Forging a successful niche

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Main: Chassis cabs ready to enter the coachbuilt production line. JAMES DAY

James Day meets Helen Day, Sales Director at Treka Bus, to discover how the company has enjoyed sustained success by creating a niche for itself and becoming the best at delivering it

Treka Bus has quietly developed into the largest accessible bus converter for high-floor product in the UK over the last decade. Since the business was incorporated as Treka Bus Ltd took over UV Modular (UVM) in 2009, the output of coachbuilt and van converted minibuses has increased from two vehicles per week to seven, with staffing levels increasing threefold and repeated large orders from the ‘big three’ rental firms in the UK – London Hire, Dawsonrentals and Enterprise.[wlm_nonmember][…]

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The business has been successful enough to draw the attention of Mellor Coachcraft’s parent company, Woodall Nicholson Group, which announced it had acquired Treka Bus on November 1 this year. Prior to that announcement, I was given the opportunity to visit Treka Bus Sales Director, Helen Day, to find out more on the company’s progress and how it had forged a successful niche for itself.

Helen joined Treka Bus Ltd from the start, having previously worked for Dawsonrentals as Accessible Vehicle Manager. The business has historically been one of the largest Treka customers – the vehicles were still known by that name even under UVM – and as such she had a great deal of first-hand experience with them already.


The company’s roots can be traced back to the early 1900s at Wadham Stringer in Hampshire. This company would later be acquired by UVG in the 1990s.

In August 2002, UVM was founded, following a merge of UVG and Modular Ambulance Builders. UVM soon became one of the UK’s largest manufacturers of coachbuilt mobility buses, with a capacity to produce up to four buses per week, and was also the largest ambulance builder in the country, producing 10 ambulances weekly.

In 2009, AssetCo PLC acquired UVM, and the Treka Bus Ltd name was formally set up as a standalone subsidiary of AssetCo in 2009.

Mark Clissett was a main board director of Asset Co, and took control of Treka Bus Ltd when it was acquired by a private investor in 2010 to take it out of administration. The company is no longer connected to Asset Co.

“We had a difficult time at first,” Helen admitted. “When a business is placed into liquidation it causes issues with confidence, but we’ve grown and grown over the years.

“We’re on good terms with all our suppliers, who are paid on time. Our outputs and delivery times are all adhered to, and if we are late it’s a case of hours, rather than days. We pride ourselves on meeting delivery times.

“From 22 members of staff when Treka Bus Ltd was established, we now have 74. We’ve increased our office staff and have introduced a second factory producing fibreglass parts.

“As a business, this means we have gone from having £3m turnover to just over £18m this year, and are producing seven vehicles per week consistently, up from two. The business has massively changed over the last seven-eight years.”

Ken Goodson

Treka recently lost a valued colleague, Ken Goodson, who had been involved with the company since the 1980s long before it took on its current form. He passed away after a short period of illness.

Helen credited Ken with coming up with the concept of the Treka coachbuilt vehicle – the name was used long before Treka Bus Ltd was created. This concept was taken to Paul Sainthouse at Dawsonrentals, who quickly came back with an order for around 20.

Helen described Ken as Treka through and through.

“Before I started, Ken was Sales Director,” Helen said. “He had moved from South Wales up to Brighouse. When he was in his 70s, he retired for the third time after coming to assist with the takeover and set-up the new company. He took me under his wing for a couple of years, I shadowed him and took over formally when he retired.”

A family business

Treka Bus is run and marketed as a small family business, though it’s fair to say it is not a particularly small builder any more. Helen said this means customers continue to get a personal touch. At the time of my visit management consisted of Chairman Mark Clisset, followed by three directors – Helen as Sales Director, Tracey Sharp as Commercial Director and Morgan Clissett, Mark’s son, who was in charge of production. Since the Mellor takeover, Morgan has taken up the role of MD.

“We run the business day to day,” Helen said. “We also have a number of managers overseeing production.

“It’s quite an operation which has changed enormously.”

Helen said that the business had a number of challenges to overcome initially. It spent 18 months working on Type Approval, which Helen described as a very costly and unavoidable exercise, and it also had to set up framework agreements to supply certain parts of the UK, such as Scotland. A new business requires three years of trading accounts to do this.

“The third major challenge for us was that nobody had any money,” Helen added.

“Because of massive public sector cuts, very few places were buying new vehicles. We were fortunate enough to supply all of the big rental companies exclusively, who placed huge orders with us.”

A specific niche

Treka Bus is keen to produce vehicles for a very specific market. It produces accessible coachbuilt vehicles and van conversions, with no plans to diversify beyond this.

“It’s a consistent production of these vehicles every week,” Helen explained.

However, Helen said that the company has seen change over its life: “Customers always viewed UVM as a coachbuilder, and that is always going to be our core business. However, in 1998 the company built its first van conversion.

“We got so good at vans that we market them as smaller coachbuilt vehicles without the pricetag.

“The general mix for us now is four coachbuilt and three van conversions per week. We do have the capacity to change that up if need be. A coachbuilt customer is never going to switch to a van conversion as its primary vehicle, because it is not viable for what they do, but may look at it for their spare vehicle fleet to complement the coach.

