Family support ‘crucial’ for fledgling Welsh coach firm

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Paul and Sian Hodges have extensive coach and bus industry careers, but P and S Travel was only officially launched less than two years ago

When Paul and Sian Hodges highlight P and S Travel being a family-run coach operation, they are speaking from the heart and from experience.

Two of P and S Travel’s coaches and its minibus
 

Because the small coach firm in Ceredigion, West Wales, that Paul established as a sole trader almost two years ago has had “crucial” family support from the outset. This could continue in the future as the couple’s two teenage daughters are already giving their input, finding work for the firm with their social and school activities, helping with duties like cleaning vehicles and wanting to take their PCV tests.

Family connections

“Even though Paul is the sole trader, it is very much a family business. Because it is ‘P’ and ‘S’, it is supposed to be for Paul and Sian. But because the girls are called Stephanie, 18, and Sophie, 16, they classify the ‘S’ as being one of them,” says Sian, who combines helping with office duties like handling phone enquiries and bookings and driving school buses with running her own embroidery business.

There is a clear partnership between Paul and Sian in making decisions about P and S Travel.

It is on her father Jim Morgan’s smallholding and her childhood home near Llangrannog, a village on the Welsh coast between Aberystwyth and Cardigan, that P and S Travel, which was formally launched in January 2017, is based.

Jim, who used to drive school buses, had run a transport company there and P and S Travel has turned several buildings into offices and uses areas for its vehicles where another operator previously parked coaches used on local school transport contracts.

He also helped fund the £20,000 bond for Paul’s O-Licence and assisted in buying vehicles for P and S Travel.

“My dad has been very supportive. Without him we couldn’t have started,” says Sian, 45, who met Paul, 47, in 1995 when they started working as bus drivers for Crosville Wales at the New Quay and Aberystwyth depots respectively, and celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary this year.

Now the company has four vehicles, all named after family members – a 2008 Setra S415 HD 49-seat executive coach named Stephanie Ann, after the Hodges’ eldest daughter; a 2007 Volvo B12B Plaxton Panther 57-seater named Sophie Morgan, for their youngest; a 2006 MAN Beulas Cygnus 35-seat executive coach named Lucy Eyre, after Paul’s grandmother; and a 2014 Mercedes Sprinter EVM 16-seat minibus named Eleanor Ann, after Sian’s mother.

Business mix

The firm’s key business is the morning and afternoon school transport contracts driven primarily by Paul and regular driver Colin Newill, with Sian getting behind the wheel when required for routes around the surrounding area. But with Paul’s O-Licence covering five vehicles, the Hodges are considering expanding the fleet and broadening the business mix by introducing more short breaks and holiday options alongside catering for increasing private hire.

“The business has grown more than we thought,” says Paul.

Setting out

But despite Paul and Sian each having 23 years’ coach and bus industry experience, primarily as drivers, he adds that before establishing P and S Travel: “We had never thought about starting our own business in transport.”   

The sudden closure in August 2016 of Llanrhystud-based Lewis Coaches, where Paul had worked his way from driver to office manager after a career driving buses initially for Crosville Wales and then Arriva, prompted the move.

This made him seriously think about the next step for him, Sian – who had reduced her bus driving to contract school runs for a local operator after establishing her embroidery business in premises at her father’s smallholding in 2008 – and his daughters.

“I didn’t really want to step back and drive for someone else,” he says.

 Paul spoke to contacts about what was happening to school transport contracts the now defunct Lewis Coaches had just won. It didn’t seem good news as the local authority contracts were decided on a bidding process and then went to the second bidder.

“Then some came out to emergency tender. So, I applied for my O-Licence and put in a couple of tenders while I worked for Richard Brothers in Cardigan doing a school run for them. Then in January 2017, I won two of the contracts,” says Paul.

Local support

With Sian’s embroidery work focusing on work wear and particularly school wear and items like badges, her links with local schools proved helpful. Alongside the two contracts and other daytime work from Aberaeron Comprehensive School, two small local schools came on board with P and S Travel almost immediately the firm started operating.

All its vehicle maintenance is undertaken at A P Commercials, which is located 200 yards away from P and S Travel’s base, and where Sian’s nephew is a mechanic. The firm focuses on lorries and P and S Travel’s vehicles are the first coaches it has worked on. Paul says A P Commercials are “really good”, quick, responds to breakdowns straightaway and has been “really supportive” in keeping the vehicles going.

“We have had support from family, friends and the local community,” says Sian.

This includes regular bookings to transport a local rugby team’s youth squad to away games and private hire bookings. Other work includes driving members of stag and hen ‘do’ parties; bringing groups, primarily from the London and Surrey area, on the Duke of Edinburgh Award to the Brecon Beacons; supporting walking holidays on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path and in Ceredigion; and assisting a company that takes small groups to visit war graves on the Continent.

P and S Travel’s minibus during a tour of First World War memorials

“If the money is right, I will go anywhere, but business is mainly local, from Ceredigion. We have noticed that private hire is gradually getting busier and busier by word of mouth,” says Paul.

Holiday horizons

“We are looking at advertising the company more because we haven’t advertised as such. It has been word of mouth.”

P and S Travel is looking at developing the holiday side of its operation. It is “still early days” on this front, Paul explains, but this year the firm ran a successful four-day Disneyland Paris weekend and organised trips to the Legoland Windsor Resort.

For 2019, it is looking to out together a few more options, including another Disneyland trip and, possibly, more short break options.

Ask Sian how she would like the business to go and you get the response: “A brand new coach and doing more of our own trips and holidays”.

Paul is slightly more torn on the way forward.

“I have got an O-Licence for five vehicles. Part of me feels that I would love to expand, but the other part is that there is a shortage of drivers in the industry. So, trying to find drivers is a potential problem. I am lucky at the moment because Colin treats his vehicle like his own.

“Part of me says yes, and the other part is thinking that I would just rather stay as we are. But then Sian wants to push more on holidays and day trips.”

If the holiday side of the business took off, then a fifth coach could be an option for P and S Travel. A second-hand coach meeting Euro 6 emission specifications would be something the firm would consider for the future if the holiday side took off, Paul says.

Challenges and rewards

He admits that starting and running P & S Travel hasn’t been easy.

“It has its ups and downs. It is a bit like a roller coaster; things look OK and something happens.”

Challenges include breakdowns – although Paul says these haven’t been too bad – and cashflow.

“It isn’t that the money isn’t there. It is just trying to get the money in at the right time and keeping that flow of money coming in,” says Paul, who looks after the accounts and costings.

Both Paul and Sian enjoy the variety that driving coaches can bring, positive feedback and people recommending the firm. A particular highlight for Paul was driving back over the Severn Bridge with one of his daughters after picking up P and S Travel’s first two coaches from Plaxtons.

“It was just a case of: ‘Have we really done this?’” he says.

So how does Paul view his company’s first two years?

“It has not been easy, but there are rewards there.”

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