People make the wheels roll at Bridgestone

Bridgestone doesn’t just sell tyres. Its sound business approach has been built on finding out what the customer needs and then meeting their requirements, but there’s another part to it too – an ethos based on looking after its own staff.

What are two of the key elements of your coach or bus? The passengers on board, and the tyres, which are the only point of contact with the road.

Day in, day out, the tyres carry great masses over any number of potholes in a wide variety of terrain, driven by people who will expect the tyres to perform. Meanwhile the operator's customers board the vehicles with expectations of safety and comfort.

Bridgestone wants to look after both.

The global business is huge in the UK, but with dedicated facilities and staff for the PCV market. One such facility is the hub in Wakefield employing nine tyre technicians working purely on coach and bus – but this isn't the only way it operates. All around the UK, Bridgestone's technicians operate in the bus depots, helping to deliver a bespoke tyre maintenance and repair service.

Three-part ethos

It’s the first part of Bridgestone’s three-part ethos: Look after the customers, and their customers. “As a business, we want to make sure our customer’s fleet is looked after as safely as possible because they carry people,” says Justin Mason, PSV Operations Manager for Bridgestone. “Everything our customers do is about safety for the general public.”

The second part of the ethos is looking after the staff. Bridgestone’s big break in the UK coach and bus market was winning its FirstGroup contract in 2007 – it's been extended three times. “If it wasn't for the lads, that wouldn't have happened,” says Matthew Millington, Marketing Manager.

‘Part of the team’: (l-r) Phil Taylor, Wayne Redfern, Imran Abwarth, Mark Cole and John Rogers

They're called tyre technicians – not tyre fitters. "They also inspect, maintain, schedule and administrate everything to do with the tyre," says Justin. "Their role is more than fitting tyres; it’s a highly-skilled job and we’re big on skills. We’re always very keen to bring people on and develop them. 

“What you get is a big difference in the way they work and their attitude towards customers, which can lead to better customer retention. They’re representing Bridgestone, and we can’t afford to the high standards we have set slip.

“We employ enthusiastic people who want to do the job, and we want to keep them enthused.”

Team culture

Promoting a team culture has long been a key focus for Bridgestone. At the hub in Wakefield, the camaraderie of the staff is heartening to see – but it can be difficult to replicate for those staff based in operators’ depots.

Several members of the staff previously worked for a different tyre company, and they remember that it was easy to feel isolated. “With Bridgestone, we don't tend to find that,” says Justin. “Everyone’s more involved.”

“That hasn’t happened by accident,” says Matthew. “Our operations managers see all their staff at least once every two weeks without fail which gives us a real differential in the marketplace.

“Our guys are really good, they operate to a very high level, but they still need a bit of guidance and support.

“The average number of staff under one operations manager here is 14, and they make an effort to see each other and stay as part of the team.”

Growth in the coach and bus sector only happens if the guys are here and doing the job. Without good people, we can't do any of that

The third part of the ethos is growing the business – through both new contracts and new staff.

“What we're trying to do is win business and look after it properly, then win more business and look after that,” says Matthew. “It's not about doing it cheaply and quickly.

“Growth in the coach and bus sector only happens if the guys are here and doing the job. Without good people, we can't do any of the things we want to do.”

“This industry is incestuous,” adds Justin. “Everybody knows everybody, and while some might say ‘you might as well stay where you are, the grass isn't any greener anywhere else’, that’s not how we do it here. The grass can be greener.”

Not selling tyres

The Wakefield hub recognises that some operators simply don’t have space in the depot, or the depot is not suitable, for Bridgestone’s technician and equipment to carry out all the work onsite. Instead, wheels and tyres are removed at the depot and delivered to the hub for replacement or ‘husbandry’: They are then returned to the depot for refitting onto the vehicles. This improves the process and reduces downtime.

Inspections, pressure checking and correction are still carried out by Bridgestone through the dedicated PSV Inspection team – they are the key link to the customer and ensure the process at the depot is carried out correctly, says Matthew.

For its direct contract clients in the PCV market, Bridgestone doesn’t sell tyres – operators pay a set fee based on mileage.

A typical bus depot set-up for Bridgestone’s equipment and technician

For that reason, Bridgestone can offer a more cost-effective offer for the customer if the tyres are well looked after and don’t need replacing frequently.

Therefore, it works hard to match each operator to a tyre care package that best suits them. 

There are three packages: The hub-and-spoke service involves collecting the wheels from the operator’s premises for inspection and repair work at a central hub like Wakefield; the full-fit package sees wheel assemblies removed and worked on within the operator’s depot; and the ‘super-fit’ package is similar, but with a resident technician installed at the depot.

‘What do you want?’

There are good reasons for offering a range of packages. Every bus and coach fleet does different types of work and has different operating conditions, and the tyres are the first point of contact with the road. Where the client operates can make a huge difference; an operator in the Fens has different needs to one in the Yorkshire hills, and the stop-start nature of London buses takes its toll on the tyres. The tyres of any bus fleet are much more likely than those of coach to regularly come into contact with the kerb. And everywhere in the country, the condition of the tarmac itself is extremely variable.

If operators get it right, tyres are also a good way of achieving better fuel efficiency. The average fuel saving from using well-maintained Bridgestone tyres at the correct pressure is 4-7% – and for a business the size of FirstGroup, for example, that percentage translates into millions of pounds a year.

The firm is flexible in other ways, too; technicians in the depot often start work at 0500hrs, before the buses go out on the road. It also endeavours to get tyres off and on when the vehicle is due for service anyway, to minimise downtime.

Clients can keep tabs on their tyre maintenance through Bridgestone’s Total Tyre Manager software – all the data is there, accessible by the fleet manager and by Bridgestone’s technician.

“We try to do things differently, by asking the customer ‘what do you really want?’” says Justin. “For us, to deliver a whole package to suit them, with a small commercial advantage – that's the way to go.”

"The customer is the boss," adds Matt. "We've got a flexible approach because we want to deliver not what we perceive they want – but what they really want."