D&E Coaches celebrates 25 years on the road

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Elizabeth and Donald Mathieson. D&E COACHES

An Inverness-based family coach company has marked 25 years in the business

Inverness-based D&E Coaches, which featured in CBW in January 2020, celebrated its 25th anniversary in late March. Donald Mathieson and his wife Elizabeth, a nurse, started the company from their Inverness home, initially with just one minibus. The company, which takes its name from the couple’s initials, has become one of the Highlands’ largest private hire companies.

Donald’s father gave him £1,000 to buy the minibus – and the business which was launched on March 25 1996 now employs 70 people and has a £5 million turnover. The Mathieson’s two daughters and their son are now directors of the reigning Highlands and Islands Family Business of the Year.

“It’s been a busy and eventful quarter of a century,” said Donald, “and who would have guessed our anniversary would be reached in the midst of a pandemic? But with the kids back in class, we’re busy delivering our 35 school contracts for Highland Council and virtually all our staff are back from furlough.

“As a bus driver, I spotted a gap in the market and decided to give it a go,” he recalled. “We picked up plenty of work and soon acquired a second minibus, then a third. My dad, who was a postman, was doing school runs in the afternoon and helping with the accounts – while my mum helped out with the driving.

“We rented our first premises in Deveron Street, Inverness, and invested in our first coach, and things began to accelerate from there. Turnover reached £220,000 after five years and £500,000 after 10 and by 2008 we broke the million pound barrier.

”After 15 years, we had 10 coaches and today we have 64 and we now command 80% of the Highland private hire market – and staying as a family business and retaining the personal touch has been the key to our success.”

Daughters Gayle and Amy are respectively Operations Manager and Office Manager, while their brother Bryan heads up driver responsibilities.

The company’s HQ was built and opened in 2006 on Inverness’ Longman industrial estate, where it now has four yards totalling more than two acres. D&E is the regular coach provider for Ross County FC and Inverness Caledonian Thistle FC, and said it is looking forward to another client, Highland Rugby Club, being able to resume its activities soon. The company has marked its silver anniversary with the launch of a new website, and has recently acquired or refitted six coaches to meet PSVAR standards.

“Our 25th year has been the most stressful one, with Covid-19 wiping out 6,000 cruise line passenger bookings almost overnight,” said Donald. “Our tourism-related business also vanished. We still had care home runs and continued to operate the Inverness-Ullapool Citylink service, while our Highland Council school contracts have been vital.

“It’s been an extraordinarily difficult time for our industry, with many coach firms going bust, but it has proved the fundamentals of our own business are right. We’re delighted to be able to sustain jobs, with a number of our drivers being with us for 15 to 20 years.”

In 2018 the company diversified by setting up a premium hire car division, D&E Prestige, including a Rolls-Royce Phantom, for the chauffeur drive, wedding, sports, social and VIP airport transfer market. Just before the first lockdown, D&E Prestige won the Scottish Wedding Transporter of the Year Award.

Fergus Ewing MSP, Scottish Government Minister for the Rural Economy and Tourism, said: ”I had the pleasure of speaking to Donald last September to discuss the impact of the Covid pandemic, and was struck by his resilience in the face of the biggest crisis facing business in our lifetimes.

“He and his wife have, through hard work and commitment, established a major business serving the Highlands and, in particular, helping children get to and from school. I pay tribute to their endeavour and congratulate them on their 25th anniversary.”

Donald added: “Our anniversary comes at an encouraging time, with reopening of the economy in sight and pent-up tourist demand. We were transporting almost a million people a year before the virus and hopefully we’ll see a return of much of that activity.

“It’s been a long journey since that first minibus – and I know how important our service has become to so many people, including carers and care home visitors, in the Highland communities. Our aim going forward is to continue to transport them in safety and style.”

Marking the anniversary, and as a way of helping out other local businesses, D&E Coaches is to offer 25 vouchers of £25 each via social media, redeemable at local Highland businesses.