Dawsongroup: Engaged with the industry

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Paul Sainthouse working as a conductor at Imberbus 2018. SARAH DAY

Paul Sainthouse has led Dawsongroup bus and coach for almost a quarter of a century. He speaks to James Day about the division’s success and how the company strives to be more than just a supplier to coach and bus operators

Dawsongroup’s bus and coach division has grown into a very successful business over the last two-and-a-half decades. With around 2,000 vehicles on its books, it is responsible for a significant slice of the coach and bus fleet operating on UK roads today.

Paul Sainthouse first joined the business as a management trainee in 1987, having previously been involved in various local transport businesses. He has managed the bus and coach division of Dawsongroup for the bulk of its existence, and his enthusiasm for the industry is well-known. His office makes no secret of this fact, with model buses and a Routemaster front grille decorating the room. [wlm_nonmember][…]

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A new market
Dawsongroup’s coach and bus rental business was established in 1994 with a single 1989 Plaxton Paramount-bodied Volvo B10M.
“We felt the skills we had developed serving the haulage industry were portable and could be brought to the passenger transport industry,” Paul explained. “The business was organically grown from there.

“I’ve looked after Dawsongroup bus and coach since 1995, and it was at that point I became fully entrenched in the passenger transport industry.

“By 1997 we had proved the business model. We had learned our craft and started putting significantly more resources into what we were doing. Subsequent to that, we continued to grow and develop the business into all areas of road passenger transport, in vehicle sizes ranging from eight seats to the largest passenger carrying vehicles on the road.

“A lot has happened in those 24 years, and we have been involved in all of the evolution which has happened in the road passenger transport industry. We have consistently maintained our business position as a marketing leader throughout, and now operate a fleet of around 2,000 coaches and buses into the widest possible variety of operators and applications. I think our position is still reasonably well assured – last year was upbeat for business and we will be building and capitalising on that into 2019.”

Supplying the passenger transport industry

A fleet of Optare Solo SRs supplied to Courtney Buses in 2012. DAWSONGROUP

Initially the business was built around the coach product. The deregulated bus industry was in its infancy at the time, with privatisation and the sale of what were previously municipally or nationally-owned bus companies in full swing.

The coach product proved successful, leading the business to commit to the bus market in 1995. Though the company’s first bus was a step-entrance Marshall-bodied Dennis Dart – M718WUD – it was the advent of low-floor buses which led to the division’s success in the market.
“It was perfect timing,” Paul explained. “That was the point at which the low-floor product started to enter the marketplace. We were fortunate that we started to enter the market right at the end of the high-floor period and at the advent of the low-floor, which meant we didn’t suffer from too much obsolescence in the fleet.

“We were recognised at the time as pioneers and innovators, taking what were state-of-the-art vehicles and packaging them in such a way to allow operators to try new low-floor buses before making a major commitment. It was quite fortuitous timing.”

Since the division launched, Dawsongroup has owned and rented well in excess of 10,000 coaches and buses, an investment approaching £750m. The majority of his investment has been spent with British manufacturers.

“There’s a certain element of pride that we have put a significant amount of investment in capital goods, and in the form of one of the last vehicle types domestically produced,” Paul said.

“As far as technology goes, the UK is still a world leader for buses. Most of the world still isn’t capable of putting together as effective a bus product as we do in the UK, which is reflected in large volumes of export orders UK manufacturers receive on a regular basis.”

Something for everyone

This Marshall C37-bodied Dennis Dart, M718WUD, is the first bus ever acquired by Dawsongroup bus and coach. It is seen in service with Delta pulling out of Sutton-in-Ashfield bus station. RICHARD SIMONS

With such a large fleet, the range of vehicles available to Dawsongroup customers is extensive.

“We offer every conceivable type of modern passenger vehicle,” Paul stated. “This includes 8-17 seat standard minibuses, luxury Mercedes-Benz Sprinter minicoaches, all the way through to London and provincial buses, coaches in every shape and size including double-deckers and a variety of other unique and specialised assets.

“In the fleet of 2,000 vehicles, we’ve got pretty much anything any operator could wish for us to have. We’re very much market-led, and if there is a need for something, we will add it to the fleet. There is no limitation on the types of vehicles we acquire other than whether the market needs it on a reasonably regular basis.

“We’re keen to diversify, very open minded with acquisitions and purchases and like to say yes to as many of our customers as possible. We have provided all sorts of vehicles for all sorts of purposes, some very bespoke and specialised.

“We have in the past provided football team coaches, band buses, open-top buses in London and vintage vehicles. There is no area we won’t look at, but what we do tend to emphasise is the quality of the vehicles we provide. Our business has been built around providing quality products for our customers over a number of years. Ultimately, that pays dividends and people appreciate having access to the best products and services. They’re not necessarily always the cheapest, but they certainly fit our quality ethos as an organisation.”

