Repositioning a business after 50 years’ work

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Whytes Coaches, based in the north-east of Scotland, marks 50 years in business this year by returning to tours. It comes after a change in ownership less than a year ago and a desire to return to its roots

Andrew Urquhart, David Campbell and Jason Carrison: Whytes’ owners

Things change in the coach industry, but seldom as quickly as they have of late at Newmachar, Aberdeenshire-based Whytes Coaches.

In less than a year it has seen ownership transfer to three long-standing employees, along with the start of a move back towards tour work after three years’ absence. Not only that, but 2017 also marks Whytes’ 50th anniversary, adding to the sense of occasion as tours restart.

David Campbell, Jason Carrison and Andrew Urquhart are the proprietors and directors, and they bought the business in April 2016. Andrew is related to the Whyte family, and like David and Jason, he has been employed for a number of years.

“When we purchased the company, the only member of the Whyte family left was Andrew’s cousin. He had little involvement and the three of us handled day-to-day operations. We had realised that we wanted to do different things with Whytes,” says David, who is MD.

“Returning to touring was the main one. We all held management positions anyway, so it wasn’t a huge step. Jason and I had been involved in touring previously, and before I came to Whytes I was with another local operator that did work on its behalf, so I knew how things were done.”

Steady the ship

Under the Whyte family’s ownership the business had up to 12 coaches permanently employed on tour work, some of which was to the farther reaches of Europe. Several minibuses were also occupied on feeder work.

Three Futura 2s supplied by Moseley Distributors the only large coaches

Although things were going well, the extent of the programme posed considerable risk if a coach broke down or missed a booked ferry. Management and administration also accounted for a lot of cost.

“Touring had almost become a monster; it took lots of organisation. Aberdeen’s oil industry was strong at that point and there was other work out there in the form of contracts and corporate hire, so tours stopped,” says David.

When the decision was taken to cease touring in 2014, a contract was gained requiring eight vehicles. But as the oil industry began to suffer, it was terminated, triggering the start of a refocus back towards what Whytes did best.

“Fleet size dropped after tours ceased, and then after the contract ended it reduced further; we had a number of 33-seaters that were suitable for nothing else,” says Jason. “Everything that we didn’t need, we got rid of.”

Onwards and upwards

The fleet currently numbers eight. The only full-size coaches are three VDL Futura 2s, all of which carry Whytes’ attractive mint green livery. Popular with passenger and drivers, they are well-suited to the relaunched tour programme.

“The Futura 2s were purchased from Jim Tweedie at Moseley Distributors, and while we are not in the market this year, when we do come to buy again it will take something special for me to go elsewhere,” says David.

Smaller coaches are prominent, including a solitary King Long midi

“They do what we need of them: They go out and they come back without issue. I have considered other manufacturers, but the back-up we receive from Moseley and DAF is excellent, and I am not sure that would always be the case with other coaches.

“Jim sold his first coach to Whytes in 1977 and I know that I can talk to him as a friend rather than as a supplier. In the past I have seen him put a windscreen in a van and drive it up from Airdrie himself almost as soon as I had come off the phone to him.”

By his own admission, David expects suppliers to complete work on time and as described, and he is not inclined to accept excuses. A bad experience with one dealership – where a vehicle spent several weeks awaiting minor engine work – was a lesson in sticking with what he knows.

At the moment the Futura 2s are principally employed on private hire before tours restart in March. Private hire has never formed a huge part of Whytes’ workload, although the three men see opportunities in the future.

Whytes is also been picky over the hires that it takes on. Duties such as hen and stag parties or football supporters have been avoided; instead, the corporate world has been the major source of work.

A small number of contracts occupy the remainder of the fleet, although no home-to-school duties are undertaken. The reason is simple: Others are happy to do it out for little to no return. Whytes has not tendered in this area for some time.

7,500 brochures have been printed for 2017’s season; it’s also online

Back on tour

Relaunch of the tour programme is currently occupying a lot of management time, as it has done ever since the decision to return to this area was made in September 2016.

The day before routeone visited last week had seen Andrew, David and Jason working late to pack 7,500 brochures for dispatch, and remarkably, the whole project has been planned, and the first bookings taken, inside four months.

Ambitions for the 2017 season are modest, says David. The approximately 60 tours have scope to carry 3,000 passengers, and the Isle of Wight will be the furthest point visited.

Mainland Europe has been avoided, although he adds that in 2018 destinations such as Belgium or Holland may be added.

“We decided not to travel to mainland Europe this season for three reasons: The German VAT rule can be difficult to deal with, we don’t know what is happening with Brexit, and the unpredictable political situation.

“It could be the case that, two weeks before a departure, there may be an incident. Everyone booked on that tour would then want to cancel. Jason and I have driven coaches all over Europe, but this year is about re-establishing the programme.

“The unpredictable exchange rate is also a concern. Next year, if we do any continental tours, we will do something that we know will go full, so if there is any variation on the rate we can swallow it and still make what we need to.”

‘We control things’

One of the attractions of returning to tour work, says David, is that there is no risk of being undercut. Instead, Whytes does its sums, sells holidays at the necessary price, and does the work without interference.

2017’s programme has been put together with two wholesalers, although because both are more accustomed to dealing with English operators, work was required to accommodate the longer distances required when setting off from Aberdeenshire.

All maintenance is handled in-house, with diagnostic equipment on hand

“Leaving things late was almost a blessing because other operators had finalised their 2017 programmes. Although we were slightly limited in what we could get, we could change details as needed,” says David.

“Brochures have only just been dispatched but all holidays are also on our website. We receive good data via Google Analytics. It’s a useful tool, although it doesn’t tell us when people actually book something.

“What has been interesting is that everyone thinks that older people don’t use the internet. But 70% of the people who have looked at our website are 65 or over, according to Google.”

All three men agree that tours will be Whytes’ principal work from this season onwards. In 2018 it may grow the programme slightly, but David is undecided on whether this will see fleet size increase.

“We have a very good relationship with one nearby operator in particular and we could use one of its coaches and drivers to handle additional requirements. It is experienced in tour work and I have no worries about trusting it with our passengers.”

One tricky thing to overcome may be conditioning holidaymakers not to expect a Whytes-liveried coach. Although it is a smaller operation than in the past, it retains a good reputation and its green livery is well-known.

That’s a mark of how established Whytes has become in its first half-century. As with many operators that focus on their own niche, it does things well, and it has a strong brand loyalty. A young yet experienced management team means that it is well placed to continue doing so in the future.