23 years trading: Hunter’s on the changing times of the industry

After building an operation in Daventry, Hunter’s coaches is facing the changes thrown at it by the coach and bus industry – and doing all it can

A lot has changed in the industry in the past 23 years, and Daventry-based Hunter’s Coaches has managed to see through it all. But with the need for Euro VI compliance and PSVAR knocking at the door, can it, and other local coaching firms, get over the hurdles?

Hunter’s Coaches is one of the local operators which are facing the new legislation. It found its footing over 20 years ago after Ray Hunter took a chance on a coach bought from Adkins of Byfield – a firm he used to work for.

70% of Hunter’s work is school contracts
70% of Hunter’s work is school contracts

Ray, owner of Hunter’s Coaches, has been in the coaching industry for all of his working life. “I’ve been involved with coaches since I was 17,” he says.

The owner of the operator Ray had previously worked for was retiring and offered Ray the option to buy out the business. But it wasn’t possible because of space.

“So, we went over to the pub and had a bit of a chat,” he says. “I said that I’d go for a 53-seater.

“I rented out a bit of land outside the gates and it all started from there.”

A Jonckheere P599 was the beginning of Hunter’s coaches. Ray purchased the coach after working with it for a few years and maintaining it himself while he worked for Adkins.

Within 10 months of buying his first coach, he had a second to add to his fleet. “The second coach I bought was another 53-seater, which came from Hodges at Sandhurst. It was a really nice company, and then things sort of went mad from there.”

Ray played every role in the early years, from owner to price-setter, mechanic and marketer, building the business up step by step on his own – with a little help from his wife, Pat, who still helps with the clerical side of the business today.

Luckily, Ray had managed to rent a small section of land nearby, and seven years after Hunter’s was established, the plot behind it came up for sale, meaning he has been able to build the brand name into the community without having to start again. He says: “There is a little roundabout out here, and people call that Hunter’s roundabout!”

Strong fleet

With his first 53-seater, Ray picked up contracts and private hire business quickly, and then managed to get a few small tours under his belt. He recalls how only two people were driving at the beginning of the business, which was himself and a part-time colleague.

Ray has built up Hunter’s fleet to 30 vehicles
Ray has built up Hunter’s fleet to 30 vehicles

But the early work helped the company to get noticed, and Hunter’s soon picked up a school contract, which meant the fleet had to grow even further.

Ray says that Hunter’s now has a 30-vehicle fleet including coaches, buses and minibuses, and the operation is run by himself, with one Secretary, one Operations Manager, three mechanics and 25 drivers.

“Contracts kept coming up, so I kept going for them and I had to keep increasing the fleet size. So now we have 30 coaches and 28 licences. That means we have got spare vehicles too.”

19 coaches make up the majority of the fleet, most styled with the Hunter’s livery, and are a mix of makes and models including Volvo, Yutong and Temsa.

Eight double-deck buses are mainly used for school contracts. But as an added luxury, two executive double-deckers have come into the fleet too – but that doesn’t mean that they are only reserved for special occasions.

Ray says: “Whatever is in this yard we use for everything. We don’t let anything stand around – except in the half term!”

To finish off the extensive fleet, Hunter’s has three minibuses that are mainly used for contracts. But one of them is perhaps a little more special than the others, as it once belonged to a celebrity.

“We do have one little executive minibus which belonged to Charlotte Church. It was her little tour bus, so we bought that probably about four years ago now,” Ray says.

Today’s work

Although Ray explains that Hunter’s has 23 school contracts which make up the majority of its work, the firm has a few other notches on its belt which have helped the company to become as large and successful as it is today.

The Yutong TC9 is Euro VI complaint
The Yutong TC9 is Euro VI complaint

With a mix of coaches and double-decker buses, Hunter’s has an edge on winning school contracts.

The firm does tours for a number of coach tour operators including Just Go. Just Go has a coach in its own livery. The tours can last up to five days and are based in the UK rather than being continental, Ray explains.

Many tours and school excursions are day trips, with London being a popular destination. That is stretching the firm to meet Euro VI requirements with the fleet.

On occasion, Hunter’s may even work on rail replacement services as well as the school contracts, which is pushing the operator from the other side to update its fleet to meet PSVAR compliance.

Looking forward

With Hunter’s being a privately owned family firm, and having 70% of its business in school contracts, PSVAR and Euro VI compliance are at the forefront of its mind.

Currently, Hunter’s has 23 school contracts with three PSVAR compliant vehicles. Ray isn’t sure what is going to happen in terms of his fleet.

He says: “I’m not increasing, I’ll just change vehicles. I won’t buy for the sake of buying; it’ll be a part exchange or something similar. I will think about that for Euro VI, but as for the PSVAR I don’t know.

“I think there are a lot of the same people in the same boat. I think it could be the ruin of many coach companies.

“There are not going to be enough companies out there to do all the contracts.

“It’s very difficult when no one really knows what’s happening. Once upon a time I would have said ‘yes I’m going to invest in more motors,’ but now with the PSVAR situation, I just don’t know.”

With legislation changes, Ray doesn’t know what the future holds
With legislation changes, Ray doesn’t know what the future holds

But it’s not just PSVAR legislation which has put up a hurdle for operators like Hunter’s. The firm takes schools and day trips to the capital which means it needs more Euro VI compliant vehicles if it is to avoid the daily charges. Hunter’s currently has four Euro VI vehicles: Two Temsas, a Yutong, and a Volvo B11R.

The final factor which Hunter’s is having to consider for its workload is the drivers. With 25 drivers on contracts or in full-time work for Hunter’s, Ray has found that recruiting new drivers is becoming more difficult since the introduction of Driver Certificate of Professional Competence (DCPC) training 12 years ago.

He says: “People just aren’t interested about doing DCPC training anymore when they get to a certain age.

“Once upon a time a driver who was over 70 would just say ‘I’ll drive and carry on’ but now they have to sit in a classroom for a day which puts them off. They have to go a day every year for five years.”

Despite the changing nature of the coach and bus industry, Hunter’s has gone from strength to strength and built itself up to encompass a good-sized fleet.

The operator has strong heritage behind its name and is well known to the local community. With schools wanting to keep the operator running for them for years to come, Hunter’s is on the right path to stay strong in the industry.