The torch is passed

It’s well known that coach operators are driven with an iron fist, and Keith and James Horseman are no exception. As they prepare to celebrate their 40th year in business, we look under the hood at Horseman Coaches

From a £100 deposit on two minibuses to a fleet of 61 vehicles on the road, Reading-based Horseman Coaches has come a long way since its inception almost 40 years ago.

Keith and James Horseman

Keith Horseman and his wife Anne established the business in 1977, with the primary goal of becoming the dominant operator in the area. Today the business stands as a testament to that goal, and to the vision that Keith had for the future.

“I did envisage it being what it is today,” says Keith, who maintains a directorship in the business. “Forty years ago the industry was quite poor – not properly regulated and not enough attention given to image, service, and customer care.

“I saw that as weaknesses in the industry. I thought, if we can concentrate on our image and improve marketing, customer care and image, it will only result in the business growing.”

And grow it did – in fleet, staff size and profits. Today the business employs around 83 people, and in the last five years has spent £7 million on creating a consistent and ULEZ-ready fleet.

The challenges of growing a business

The success that Horseman Coaches has seen hasn’t come without its challenges – and as Keith’s son and Company Director James explains, the driving force throughout the good and bad over the last 40 years has been his father.

Recalling when he was around six years old, James says that it was commonplace for his father to work across the business, often seven day a week. “That seems an unmanageable amount or perhaps an exaggeration, but it’s not,” says James. “We had a contract with Huntley Bourne & Stevens where the staff had to be on the production line for the first shift at 0500hrs, with the last shift ending at midnight.” On top of coordinating contracts such as this and driving, Keith worked tirelessly to grow the business.

We’re trying to deliver a better standard, not by offering that standard to the customer at an additional price, but just by thinking and having common sense. What do they need?

“He did that year on year on year. Not many people could pull that off, but he did. That momentum carried us into the next three decades.”

A line up of coaches reflected in the glass of the Horseman Coaches offices

In more recent years, the business faced one of its hardest challenges – a Compulsory Purchase Order for their previous premises, which forced them to up and move their fleet (then at around 50 vehicles) while keeping it on the road and fully operational.

“We tried to fight the order, and my dad took it to a Public Inquiry,” says James. “We fought our case as hard as we could for as long as we could but unfortunately we lost.”

Finding a space big enough to house such a fleet was no small task. When they found their current depot it was in a state of disarray after being empty for four years, and the challenge to create a fit-for-purpose depot within a limited time frame began.

Says James: “We had to create the office and get wired up for power and internet, and we had to create a warehouse that was fit and safe for a coach depot.

“It’s 24/7, 365 days a year – we don’t stop. It was a work in progress, but we did it. It was quite a seamless move, and our customers weren’t aware of it. We had a great team who got our servers up and running very quickly.”

Spotting opportunity

Just as one would imagine, there have been learning curves along the path to the 40-year milestone. In the mid-‘90s, Horseman Coaches opened a separate division – Horseman Travel – selling holiday packages and concert tickets. The division did well, and thousands of tickets for concerts and tours were sold. And then came the budget airlines, promising cheap flights to destinations further afield, and a decision had to be made about the future of Horseman Travel.

“Towards the late ‘90s, the no-frills airlines came in, and families were realising that for the same money they could fly to Spain, rather than getting on a coach and going down to the West Country,” says James.

“The bottom fell out of the excursion and UK holiday market, and my dad saw that about 18 months before it happened and geared up to pull out.”

Then came the search for another market. Identifying home-to-school contracts as solid work, it was 2002 when the business became heavily involved in the schools market, selling passes to parents of private schoolchildren, and absolving the schools of the burden of coach transport.

Says James: “There was a need for kids to get to school – and that will never end. The beauty of it is that it’s at peak times – you take them in the morning and take them home in the afternoon. There’s dead-time for the vehicle in-between – but is it a problem or an opportunity? It’s an opportunity.

Coaches are parked in a particular way at the depot, giving the greatest mobility possible for any coach to leave at any time

“You go out and discount hires that fit around your network. It doesn’t mean that we can only operate hires between 0900-1500hrs, because we have a big fleet and a certain percentage of those are assigned for what we call peak hires.”

Capitalising on this dead-time, Horseman Coaches also carries out tour work. While it no longer sells its own holidays, the business has made valuable connections with various tour companies that run their own programmes.

“We’ve built up a good rapport with them over the years, and the feedback is great. We do a lot of continental work,” says James.

Pride and ethos

There’s a real sense of pride emanating from James when he discusses the business his father worked so hard to build – a sense of pride that is also felt by many members of staff, some of them having been with the business since the beginning.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for my dad and what he’s done. I think it’s admirable, and I don’t just say that because he’s my dad,” says James. “I’ve seen it first hand, I’ve seen what he sacrificed and I want that torch to continue. Wherever it goes from here, it’s going to be his legacy.”

What sets Horseman Coaches apart is an ethos focused around delivering better standards as standard – and raising the bar in the industry. James explains that this ethos for delivering service and understanding the end product comes directly from his father.

“My dad always said to me ‘don’t treat every deal as if it’s your last deal’,” says James. “What he means by that is don’t try and squeeze as much as you can out of that one hire, that one customer. If you squeeze as much as you can, they’ll see it and they won’t want to be part of it next time. Give something back.

“We’re trying to deliver a better standard, not by offering that standard to the customer at an additional price, but just by thinking and having common sense. What do they need? They’re not just a line on a screen – it translates into an actual experience.”

Hitting the milestone

Looking forward, it’s business as usual. There are one-year, three-year and five-year targets to hit, and James says they’re on track to hit them, as well as to remain the dominant operator in Reading. The focus is also on Euro 6 and the ULEZ, with the business in talks with retrofit companies regarding retrofitting the remaining Euro 5 vehicles.

As for the upcoming 40th anniversary on 7 November, it’s a time for everyone associated with the business to reflect and take stock of the achievements of the past four decades.

“It’s quite an achievement to be in business for 40 years,” says James. “My dad has provided services during the ‘90s to local people who may not have otherwise had an alternative. He’s kept people in secure employment for the last 40 years, invested in the economy and contributed to local charities.

“There’s a lot that’s been given back, and I think this anniversary is important to him. The sacrifices my dad made he had no choice but to make, because there was no one else there to do it – it was him and him alone.”