19 December 2013 by Shona McMasters
After a public inquiry operators can either take decisive action to make sure it doesn’t happen again or take the very real risk of making the situation much worse by doing nothing, As Mike Morgan discovers, Premier Coaches chose the former.
Nobody enjoys being called to a public inquiry, indeed it can be a grueling experience that exposes failings and brings the high probability of penalties to be paid or even the ultimate sanction of licence revocation. What’s more there’s the associated adverse publicity to contend with and the damaged reputation that results from having had dirty linen aired in public. You will not be surprised to learn that the court report pages in each issue of Routeone are regularly declared the most compelling pages by our readers. The urge to read about other operators’ experiences when standing before the Traffic Commissioner is great and for some it’s a case of “there but for the grace of God go I”. But for those directly involved it’s not a comfortable read, bringing back painful memories, while drawing the whole industries attention to the indiscretions.
However as must be the case when faced with adversity, there are two responses – i.e. either take decisive action to make sure it doesn’t happen again, or take the very real risk of making the situation much worse by doing nothing.
This latter option was the last thing on the mind of North East Operator Alan Findlater. His firm, Kintore-based Premier Coaches, had incurred the embarrassment of an appearance before Traffic Commissioner Joan Aitken being reported in Routone Court Report, 24 November 2011.
However it was an earlier PI that was a rude awakening, Alan, now aged 28, was new to the industry, having made significant progress as a young entrepreneur in other sectors.
“It was a major slap in the face” he says, “I couldn’t answer the question she wanted me to answer”. Although keen to learn and anxious to comply, it was clear that Alan had bitten off more than he bargained for when he bought what was left of Keirs Coaches a long-standing operator in his home town. Keirs was a failing company when Alan bought it in November 2009. His success as a painter and decorator had fueled his ambition, encouraging him to invest in struggling local enterprises with equal levels of success.
Having turned around the Lairds throat restaurant and Gushet Neuk bar in near-by Kemnay, he believed he could do much the same for Keirs, which had an established customer base and a number of employees. In Alan’s eyes it could make money and he knew something of the business by virtue of his wife being the step-daughter of the former owners son.
However Keirs reputation was in tatters and as a business it had fallen so far under the previous owner that an attempt to trade under this name was to prove futile.
Keirs operated from relatively modern four year old premises, but the yard was muddy and the vehicles were down trodden. All-told it was a sorry picture that hadnt escaped the local community…or the local authority, which withdrew six vehicles worth of school contracts. It was time for action, Alan freshend up the buildings with a new coat of paint and brought in some crushed road-stone for the yard. Simultaneously it was out with the old and in with something more presentable as far as the vehicles were concerned. It was sufficient to reassure the local authority which re-allocated the five-year contracts, ensuring a steady flow of income upon which to take the business forward.
Alan’s determination to salvage something and ensure that Keirs employees wouldn’t have to face redundancy had been recognized, but it was his request that he be granted an Operators Licence in his own name that was to prove the most salutary experience. The request prompted to call PI, but with Keirs history in mind and Alan’s minimal experience obvious, the Traffic Commissioner (TC) took the opportunity to give some sound advice, and as Alan recalls, it was blunt “she made it clear that I should either get out of the business or sort it out and run it properly”. The TC had thrown down the gauntlet. Although she had expressed serious concerns given Alan’s lack of experience in the coach industry, this being his first venture, she gave the green light to allow his evident entrepreneurship and business acumen to get to grips with the challenge she set. Thought this was on condition that he act swiftly to ensure full compliance with the undertakings given when signing the O-Licence application. However an integral part of the advice was to distance himself from Keirs and it was for this reason that he stayed up as Premier Coaches Kintore Ltd in July 2010. The TC granted the licence, issuing six discs, and applied the condition that Alan or his then office manager complete the National CPC course in order to support the transport Manager he had put in place for the new venture.
Unfortunately despite promises and expectations, not all the existing staff were willing to adapt a new way of operating. Whereby Alan required Premier to work strictly withing the confines of such a highly-regulated industry. His stance was uncompromising “If you don’t want to do it my way, then it’s the highway”, he says. It was this point that Shona McMasters, a graduate with a degree in law and business who was doing bar work. She joined Premier in October 2010. Shona, now aged 30, also had no previous coach industry experience, but was prepared to learn fast, joining Alan in his CPC studies. Shona takes up the story she says “Together with Alan and the support of the FTA and the then transport manager we began introducing new systems, which would ensure our full compliance. Unfortunately shortly before I was due to sit the CPC examination, the Transport Manager felt that she had no option but to retire due to ill health and given the time frames involved, we requested and were granted a short period of grace”.
