Edwards Coaches: 90 years of opportunity

Edwards has started its 91st year of operation in a good place, having won numerous awards, most recently at the National Coach Tourism Awards. Jessamy Chapman visits the business to discover the thinking that makes Wales’ largest coach operator so successful.

It’s the biggest coach operator in Wales, and one of the best coach operators in the UK. Its success has been emphasised in 2015, its 90th anniversary year, most recently at the National Coach Tourism Awards when it took home four accolades.

And yet, Pontypridd-based Edwards Coaches is still a family-run business. Fourth-generation Managing Director Mike Edwards works with all four of his children as directors, with Jason taking on most of the day-to-day running as Commercial Director. His brother Shaun works in engineering, and sisters Kelly and Jess work in HR and finance respectively.

“My father Mike is an institution in the business,” says Jason. “He’s 66, and we’ve started to get him to think about retiring – he’s only working six days a week now, down from seven.”

Jason has no trace of complacency over the awards the business has won. “I was gobsmacked,” he says, of the recent National Coach Tourism Awards. “To win four was amazing, and humbling.

“We always say this, but just to be shortlisted is a massive achievement. Any of the other finalists could’ve won, and it would have been well deserved.”

The awards were for Large Coach Tour Operator, best Individual Hotel (Portbyhan Hotel in Looe), Coach Tourism Professional (Alan Clough) and Coach Tour Driver (Glyn Bowden).

 

Taking opportunities

The Portbyhan Hotel was bought by the company in June 2013, the only hotel it owns, and it’s a story that reflects Edwards’ passion for innovation and opportunity. The award was the crowning achievement after two years’ hard slog.

It was bought out of administration, as an opportunity for the business: The hotel’s location and reputation made it attractive, and within a week of finding out that it was in administration, Jason had bought it. “That was the easy bit,” he says. “Finding people we could trust to run it, and building it up from scratch, was more difficult.

“We have a long coach holiday background so we knew what we wanted, and what it should be – but the question was, how to get there?”

A complete refurbishment of the hotel – including new drainage, new mechanical and electrical systems, new roof, windows, doors, kitchen, restaurant, bedrooms and public rooms – has made it one of the best hotels in the area, acknowledged by TripAdvisor, which has just rewarded it with a Certificate of Excellence.

“It’s been a steep learning curve – enjoyable, but a learning curve,” says Jason. “Our heads of department down there all do a tremendous job. We’re only getting better – our reputation is improving every day.”

 

Life-changing event

Mike, Jason and Shaun all have backgrounds in engineering – Jason as an aviation engineer for British Airways – so it’s a firm that’s more focused on the nuts and bolts side of business than sales and marketing, he says. When routeone visited last month, Edwards had just had 10 Mercedes-Benz Tourismos delivered, and had placed an order for 14 Caetano Levantes on Volvo chassis for its National Express contracts. “That’s 24 vehicles this year already, and it’s only May,” says Jason, who had just returned from a visit to the Irizar factory in northern Spain. If the company decides to buy Irizars as a result – and Jason is full of praise for the standards of the factory and the team – it will be the first time it has bought the make since 2001.

That order, for three Scania Irizar Centuries, nearly fell through after the events of 9/11. It’s an event close to Jason’s heart, as at the time he was working for British Airways, and it changed the course of his life.

He had taken voluntary redundancy and planned to take a year out to travel Europe, but 9/11 changed his mind for him. He was offered another job in aviation, in Norway – but that fell through due to the plummet in the aviation industry.

After a month off, he came into the family business. “I picked myself up,” he says. “I had my health, my happiness, and some money in my pocket.

“Now I do a bit of everything: Sales and marketing, products, the hotel, the National Express work, buses, coach holidays; my door’s always open. I never know what’s going to happen next.”

His experience at BA was good preparation. “I spent 13 years there in a structured environment,” he says, “with an emphasis on quality and getting it right first time.

“In this industry you never know what the next phone call will be about. It’s enjoyable – if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here. I’ve always been grateful for the opportunity I’ve had, and I’ve never not been thankful for it.”

 

Portraying the industry

Jason is the fifth generation to manage the business, which now has over 240 vehicles in the fleet.

His grandfather Alvis ran the business before Mike did; before him, Isiah Edwards; and before him, George Edwards, who founded it in 1925.

Edwards is famous for its holidays, but it does almost every other type of work too: Some bus work, myriad types of private hire, and National Express contracts. It sends 33 coaches to London every day on National Express work. But a massive part of its work is schools; it transports 6,500 schoolchildren every day on contracts, and its excellent relationships with schools and councils means it does a lot of private hire for them too.

