New investor helps Jeffs rise from Bowens’ collapse

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When the Bowens Group collapsed in October 2012 it looked like the end of the road for its six subsidiaries and 450 employees. But, out of the blue, a new financial backer emerged for Jeffs – and a new start beckoned. .

It was the biggest collapse of recent years when, after three months of a deteriorating financial position, during which it was unable to pay its suppliers, The Bowen Travel Group collapsed on 25 October 2012 and went into administration.

The group operated 132 coaches, 33 MPVs, and 38 travel shops.

Of the 448 employees, 393 were made redundant; around 55 were retained to fulfil remaining operations.

The group comprised of six firms: Bowen Travel Ltd; LF Bowen Ltd; Jeffs Coaches Ltd; York (Bros) Northampton Ltd; Bowen Travel Transport Ltd and Woottens Luxury Travel Ltd. Nottingham City Coaches, operated as its own brand, was part of LF Bowen.

And that, it seemed for many of the staff, was that. The yard was locked by the administrators and the staff lost their jobs.

Out of the blue

MD Sarah Bayliss takes up the story. “It came out of the blue; I was walking the dog and had a phone call, asking if I was doing anything.”

The answer was simple – no, she hadn’t got another job and neither had most of the staff. An investor – Island Fortitude – had come forward and wanted to salvage some of the business.

Things moved very quickly. Sarah contacted former staff, including Operations Manager Darren Wootton; some of the former coaches were bought from the administrators, a new lease for the yard obtained and, armed with a new 28-vehicle O-Licence, the new firm, Jeffs Travel Ltd, was in business.

Jeffs' team:  Operations Manager Darren Wootton, Traffic Manager Richard Yates and MD Sarah Bayliss
Jeffs’ team: Operations Manager Darren Wootton, Traffic Manager Richard Yates and MD Sarah Bayliss

The new business had no connection with the old – there wasn’t anything left to salvage from the administrators – but the use of the same location and the ‘Jeffs’ part of the name provided a link.

In its favour, Jeffs is a well-known local business. Founded by Jack Jeffs in 1958 with a 37-seater coach, like so many firms of the time it soon grew, and a second coach followed in 1959.

Initially, Jack ran day trips but soon he took on school and works contracts. The bus was kept in a barn on The Square, Helmdon, (now converted into a house), and Jack was helped at weekends by his son John who served his apprenticeship at Daimler and then worked at Self-Changing Gears, Coventry.

He returned to Helmdon at the weekends to help his father.

Also in 1959, Jack obtained planning approval to use the old railway goods shed and station yard in Helmdon as a coach garage.

During this period of expansion John became a partner with his father.

By the end of 1961 they had seven coaches and an 11-seater minibus.

The business continued to expand and in April 1964 the station yard was bought from British Rail for 1,003 (around 17,000 at today’s prices). Then, in June 1964 they bought their first three new coaches.

Developing

Throughout the ’60s and ’70s the firm developed, expanding into a large variety of operations from the ‘run of the mill’ school, work and shopping services, day trips, theatre trips and European holidays.

In the ’70s Jack’s elder son, Ken, joined as a partner in the business, although he did not work full time until 1988. The business continued to grow, by when its cream and green coaches with their Impala silhouette logo were not only a familiar part of the local scene, but a national and international coach firm, running 104 coaches in its heyday. Ken Jeffs continued to run the business after the death of his father and younger brother John.

Meanwhile, as the Bowens group increased in size, with expansion across central England, it started buying other firms, adding Northamptonshire-based Yorks Bros in 1998, the coaching and retail division of RW Applebys in Lincolnshire in December 2000, and in 2005 it bought Jeffs Coaches from Ken Jeffs.

This, says Sarah, was the end of the ‘old’ Jeffs, and while the business continued to be profitable it gradually reduced in size reflecting changes in coaching. In later years it had reduced to 42 coaches and, by the time of administration, just 35.

Starting up again seemed easy, but with relatively limited resources it could not buy all of the old fleet back. The arrival of new King Long coaches has helped – providing a front line fleet – supplanted by a 2002 Volvo/Jonckheere Mistral, and six other similar coaches in the 1999/2000-age bracket, plus a dozen in the 1994-1996-age range.

Volvos make up much of mid-age fleet
Volvos make up much of mid-age fleet

The target now, says Darren, is to buy coaches around 10 or so years old, to improve the age profile and allow the older coaches to be disposed of. “We look in routeone at the vehicle ads and have found some good coaches,” he says.

New look

Mid-life refreshes have also been carried out, with some re-trimming by nearby Brackley-based Duroflex.

Externally, vehicles are getting a new look; some older ones still in Bowens’ colours that will be kept in the fleet longer-term are being repainted in the ‘new’ Jeffs livery.