The scope of the fleet also means Dawsongroup serves a wide variety of operators in the industry: “When you have a fleet of this size, you have to serve every sector in order to keep all those vehicles moving. We will look after most operators who have regular coach and bus type businesses, though we are also quite heavily involved in airports, staff shuttles and the Ministry of Defence. The agricultural industry is also a sector which needs to transport a lot of small groups.

“We look after all of those sectors and need to in order to keep the business moving forward.”

Staying ahead of the curve
Dawsongroup bus and coach was an early adopter of Euro VI technology and has heavily invested in it. As a result, a large proportion of its vehicles already meet the base criteria for the London Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ)and other approaching clean air zones.

“We’re fortunate to have a very good team of engineers and engineering consultants who advise us of the way the market is moving,” Paul said. “As a result of that, we were happy to spend the extra money early on to make sure we future-proofed our fleet. We could have hung on to Euro V, but the obsolescence would have been far more rapid there.”

Paul said many of the company’s customers were experiencing an improvement to fuel economy with their Euro VI vehicles, providing a tangible benefit beyond being cleaner and greener.

As for the fuels and drives of the future, Paul said Dawsongroup is watching the market closely: “We are mindful that the technology available today may not be what is in use tomorrow. There is still a good amount of development to go before we get to a reasonably steady marketplace.

“We have an electric bus and a good number of hybrid buses in the fleet. As an industry, the sooner we get reasonably far down the road with these drivelines, the better. We need some certainty as to the way things are going to allow us to continue investing.

“Certain passenger vehicles becoming obsolete in three to five years is not within the business models of most operators, nor is it affordable in terms of what passengers can and will pay for the services the industry provides. We need to get to the end of the journey as fast as we can.”

Helping coach operators keep up

Paul noted that Dawsongroup has been acquiring Euro VI coaches for several years. This early and persistent investment may be providing a solution to coach operators who are struggling to get their fleets prepared for approaching Clean Air Zones (CAZ).

He said: “We are finding that vehicles we have previously used within our fleet allow some operators who cannot justify new vehicles to lease or purchase used vehicles, which are still current generation.

“I’d like to think we are feeding vehicles into the marketplace which will help some of the operators who can’t necessarily justify full-scale new vehicle investment. For example, we’ve just passed some Volvo B7 Plaxton Leopards into the marketplace, which disappeared almost overnight.

“If you’re operating within London or on the boundaries of London, you know the investment will see you through a good number of years. The operators which have the biggest challenge are the occasional visitors. Most coach companies need to be able to take a booking from their customers for a trip into London, but it may not be frequent enough to justify investment in a vehicle all year round. They will need to look at their business models and assess how they are going to accommodate that need.”

The vast majority of Dawsongroup’s coaches and buses are in base white, though luxury minicoaches, such as Sprinters, will typically be silver. Generally, vehicles are supplied as a blank canvas for customers, though there is no one fixed model and sometimes vehicles are supplied service-ready in full livery.

“We rarely brand vehicles with our own liveries,” Paul noted. “I don’t think customers necessarily want to spend their lives advertising us as a business. If they are going to use those vehicles, they will have their own ideas for liveries and certainly we can consult with them, engage with them and help them provide a livery.

“A good number of our vehicles are delivered new in the colour schemes with which they will be operated, and you wouldn’t necessarily know that the vehicle is provided by Dawsongroup. They have simply used it as a method of acquisition for a new contract they have taken on.”

Selling vehicles
The Dawsongroup business includes the separately-branded Ventura Bus & Coach Sales. Ventura is responsible for not only the defleeting of Dawsongroup bus and coach, but also trades commercially as an independent dealer.

“Strategically we have always put a small wall between what we consider to be our core activity of rental leasing and finance and outright the sale side of the business, which is why we have maintained that separate branding,” Paul explained.

“Ventura is very successful. It has a very good and loyal customer base. The true measure of satisfaction is repeat custom, which is something we see frequently in the business. It gives us the impression that we’re doing all the right things.”

Each vehicle is retained for what the company considers to be its useful life, which varies. “The point at which a vehicle is scheduled for disposal is the point at which it becomes less desirable as a rental or finance offering for our end users,” Paul said. “We’ve worked hard with Euro VI investment to bring down the average age profile of our fleet as far as possible, but at the same time we recognise that brand-new vehicles are not the right tool in every circumstance. We do need to offer cost-effective alternatives to suit other types of businesses.

“We try to maintain as modern a profile as possible, but this doesn’t necessarily mean slightly older vehicles are not capable of doing the job for which they were designed. We like to make sure the fleet has something for everybody.”

