Times have changed since routeone last visited Cotswolds-based coach and bus operator Pulhams in 2007. Jessamy Chapman visits the long-standing family firm to see its many developments over the last few years, which have made it one of the best in the business.
Pulhams is one of the oldest names in the coach and bus industry.
It’s certainly one of the oldest family-run firms, remaining in the same family from its inception 135 years ago, when it was a simple horse and cart business in 1880.
Today it’s run by husband and wife Andy and Kathryn Pulham, and its future in the hands of the family seems fairly secure, as Andy happily reports that his young children take a keen interest in the business, much as he did in his youth.
â€œJoining the business is all I ever wanted to do,â€ he tells routeone. â€œIt’s in my blood. I just wanted to be here, helping Dad.â€
There is a culture of modesty to the business, but the premises and vehicles look very impressive, and the staff are happy.
Since Andy took over the reins 15 years ago the size of the business has tripled, and four years ago, due to the limited size of the then premises, Andy and Kathryn found themselves facing the ultimate decision: Should they downsize a little and stay small, or should they move and keep growing?
They bought land on a new business park just outside picturesque Bourton-on-the-Water, and set about building a glorious new depot and offices. Every aspect of the new site has been meticulously planned.
It has an ATF and commercial workshop, comprehensive refuelling and washing facilities, ample room for all of its 64 vehicles, attractive offices, a driver’s room and several staff kitchens.
Andy and Kathryn helped to design every aspect of it â€“ and this was all through the busy summer season of 2012. They finally moved in in 2013, and for now, the size of the business will stay the same â€“ with an O-Licence for 60 vehicles. â€œWe don’t want to get any bigger,â€ says Kathryn.
It’s a very different story from when Andy became Director, in 2000. After leaving school his father David persuaded him to work elsewhere for a while before joining Pulhams, so Andy took an apprenticeship with Leyland Bus at the age of 16 and moved to Lancashire.
He came back to the Cotswolds when he was 21 and joined the workshop, where he stayed happily for the next 10 years.
At the time the business was owned jointly by David Pulham and his cousin Roger, who was at retirement age, and David and Andy had plans to purchase Roger’s shares and run the business together. Sadly, David died suddenly in 2000, leaving Andy to grapple with the business alone, as Roger was on holiday at the time.
â€œDad died very suddenly and I had to try and hit the ground running, going straight into the office when all my experience was in the workshop,â€ says Andy. â€œThe buses still had to go out on Monday.
â€œIt was very hard. Dad and I were very close and I’d always envisaged that we’d take the business forward together.
â€œBut I’ve never looked back. I think to go from that point to where we are now is quite an achievement.â€
At that time, Pulhams had around 20 vehicles and its main focus was school and contract work, with some private hire. It was Andy’s ambition to bring in a more diverse range of work.
More changes came about in 2008, when Roger decided to retire and Kathryn joined the business as Finance Director.
â€œNot only have we changed the volume of work, but also the kind of work we’re doing,â€ says Andy. â€œWe do a lot more touring work now; not our own holidays â€“ we’re not interested in that, as there’s too much competition in the area.
â€œWe decided quite early on that we’d work for tour operators, rather than operating our own tours.â€
Young age profile
The number of vehicles has tripled to 64, thanks largely to new contracts with the tour operators and local authorities won in 2013.
â€œWe tend to buy vehicles brand new and cascade them down the fleet,â€ says Andy. Usually coaches are bought as 49-53-seat execs, and upseated for school contracts when they’re around seven years old. They’re also refurbished to a high standard, in-house â€“ presentation is so important that Pulhams employs a specialist bodywork engineer whose job is to repair any minor scrapes and dents.
It means the age profile of the fleet is relatively young, with most of the buses being no older than ’06-plate, and the oldest handful of vehicles are around ’96-plate, used on home-to-school transport.
Pulhams is a major buyer in the market, having bought nine brand new vehicles last year, and 11 secondhand. It is a big buyer of Volvos, and purely by chance bought the first MCV-bodied Volvo B7RLEs in 2012, the very last B10M in 2001, and the last B12M as well in 2010.
â€œWe’ve always been Volvo, through and through,â€ says Andy. â€œBut the last time we bought them, we struggled with mechanical issues, and the level of service wasn’t right. So we looked elsewhere last year and ended up with Mercedes-Benz.â€
Andy pays tribute to the staff at Volvo who have since been in touch to rectify his problems and given him the confidence to go back, which has culminated in him placing an order for this year, so it’s a story with a happy ending.
â€œVolvo is far superior on parts supply,â€ he says. â€œThey can get parts to us twice a day.â€
However, Pulhams was also the first operator to buy a Euro 6 tri-axle Tourismo M, and Mercedes-Benz has made a very favourable impression.
â€œWe bought five Mercs in 2014 and all of them are Euro 6,â€ says Andy. â€œThey had some Euro 5 stock, but I wanted to look forward. We’re always looking to the future. Vehicles in London will probably have to be Euro 6 at some point soon, so we might as well invest in them now.â€
It’s a company that takes opportunities, and its proximity to the Oxfordshire border has allowed it to branch into contract work in that county, stepping in when unreputable firms quoting unsustainable rates went out of business.