“I like to think we’ve got a cracking relationship with the councils,” says Jason. “We get lots of work for them, from other operators who’ve done the job badly. If you only want to take over the world working for nothing, you’ll find it bites you on the backside.”

Edwards has won plenty of contracts this way. “I often think to myself, do those operators have different costs to us? We work out the cost of everything – diesel, oil, wages – then we’ve got a rough idea of what the price should be: A + B + C + D = E. I think A and B must be missing off some people’s calculators.

“It has a detrimental effect on the whole industry. When you’re working for nothing, you’re not investing or paying your drivers properly, and you’re giving a substandard service.”

It’s particularly true for schools work, he says. “Schoolchildren are potential holiday customers in the future, and the impression they get from substandard operators is damaging to the whole industry. There are more good companies than bad companies, but the bad companies put people off using coaches. We try to portray the industry in the way it should be.”

 

Difference for kids

It was this factor that led the firm, in 2006, to setting up Ecole – a specialist school tour organiser. “We were fed up with the existing educational tour companies letting schools down, letting customers down and letting children down,” Jason explains. “So we decided to do our own.”

Ecole is headed up by John Hadler, whose background is with Suffolk-based Galloway, another schools tour specialist. It’s now a huge part of Edwards’ business, and the byword is value-for-money – as Jason says: “It’s not the cheapest, but we provide quality accommodation, brand new coaches, driver performance and GPS monitoring, and a high level of safety.

“It’s about offering value-for-money holidays that I’d be happy to send my own children on, with twin rooms, a choice of food, good facilities and an achievable itinerary. It has a very loyal following of teachers, who are offering their students a fantastic opportunity to learn outside the classroom. And it’s a life experience – going abroad, using different currency, eating different food, experiencing different smells. That’s priceless.

“The feedback from teachers is brilliant. If they book with us once, they never go anywhere else again.”

 

Serving the public

When Edwards decides to do something, it does it properly. Bus operation is not a massive part of the business – it has just two bus routes – but they were put in place because Edwards saw that the community was suffering badly from the incumbent’s services.

“My nan rang me up to complain the bus hadn’t turned up,” says Jason. “We decided to do something, because the local community was struggling to get to the towns and public services.”

Two routes were started in 2010: one from Pontypridd to the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, and a commuter service from Beddau to Cardiff.

Both were started and continue as fully-commercial services, with new buses on the routes.

There are no plans to extend the network – “we’re happy with what we’ve got,” says Jason. “We prefer to do the one job really well, and concentrate our efforts into making those two routes offer good standards.”

The new bus routes got more public response than anything else the company has done since Jason has been there, he says.

“Working for the British Lions and The X Factor went relatively unnoticed,” he smiles.

“The public reaction to this was something else.”

 

‘The harder I work…’

The holiday side of the business offers great choice to passengers, with options for every budget: The Brian Isaac programme offers ‘super value’, while the Red Dragon tours are at the high-end of the market. The company has three brochures – winter, summer and Europe – ably supported by the travel shop staff. “They’re brilliant,” says Jason. “They treat the shop and business as though it’s their own.”

There is a good atmosphere at Edwards. Many of the staff have been there for decades, and they’re loyal and friendly. Jason praises the workshop staff, and says that many started as apprentices years ago and stay well into their 40s, 50s and 60s.

The apprenticeship programme focuses mainly on the maintenance side, and the firm currently has around 10 apprentices. “We prefer to employ new staff without any previous experience so that we can mould them, plus it helps to get new blood into the industry,” says Jason.

There are 470 staff in all, based at the head office and six travel shops; there are five satellite depots as well for parking. The head office comprises eight acres, with offices, workshops and an ATF, and coach parking, as well as customer parking and a waiting room for tour clients.

When Jason joined the business, there were 60 staff and the company was turning over 4m: 13 years later, there are 470 staff and the turnover is 40m.

It’s been 13 years of innovation, hard work, organic growth and acquisitions – the most notable of which was Diamond Holidays in 2011, which made Edwards the largest coach operator in Wales. “Diamond was a very well-known company and they did a fantastic job – it was just poorly managed,” says Jason. “They lost focus.

“We’ve had a lot of luck, but we’ve put blood, sweat and tears into the business,” he continues. “There’s a saying – ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get’. It’s absolutely true.”

Jason also pays tribute to Edwards’ loyal customers. “We talk about the high-profile jobs, but the most important customer to me is old Mrs Jones who books every Wednesday to go to Weston-super-Mare. That’s what our business has been built on, and we never forget that. It’s nice to have the glitz and the glamour, but our top customers are those who have been with us for a long time – they make us what we are. We’re blessed with some fantastic customers.”