“The bulk of the orders are still coachbuilt, but customers will often tack on a couple of vans. For education, for example, a van is suitable, but you wouldn’t put elderly clients on a social services contract on a van when they’re used to a coachbuilt vehicle.

“Sometimes budgets will only permit a van conversion, but it still has the same features and functionality without the pricetag.”

Helen said that very little familiarisation training is needed between the two different vehicles. Even details such as the lights and warnings function in the same way, and maintenance is eased by similar wiring looms and fittings.

The vehicle range

The Treka Van has recently had an update granting it a higher maximum seating capacity of 22 seats. This required front entry via the original Sprinter cab door. A side entry option is also available, via a Mercedes-Benz powered side-loading door, though this reduces the maximum capacity of the vehicle to 18. The coachbuilt product can carry up to 16 saloon seats. Both base vehicles are on five tonnes chassis.

“Dawsonrentals has taken a lot of the van conversions, with other rental companies following,” Helen said.

“London Hire has placed orders for the larger capacity vans, especially for education-type contracts, allowing some school classes to travel on one smaller vehicle rather than hiring a coach. They’ve seen that as being particularly attractive to school and education services.”

The targeted range of vehicles offers ‘plug and play’ features which are designed to be installed with ease should a customer realise they are required after the vehicle is delivered, while also making vehicle assembly more efficient. The wiring used in the vehicles is universal and of a consistent quality, allowing devices like passenger lifts to be installed on any vehicle produced.

“We don’t cut cost,” Helen said. “There’s a consistency in type and colour of loom and the same wiring is always installed, so customers who come to us to have new equipment fitted later, like a reversing camera, never need to pay for a massive rewiring job – only the cost of the equipment.”

The dash on the vehicles is largely preserved. JAMES DAY


The Treka factory has two ‘production lines,’ though each functions quite differently.

One is for coachbuilt vehicles, which has five bays after each vehicle is stripped down to little more than the base chassis and dashboard.

The first bay is floor assembly, followed by the aluminium frame being fitted on the skeleton of the vehicle in bay two. On bay three, the roof is fitted. The electrics are fitted on bay four, and in the final bay the pre-delivery inspection is carried out.

The vans are constructed in a specific part of the factory, but for the entire build process, they do not move and stay in the same bay. This is because a van build requires fewer man hours.

Both vehicle types are constructed in the space of six days.

“Coachbuilt vehicles we describe as hand-made, built up from scratch,” Helen said. “The only original parts are the dash and the bonnet.

“The bodies are ergonomically designed. Aesthetically, the front end looks similar to the original Mercedes-Benz front.

“We are a key account of Mercedes-Benz –everything we do here uses the manufacturer’s Xentry diagnostic equipment and everything we do is approved by them.

“From a customer point-of-view, that’s quite unique and massively beneficial. We can’t always diagnose Mercedes-Benz-related issues, but sometimes we can assist.”

Only the best base

As well as Mercedes-Benz base vehicles, Treka has also previously built on the VW Crafter, though there has not been a bodyshell available since September 15, 2016.

“Although the Sprinter and Crafter were essentially the same vehicle until recently, built on the same production line, the VW and Mercedes-Benz talk in completely different ways,” Helen added. “From VW, you’re ordering the bodybuilder shell.

“We would only ever look at those two products – the new Sprinter and potentially the new Crafter.

“Treka Bus has always been those two. We like to streamline. We get a cracking service and backup from Mercedes-Benz.

“We give a unique warranty package in the marketplace, so when we put our stamp on a vehicle, we have to know that the base vehicle backs up our warranty. While we obviously don’t have our warranty on the chassis, if something does go wrong with it, the customer won’t think of the chassis as the problem – they will think of Treka Bus as the problem.

“We’ve spent eight years building up our reputation, so we have to be very careful which vehicles we use.”

Helen said the Mercedes-Benz badge does help it to win a lot of business. She said Mercedes-Benz is now so cost-effective on servicing and parts that the whole vehicle costs are very appealing to fleet managers.

“They want Mercedes-Benz from a reliability point-of-view,” Helen stated.

“In this industry, we’re not transporting boxes of products, but people, and those people are generally vulnerable, often travelling to and from daycare, respite and schools. Reliability, quality and dignity are all key.”

The question of electric

On the topic of electric vehicles, Helen said the company had looked into it, but found that the technology is not suitable yet.

“The problems are weight and range,” Helen explained. “There’s also not currently a recycling plant anywhere in Europe that can recycle a battery used on one of these vehicles, which is often not thought about.

“The range is also around 106 miles. Yes you have to tick the environmental box, but a lot of fleet managers out there are already looking closely at their miles per gallon to cut emissions.

“Along with the minimal bums on seats you get from an electric, we don’t see it working on our range. People are wanting to get more people on vehicles, not less. At the moment, the cost of buying a Sprinter NGT is also prohibitively expensive.

“There’s nobody at the moment looking to be the guinea pig ordering 20 electric vehicles. The development cost is also massive – potentially millions of pounds.