Its now almost three years since Alan bought Keirs, 20 months since he started as Premier and eight months since Shona took on the Transport Manager responsibility. And its been a baptism of fire. As a young company with a lack of experience, they are displaying a determination to adapt and adjust, making changes required to do everything in their power to avoid any further calls to a PI.
They have put rigorous procedures in place to ensure compliance with drivers hours and working time directive. While maintenance record keeping is very strict. Alan has also taken on board the need to meet the requirements of Health and Safety legislation with numerous strategically placed signs indicating that every vehicle has its place and that safety is top of his agenda. The business started out with one full time mechanic carrying out in house maintenance with the support of a local company. The FTA carried out regular vehicle audits and in so doing ensured the mechanic gained further training. In August 2011 an additional full-time MOT qualified mechanic and an engineering apprentice were employed. This three-man team has recently completed shadow training with VOSA in Aberdeen and the aim is to repeat this on an annual basis. Whats more £200,000 of Alan’s money has been invested in the business with him saying “From day one I wanted to ensure that we built a strong and reliable reputation. Once I’d decided on the name I employed a local design business to come up with a fleet livery that would stand out. To match this, the condition of our coaches is important. That’s why I replaced most of what I inherited and now we are proud to have the condition of our coaches praised often and in particular by parents and children on the 13 school contracts we operate daily. “When I started the company I made it clear to all the driving staff that my attention was to run an operation that didn’t stray from regulations and which prides itself on the image we hoped to build, and which focused on customer service first and foremost. We have ensured that drivers complete regular training and are fully aware of their responsibilities bith in the eyes of VOSA and the DFT, but also in our. We are currently planning for our Driver CPC training to be undertaken and know this will prove very valuable to our drivers”. Meanwhile there are three dimensions to Premiers operation. On the one hand it has the 13 school contracts for which it requires six PSV’s. it also operates private coach hire plus a fleet of taxis also used on schools.
It has 20 employees, including full time and part time. It has 12 PSVs and a small fleet of cars, which are used to meet taxi contracts. There are three large coaches with Plaxton and Van Hool bodies on Scania and Volvo chassis, while a 25 seat Plaxton Cheetah with two tables and floor mounted toilet is proving to be very popular. The taxi side has emerged as a result of spotting an opening in the local market, contemplating the minibus and coach PSV activities. Minibuses are used for the school runs and some private hire and in the main these are Mercedes-Benz Sprinters, so with an O-licence for just six discs, this automatically inhibits the use of the larger vehicles.
However, this does not overly concern either Alan or Shona because private hire is accommodated wither between or after the school runs. And with a very wary eye on drivers hours together with the flexibility allowed through the availability of part-time and casual drivers there’s a growing base of weekend private hire. Among the initiatives to generate growth on the coach side is Premier’s Boogie Bus which pulls in the process.
In Premier’s case the first stop on the private hire packages is at Alan’s Gushet Neuk Bar where free food is provided. “It’s a win-win that also pays very well” says Alan, pointing to three confirmed bookings for the coming weekend.
Although its difficult for Alan to rein in a relentless streak – he wants things done now and is constantly on the move – his Traffic Commissioner encounters have taught him the importance of laying down the right foundations. He would like more discs but isn’t ready to make the application for more just yet. So when he is prepared to apply for the additional discs, bringing with it the possibility of another PI? “it will come when we are ready, possibly if we’re successful in the next round of tenders for school contracts. Then we might need four more discs, but the financial standing requirement is an important consideration”. Alan adds “We’ar known as being cheap, but we’re establishing ourselves. All the runs we had last year have come back”. Nevertheless it’s been an uphill battle. “The biggest thing has been to tackle the reputation” says Alan “and those who don’t want you to succeed. If you are going to annoy anyone, you do it because you’re doing it right, not for doing something wrong”.
In the meantime Premier is a young company in more ways than one, but there is no denying where ambition is taking it. “We are striving to be the top of the class in our area and our market as we continue to grow” says Shona. And they are open about the strategy they employ “Everyone needs to make money but do it right and people will come back”.