The Impala logo associated with the old business wasn’t available as that remained with the administrator of Jeffs Coaches, so for Jeffs Travel a new logo, using a springbok and facing the other way, forms the new image – although possibly only the sharp-eyed would notice.

But there’s a lot of loyalty for the firm, explains Sarah: “There are many people we do private hires for, who remind us that we used to take them to school when they were younger. People have long memories, and that’s important when we do school work today – they will be our future customers.”

Location

Helmdon is a small Northamptonshire village, of a style that many overseas visitors would think is ‘typically English’, with winding roads and a mix of brick and honey-coloured local stone properties. On the face of it, its location might be a disadvantage, but one look at the map shows the good sense in staying where it is.

Maintenance carried out in-house at Helmdon
Maintenance carried out in-house at Helmdon

Not far from Silverstone, it is just north of the A43 Northampton-Oxford road, and it means, unlike a business sited in a major town, its catchment area within a reasonable ‘dead mileage’ includes Oxford, Northampton, Banbury, Aylesbury and Milton Keynes.

Also, thanks to low-emission zone retrofits by RWT, London is a prime destination for Jeffs’ fleet.

“I always knew we were a nice, compact, profitable business,” says Sarah. And, indeed that was also true of some other parts of the Bowens’ empire – its demise was largely due to losses within the firm’s travel shops and the external holiday contracts they held.

At Jeffs, having put the key people back together in a team and re-opened on the original site, work started to come in.

The first six months, as it is in any business, was tough, mainly due to the difficulty that all start-up business face – namely the ability to get credit.

First months

“We couldn’t get fuel cards,” says Darren, so everything had to be paid for cash-only. “Suppliers were our biggest problems,” adds Sarah, who is grateful for the support from those who did help, and that is being repaid with long-term business arrangements. “You certainly find out who your friends are.”

Adds Sarah: “The first year was all about surviving, all about spending only what you have to. But we didn’t cut any corners. If we didn’t have a skill – such as in software knowledge or the website – then we got it.”

With a close eye on the accounts, new systems were also required and software to manage the business – such as Distinctive Systems’ Coach Manager – were instrumental in ensuring efficiencies.

This year has seen Jeffs run its first holiday programme. As a CPT member, its bonding system provides the required cover under the 1992 regulations.

The first year’s programme is modest in volume and ambitions, with traditional British destinations – including evergreens such as the Isle of Wight, Blackpool, the English Riviera and Tenby – yet it has proved popular.

“People are booking with us who want to travel with us, because they know us,” says Darren. “If we do a good job, then we have got a customer for life.”

The firm’s work is managed by a combination of staff, with a core of 14 full-time drivers, six part-time, plus another six ‘casuals’ who can be called on when it’s extra busy.

This means that the staff can get on with the job of running the business and workshop, rather than spending lots of time driving. “We never schedule office staff to drive,” says Darren. Overall, there are 22 full-time staff, six part-timers and 10 casual staff. Three are in the office, while three engineers are in the workshops, with a fourth, fully qualified full-time fitter Neal Stock, just recruited.

“We have a very loyal workforce,” says Sarah, who says the sickness absences have almost vanished, compared with Bowens. “When we started we gave all the drivers a 50p-an-hour rise to 7.50, 8 at weekends and 10.60 for Saturday nights, plus a 5 a day bonus for meeting targets, such as a clean coach and correct uniform. At Christmas, we were able to pay a bonus too. It felt like the ‘old’ Jeffs.”

Fortunately, Bowens had spent money on Driver CPC training, which meant that the February half-term saw seven-hour courses undertaken.

Leased site

The leased site at Helmdon is very large – and it’s easy to see that accommodating the 104 coaches it ran during the 1980s would not have been a problem.

The site is still owned by the Jeffs family and the former family home on the site – a bungalow – has long been the business’ offices, with a workshop equipped with pits, alongside.

Former bungalow now used for offices
Former bungalow now used for offices

The CCTV on the site, which had been neglected under Bowens’ stewardship, has been refurbished and put back into full use, and the entrance drive resurfaced. As a leased site, Jeffs Travel looks to its landlord to carry out most of the improvements, although it has undertaken work itself to improve the workshops, and paid for the driveway work.

Alongside contracts, private hire work is going well, while a five-year Grand UK contract has seen the delivery of a pair of new King Long XMQ6129 coaches. “It’s a really good contract for us, up to 240 days a year,” says Sarah.

Around half the firm’s business is schools work on a contracted basis, mainly with private schools. Thanks to the rural nature of the county, there’s a lot of travelling. The rest is roughly split between private hire and tour work. “Everything must make a profit,” says Darren.

“If it’s not making money, we don’t do it. We don’t have any ‘loss-leaders’; if you can’t make a profit, you shouldn’t do it. There is enough work out there for everybody.”