New vehicle sales slump proves a winner for refurbishment specialists Bus and Coach World

190

It’s seven years since father and son Philip and Robert Hilton started in business as Bus and Coach World and they say the timing of their venture into the world of repair and refurbishment couldn’t have been better. .

“Where talents and the needs of the world cross, therein lies your vocation.”

Aristotle probably wouldn’t know the front from the back of a bus, but his words of wisdom still have resonance with many people who work within the industry and one perfect example can be found in Blackburn, Lancashire, where you’ll find a father and son partnership that is proving how apt the Greek philosopher’s quotation can be.

The story starts long before 2006 when Philip and Robert Hilton found themselves out of work, turning to what they knew in the hope that it would sustain them through a difficult period.

Philip, 69, started as an apprentice at East Lancashire Coachbuilders (East Lancs) in 1960, becoming Joint Managing Director in 1990, and retiring in 2005. His son Robert, 41, was made redundant at the same time, prompting them to set up in business as Bus and Coach World in 2007.

The transition from secure employment to budding entrepreneurs was never going to be easy. Philip says: “For the first year we had no premises.”

In truth they were time-served bus builders, and Philip in particular had built a valuable reputation while establishing important contacts.

A wise prediction

Based on the assumption that the market for new buses was in the doldrums so operators would want to spend money modernising their existing vehicles, their chosen line of business was coach and bus refurbishment. The father and son team had seen this cyclical trend in previous recessions and they had half an eye on the growing number of redundancies at East Lancs, which was then owned by the Darwen Group and was soon to be reversed into Optare plc.

Their faith was quickly justified by a large order from Arriva for the refurbishment and repaint of 54 buses. This alone justified a move into a rented unit on an industrial estate, though the painting of the buses was sub-contracted.

New lease of life

However, a new twist to the trend had emerged. Not only were operators large and small seeing some wisdom in refreshing vehicles halfway through their working life, a small but significant number were seeing value in buying late-model vehicles, normally those that had come off lease, and using them to upgrade their fleets – but only after bringing them up to ‘as new’ condition, and often new livery.

“It helped us a lot,” says Robert, who is the company’s Managing Director, while Philip is Chairman.

Typical of this trend are municipal operators Blackpool Transport, Newport Buses and Rossendale Transport (now trading as Rosso). Their recently appointed Managing Directors were keen to reduce the fleet age profile and introduce a new image.

All three turned to Bus and Coach World. In Blackpool’s case it had acquired a large number of double-deckers from the Isle of Man, while Newport had former London double-deckers to be out-shopped with leather seats, and Rosso acquired nine 07-reg Wrightbus-bodied Volvo B7RLE single-deckers.

Rosso Managing Director Brian Juffs explains the virtue of buying these youthful vehicles, which had been acquired on lease by Transdev Lancashire United for Spot On-branded services in Blackburn. “They make perfect sense,” he says. “We will replace a similar number of 14-year-old Dennis Darts and that’s got to be an improvement.”

Broad skill set

With a record of consistent growth backed by further significant orders from major operators, Philip believes that this success is in part a consequence of having one of the best teams in the refurbishment sector, and this is a worthy claim given that the vast majority of the 34-strong workforce honed their skills on the East Lancs shop floor before being cast aside when Optare closed the Whitebirk factory.

Such is the range of skills on offer that the company can always help, whether it’s an immediate body repair to get an operator back on the road, a full refurbishment or an ongoing refit for one to 200 vehicles.

Recent examples include repairs to accident damaged buses, and repaints needed at short notice for the launch of a new route.

Meanwhile, along with the growth in business came new opportunities in the shape of retrims and bus electrical repairs, again utilising former East Lancs employees and both previously out-sourced.

In January 2013 a new trim shop was added within the existing buildings and this employs three staff, while Adrian Fairclough, although self-employed, is frequently found working at Bus and Coach World sorting out an electrical problem.

Adrian’s speciality is wiring looms and he is perfectly happy building a new loom at the fraction of an OEM replacement part.

Having started as a team of three in 2007, Philip and Robert are understandable proud of their achievement.

They can proudly boast that their firm offers a range of services tailored to suit your requirements – repairs to damaged vehicles, refurbishment, trimming, alterations to meet DDA, open-top conversions, bodybuilding and, most recently, MOT preparation.

Nevertheless the core activity remains full repaints in the state-of-the-art 60ft paint booth they inherited from North West Coach & Bus, and they are particularly proud of the quality of the workmanship which is backed by a five-year gloss-retention warranty.

They are also proud of the personal service that enables them to claim that all enquiries are dealt with promptly and that they can offer a level of flexibility needed to match operators’ requirements for vehicle availability.

The open door

Back in January 2007, the door that opened for them was one on a rented industrial unit on a Blackburn industrial estate required the full use of their talent for using contacts and matching bus building skills to the world of vehicle refurbishment.

It was a challenge to which they were perfectly suited. As Philip and Robert will readily admit, they knew nothing but the coach and bus industry and the people in it.

The latest string to their bow is buying in vehicles for refurbishment prior to sale.

This started with a deal with the Isle of Man operator Bus Vannin for 26 East Lancs-bodied double-deckers, a mix of DB250s and Tridents, and is to be promoted at the ALBUM conference in May where an exhibit will be something special, according to Robert.

But the father and son team can’t stop confronting the inevitable question of will they or won’t they build their own new bus. Although this is an unlikely scenario, it doesn’t stop them investigating opportunities that may or may not include the preparation of vehicles assembled in a factory a long way from Blackburn.