“The Euro 6 Sprinter we use has AdBlue as standard and the most intelligent autobox you could choose for fuel efficiency – the same as is in an S-class Mercedes car.”

London Hire commitment

London Hire has now switched its entire coachbuilt and van conversion fleet to Treka Bus. Already, the Treka Bus factory is scheduled to build a vehicle for London Hire every single week in 2018.

Each vehicle will have the London Hire moquettes on the seating.

Helen commented: “When I worked in rental you would get vehicles back with not enough seats, or a couple of seats at the back in a completely different colour, so the moquette helps to identify the correct seats.

“Aesthetically it looks very nice, and it’s dead easy to see that they belong on the rental bus.”

Treka Bus also supplies leasing companies, but not on a weekly basis as it does with the big three rental firms – Enterprise, London Hire and Dawsonrentals.

Plug and play

A system being promoted on Treka Bus’ stand at Coach & Bus UK this year was Doorsafe, a PLS system which is available on Treka Bus vehicles.

Rather, what was being promoted was how easily the system can be bolted onto a Treka, whether it is specified in the vehicle order or not, thanks to a plug which is always installed at the rear of the vehicle.

“Doorsafe is not a new thing – it has become more popular mainly because of incidents in councils,” Helen said.

“What you tend to find is that from the top down, fleet managers are told to go out and get this piece of kit. It acts as a barrier at the rear door to prevent someone falling out of the vehicle.

“It’s quite an expensive piece of kit, but in comparison to a court case, not so much.

“Even if you do not specify a doorsafe, you can come back the following year and say ‘I want one,’ because the vehicles are future-proofed and plug and play.”

Treka Bus supplies vehicles with lifts fitted on a regular basis, but does not fit the lifts itself and has no desire to do so. A similar stance is taken on other equipment which is not handled in-house.

“Premier Taillifts come into the factory three times per week to fit lifts for us,” Helen explained. “We also have Eberspächer agents on our shop floor. We are permitted to fit TDS doors.

“We tend to keep the same skillsets on each bay. We don’t move staff around the bays very often and prefer to keep people on the same tasks, unless we’re covering someone’s holiday.”

Optimism for the future

Helen agreed that since the birth of Treka Bus Ltd, the industry has picked up considerably.

“We’ve seen a huge peak,” she said. “Business is still not back to where it was, but we have been extremely fortunate that customers have remained brand-loyal, recognised the quality of the vehicle and stuck with us.

“The first thing a lot of our customers say is that the quality of what we do is superb. The acid test is these big rental PLCs who are buying hundreds of vehicles a year. They wouldn’t do so if we didn’t offer a cracking product with high residual value and good warranty.

“These companies are buying Treka because that’s what the customer demands.

“We’ve also had a lot of new customers and we pride ourselves on keeping hold of these customers.”

To help retain these new customers and improve the service offered by Treka Bus throughout the lives of the vehicles, the company recently employed an aftermarket coordinator, who works alongside the production director and manager. When a customer calls with a fault, he can put them in touch with the specific technician who fits the component in question, or chase the suppliers directly if that does not resolve the problem.

“It’s part of our personal approach,” Helen added.

A working family

The growth of Treka Bus has allowed a lot of funding to be put back into the company in terms of innovation and product development, but also in improving staffing levels and the working environment. Helen said there is a wealth of experience throughout, both on the workshop floor and in the office.

“We have a lot of people from the same families that work on the shop floor, some of which have come over from UVM,” she mused.

“We believe in ploughing back into business and improving staff. We provide a big canteen and have a lot of staff recognition days, where we’ll bring in a catering company to provide a hog roast. We like to do something quarterly as a bit of a thank you.

“Ongoing training is also important and we work closely with Mercedes-Benz to make sure we’re at the top of our game there.”

Right: Tracked flooring is installed as standard. JAMES DAY

Only what the customer wants

Helen added: “We’re not rigid – as long as it’s type-approved, we will work with customers to give them what they want.

“80% of what we offer is available as a standard feature. This includes things like diamond-cut non-slip handrails, LED day and night saloon lighting, an LED fasten seatbelt sign, tracked flooring and so on.

“From a customer point-of-view, you’re looking at whether you want a lift, the type of seats – Pheonix Seating is our preferred supplier – heating or climate control and safety equipment.

“We’re also seeing more and more customer specifying CCTV systems. We can either work with a council’s chosen supplier which they have standardised across their fleet, or with some recommended suppliers like Autosound.

“Autosound’s system is crystal clear, commercially viable for customers and simple. The 1080p is so clear, you can see a child in the backseat and tell whether he is holding a craft knife or a pencil.”

When it comes to optional extras, the Treka sales team is not incentivised to upsell, only to provide what the customer needs.

“We don’t make money from adding on fancy seats – we make money when customers choose Treka Bus,” Helen enthused.

“We pass on the discount we negotiate with the supplier. If you will not use 16 seats, we don’t try to make you buy 16 seats, and you can always come back to us later and buy more.

“We don’t want the used car mentality of pushing and pushing for more extras.”[/wlm_ismember]