Pulhams has an excellent relationship with the local councils, which means it understands the problems caused by budget cuts, and can advise them. â€œAndy has an excellent head for business, so the LAs often come to him to ask his opinion,â€ says Kathryn. â€œWe work with them to try to get better efficiencies, better mileage. There are lots of different ways of saving money.â€
Despite the fact that Bourton-on-the-Water is a tourist hub, there is still a strong sense of community among its permanent residents.
â€œThe local bus is a lifeline to a lot of people,â€ says Kathryn. â€œWe try to maintain a service for them, with the help of the LA. It’s such a shame that so many local villages are losing their bus services. It’s the only option for some people; it’s like they’re penalised for living in a small village.â€ Pulhams is looking at registering some school routes so they can carry passengers; just to give at least one option to those people stranded in their homes.
The sense of community ties in with Pulham’s attitude towards its staff too. Despite the low permanent population, and recruitment troubles in the industry as a whole, the firm never struggles much to find staff. This is partly because Pulhams offers excellent in-house training for drivers, but also because it has a reputation locally as a good company to work for.
The business does its own Driver CPC training, with a dedicated trainer, Graham. It was brought in-house for the first time last year to take away the risk of it becoming a â€œbox-ticking exerciseâ€ at the hands of uninterested trainers.
â€œI’m paying for the training, so I want to get value for money,â€ says Andy. â€œThe courses we do have relevance to our business.â€ During routeone‘s visit, the drivers are doing a course on brand and customer care. â€œThey’re representing the Pulhams brand and everything they do reflects on it,â€ says Kathryn. â€œThat’s what we want to train them to understand.â€
We hear lots of talking, laughter and occasional music from the adjacent training room. Graham certainly seems to be engaging the drivers.
Other operators in the area have expressed an interest in the training too, so this is another service that Pulhams will offer.
Andy and Kathryn are also hoping to involve the local authorities in CPC training. â€œWith the council’s involvement, we want to have a 3.5 hour course on home-to-school transport and safeguarding,â€ says Andy. â€œIf, for example, the bus breaks down and children tell the driver ‘I can walk from here’ â€“ we want the council to tell us exactly what the driver should do in that situation.â€
As part of the drive to empower staff and get them involved, Andy and Kathryn asked the staff to choose the company’s charity partner for 2015 â€“ and the votes were split 50/50 between Kate’s Home Nursing and Sue Ryder Hospice, both of which provide end-of-life care locally. Fundraising events so far have seen 300 raised in the first month. â€œFor us it’s about engaging staff, as well as benefiting local charities,â€ says Andy.
No bigger, just better
Since the decision to move was made in 2010, it seems to Andy like it’s been non-stop. â€œWe’re starting to catch our breath now, and looking at what we can do to improve our offer,â€ he says. â€œWe don’t want to get any bigger â€“ just concentrate on making it better, improving our offering and lowering the age profile.â€
The week of routeone’s visit the first batch of Wi-Fi had been installed, and only a month before tracking had been installed across the entire fleet. â€œWe’ve got to a stage where we want to know where the vehicles are, so we can relay that information to our clients as necessary,â€ says Andy.
The ticket machines are also being upgraded to accept ITSO smartcards, not just for concessionary travel cardholders but also for school children, as Gloucestershire County Council is introducing smart school bus passes. Later in the year, Pulhams will introduce its own commercial smartcard. â€œWe think it will appeal to tourists,â€ Andy says. â€œLocal people can buy them too and top up online.â€
Old coach comes home
For some time now Andy’s been keen to find old Pulhams vehicles that have since left the fleet. He has recently bought a 1979 Leyland Leopard that Pulhams had new â€“ Andy remembers it being delivered. When he returned from his apprenticeship the bus was still there, and he drove it in service, before it was sold in the early ’90s. It still has the same number plate, and will be repainted in Pulhams’ old livery.
It’s a family company through and through. Most of the buses’ number plates are personalised with family initials, including Andy’s parents and the Pulhams’ two children.
And it’s clear that the family aspect extends to all the 80-plus staff as well. â€œI still do a bit of driving, to keep my hand in, and see what sort of thing goes on for drivers,â€ says Andy. â€œThen I can use my own experience. I would never ask anyone to do a job that I wouldn’t do.â€
Pulhams has won several awards in recent years, the latest seeing Chris Adams take home routeone’s Coach Engineer of the Year accolade. â€œWe’ve got a fantastic team in the garage â€“ we’ve not had an MoT failure for years,â€ says Andy. â€œWe’re really lucky that we’ve got a great team, who are behind us 100%.
â€œWe always say that we’re only as good as the people we’ve got. I’m proud that I’ve got such good guys. That’s why we do as much as we can with them at work and outside work. If it makes us a bit better than the competition, and helps with staff retention, then it’s money well spent.â€