping future changes.
Q: Safety has always been important to you – how has FORS helped in this respect?
A: As I mentioned earlier, we were already working with other accreditation schemes for the environment and health and safety, but FORS really helped First Choice to implement the right changes to its policies, processes, training and operation management structure.
Q: Why do you think FORS is important in the coach and bus sector?
A: Competition is tight in our sector and we face many other challenges including environmental concerns and driver recruitment, so if you are unable to adapt to the future, things may not seem as bright. FORS will help you stay safe, green and ensure compliance, and, in turn, you will gain a competitive edge.
Q: What are your ambitions with FORS – do you intend to go for FORS Gold?
A: Although we already comply with many FORS Silver and FORS Gold requirements, we had been waiting for the new FORS Standard to include PCV before going for FORS Silver. That process is now in place, so we will apply for FORS Silver this year. The difficult part of implementing so many changes in a short space of time, while balancing the growth of the business, is time. Ask me next year and I will tell you when we will be ready to go for FORS Gold.
Q: Would you recommend that other coach and bus operators join FORS?
A: There are tangible benefits to joining FORS and I would be happy to recommend the scheme to any other operator. If you are serious about safety, the environment and overall productivity, then FORS has all the tools to help you succeed.
First Choice Minibus Services is a sustainable transport provider employing 47 people and offering corporate travel, business shuttles, airport/cruise transfers, school travel and other private hire services in the South East. Family owned, the business has over 24 years’ experience and now owns and operates a large fleet of 16 to 40-seat bespoke vehicles, while larger coaches can be provided through its partner operators.
“We believe we have a duty to our customers,” says Associate Director, Jason Thornton, “to demonstrate that we operate over and above legal requirements and with a ‘best practice’ mindset, and taking health and safety as paramount. Our accreditations with both FORS and the SafeContractor scheme provide visible evidence of our responsibilities.
“Due to the nature of our business,” he adds, “we have a responsibility in reducing our carbon footprint and, in turn, supporting our customers’ environmental and CSR policies. We are committed to reducing emissions and that’s a fundamental FORS requirement.”