On maintenance, Paul said: “We’re a very large and capable business and our engineering team are probably the best you’ll find in the passenger transport industry. As an organisation, we cannot and will not compromise on quality or safety in anything we do. We make sure the products we offer are to the very highest standard.

“The engineers we have onboard are time served and capable. They are very often used by our customers as consultants to their own business, to help them continue to evolve and develop, particularly with the advancements of technology on vehicles which change what is required to look after a passenger vehicle nowadays.”

Nationwide coverage
Vehicles are stored in three locations in the UK. Hellaby near Rotherham holds stock for the majority of transactions in the north, while Milton Keynes holds most stock for the south, although there are two other sites within the Milton Keynes area, totalling around four acres, which also store vehicles. A third branch in Central London just south of the Blackwall Tunnel feeds vehicles into the area within the M25.

The Milton Keynes location is shared with Volvo. Prior to the ‘70s, Dawsongroup held vehicle sales and servicing franchises for British manufacturers and expanded to take on Volvo. It retained this distributorship until 1996, building it up to become the largest unit sales operation in Europe, covering everywhere from the north of London to the south of Birmingham.

“As we began to realise that our future was not just in vehicle sales, but in rental leasing and finance, we took the opportunity to sell the distributorship back to Volvo Truck & Bus in Warwick,” Paul explained. “They are now our tenants in Milton Keynes and rent the workshops and some office space from us. They have continued to rent back the facility for 23 years.

“It does give us the benefit of having an on-site engineering provider without having to own that provider as well.”

On the day of my visit, Dawsongroup was holding one of its accredited business mastery courses, which is offered to all staff at all levels of the organisation. It is the first step on a programme to enhance commercial awareness and give staff a good understanding of how the business world works.

The business mastery courses work on three levels – the initial foundation, a more intense four-day intermediary course and level 3, which is similar to a dissertation. Well over 100 staff members have undertaken this programme over the last five years.

Paul said: “I think without exception all of them will say they have benefitted greatly from doing so, not just because they get something tangible at the end of it, but because it has made their working day much more enjoyable. They now have a greater understanding of what is going on in the bigger business.

“I take a bit of pride in that, as the business mastery course we now run stems from an idea I had and proposed to our advisory board in 2013. As a company, we strongly believe in the benefit of utilising the best training facilities to provide people with the knowledge to do the job as effectively as possible.”

The current site containing the head offices for Dawsongroup bus and coach and Dawsongroup truck and trailer was purpose-built in 1990. The company is looking to move to a new purpose-built facility in 2020.

“It will give us the resources and scope for growth we need for the next 20 years,” Paul said. “From a business perspective, it is very exciting and shows the commitment of our company to the longer term. The cost is potentially up to £30m, which is quite an investment.

“The new facility will be between two and three times the size of the current site. It will also incorporate a lot of state-of-the-art features. It will look after the well-being and health of our employees, and as far as possible will have glowing environmental credentials.

“Part of the design will include pre-built infrastructure necessary for an ever-increasing population of electric vehicles.”

Giving back to the industry

The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) is celebrating its centenary year in 2019. The organisation represents just over 30,000 professionals in the freight and passenger transport sector across the world.

At the end of 2018, Paul was named as CILT’s UK President for the year ahead.

“It is quite an honour,” he mused. “Bearing in mind in the UK there are over 15,000 members and they saw fit for me to be asked to be president, I think it’s a big vote of confidence in what Dawsongroup bus and coach has been doing for a good number of years. We’re ultimately seen as contributors, thought leaders and innovators, and as a result suitable for the presidency. I am also the first president from the passenger transport sector since Sir Peter Hendy CBE in 2011.

“I have a very strong belief in not only being a provider to this sector, but an engaged stakeholder. CILT is an example of where Dawsongroup and myself try to put back into the industry.”

Paul was also keen to promote that as a business, Dawsongroup will be overseeing the relaunch of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the road passenger transport industry during 2019.

“In our opinion, there has never been a more important time for the sector to become politically engaged and the importance of what the sector does for society to be emphasised,” Paul stated.

“The APPG will involve members of both the House of Lords and Commons and is registered with parliament for parliamentarians with a common interest in the sector. We will be attracting public transport interested members and providing a forum for their understanding of the issues and benefits that the industry provides, and to answer a great many of the questions about how passenger transport works within the UK and what it needs to make sure it is continually successful.

“The old APPG was considered a very good thing, but it fizzled out. We are bringing it back with a bang. Amongst parliamentarians, there is a lot of misunderstanding about how the UK road passenger transport industry actually works. What we are keen to do is not only look at areas which are potentially going to influence the sector going forward, but also make sure we are creating a level of understanding and knowledge about how this industry operates and what it needs to continue to operate effectively in the future.

“Society cannot function without public transport. As a result, it is a very important political area, as well as commercial area for our industry.”