Knowledge is power

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One of Vectare’s Scania Irizar i6S coaches

Not content with simply developing technology for the school transport sector, Vectare decided to run bus services itself to gain first-hand knowledge and understanding of the challenges its partner operators face on a daily basis. Dominic Kalantary, one of the firm’s founders and Directors, discusses the experience with Peter Jackson

This isn’t the first time the name ‘Vectare’ has graced the pages of CBW. Back in 2018, the transport consultancy firm scooped gold in the New Horizons category at the UK Bus Awards in recognition of its package of technology for school transport: VecTive.
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Dominic Kalantary founded the business with his university friend Peter Nathanail in 2016, with the aim of changing school transport for the better. VecTive was the solution they came up with, and combined a booking system with vehicle tracking and passenger registration. By the time the pair were recognised at the UK Bus Awards, their business had already made a name for itself in the school transport sector, racking up clients and continuing to grow. So what happened next? “2019 was an interesting year,” began Dominic. “At the beginning of that year, we were very much a technology-focused business, working with our independent school clients to provide exceptional levels of high-quality technology. Our goal was simply to provide the very best, market-leading technology for them, which is similar to what Kura does now – they’re our biggest competitor.

“We’ve never lost a client. We continue to provide exceptional levels of service, and our technology continues to go from strength to strength. That’s only been possible thanks to our staff; for me, it’s all about having the very best quality staff you can find. So, we’ve really been able to build upon the success we had back in 2018 with our UK Bus Awards win.

“With that in mind, we decided to broaden our focus to try and better understand our operators, and learn more about the challenges they face. We decided we wanted to actually operate some vehicles ourselves, not just so that we could understand fully what it’s like for our operators but also so that we could test our technology ourselves.

“So, we took a foray into the local bus service market, winning a few tenders with Nottinghamshire County Council – we’re still running those services today. Generally, our fleet now is made up of high-quality EVM products, the Cityline-spec Mercedes-Benz Sprinter in particular.

“We’ve really been building on those beginnings since the back end of 2019, and through the pandemic in 2020. That’s meant more tender wins and opening additional sites down in the Essex area last summer. Today, we operate a wider range of services than ever before, which is complementing the technology side of our business nicely; we’re working with some clients on both the operation and technology sides of the business.

“Like I said before, it’s so important to us to know and understand what bus operators do – and the only real way to do it is to experience it for yourself. Now we know how it’s done; when it comes to costing models, we know how much a school run costs to do, how much vehicles cost to operate in a day and so on. For us, that’s really important, because it allows us to really understand our clients on the technology side – how their business model works and how they operate.”

Lucky escape
I was keen to ask Dominic how the pandemic had affected their plans over the past year. “From our point of view, we were very lucky – the business certainly didn’t contract or perform badly,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, it didn’t perform fantastically, but really the pandemic hit us more in lost growth rather than a loss of business if you see what I mean.

“We were very lucky – it was probably more about timing and luck for us than anything else, there was no science behind it. Yes, we had diversified our income streams and, yes, we had various contracts across different sectors (both in the public and private sector), which helps because if one area of the business slumps, often the other picks up and vice versa.

“We operate quite a lean cost model too; we try and do everything very efficiently and use as much technology as we can to reduce our fixed cost.

“But, despite all of that, crucially the pandemic hit us more in terms of growth – we have seen a reduction in growth year-on-year compared to pre-pandemic. Don’t get me wrong, growth was still very good – it was in the hundreds of percent – but we’re probably not quite where we would have liked to be if the pandemic didn’t happen. That was a shame for us, we were very disappointed, but we do count ourselves as extremely lucky that we found ourselves in the situation that we did.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of coach and bus operators throughout this, and the market out there is still pretty bleak. We’re not quite in that situation, which we’re very thankful for.”

Currently, Vectare works with just shy of 50 schools and a similar number of operators. “It’s broadly one school for each operator,” Dominic elaborated, “although some schools operate all of their transport in-house using minibuses while others have multiple operators involved in their school services. In terms of the number of pupil journeys we’re involved with each year, the number is in the millions – as is the number of vehicle movements.

“We’re very much a high-growth business, driven pretty much entirely by referral. We do little to no marketing, and we’re very proud of the fact that our business is driven by referral and delivering high-quality work for our clients.”

Bold move

Dominic Kalantary

The decision to branch out into local bus operation can’t have been taken lightly, but for Vectare, the motivation behind the move has always been its quest for knowledge. “It is definitely about us putting our money where our mouth is, if you like,” Dominic clarified. “I can’t say to someone, ‘that route is overpriced’ or whatever without having that first-hand operational knowledge. We’re very clear, we will only work with very high-quality operators for our school services, who do come at a premium. And, to be fair, we would describe ourselves as a ‘fair cost’ operator too – we’re certainly not the cheapest, that’s for sure. That’s deliberate of course: we’re running an expensive (£90,000 a shot) fleet, but that’s because we want to run high-quality vehicles.

“For us, the decision to operate our own vehicles wasn’t just about ‘putting our money where our mouth is’ though, it was about gaining a greater understanding of the market – understanding what does and doesn’t work well and trialling our technology to determine what works in that regard too. Having the ability to do that in-house is very good; we’re very quickly able to identify what works before giving it to our clients.

“We’re constantly testing and evolving our technology based on our findings, and we pretty much have real-time driver feedback as we have our own drivers now too. Before we give any updates to external third-party drivers or contractors, we can now make sure we iron out all the kinks. Now we know that when we release things out into the world, they’re already proven to work.”

I asked Dominic whether his expectations of bus operation tallied with the experience him and his team have had so far: “Certainly, from my point of view, running a bus company is a lot harder than people think it is,” he replied. “I think the hardest part is the fact that you’re on call 24/7 pretty much – which is not the case in a technology business. I was having a conversation with a colleague of mine a couple of weeks ago, and we agreed that running a technology business, while not strictly nine to five hours, you’re not going to get a call on Boxing Day or whatever – you have an element of stability and you can nicely plan things out.

“When it comes to running bus services though, you certainly don’t have that luxury. Things can happen at very short notice, which has given me a real appreciation of operational constraints. For me, going into operating vehicles has been massively eye-opening in terms of risk and liability. Having vehicles out on the road, you can very quickly rack up bills in the tens of thousands of pounds from your insurer. On the flipside, running a technology business, yes you can have a data loss, but you don’t literally have people’s lives in your hands! Plus, you don’t have vehicles that can break down on you, so there’s that risk too – although that risk is lower for us as we’re operating a very young fleet. So, for us, it was a big change, but it’s been well worth the adjustment to gain that first-hand experience of running services.”

Fleet and future plans
Next up on the agenda was vehicles – what does Vectare operate and does the company have plans to expand the fleet in future? “We certainly do have plans to add more!” Dominic responded. “We have 21 vehicles in our fleet currently across our two sites in Nottingham and Essex, so we’re not enormous by any stretch of the imagination but we’re not tiny. It’s, from my point of view, a thoroughly enjoyable operation; we want to be seen as an operator that goes about its business and doesn’t shout much about it on social media or whatever it might be. Instead, we’ll quietly and confidently go about what we’re doing and deliver a high standard of service day in, day out.

“Currently we have 18 O-licences, so we have a few vehicles in reserve. And there is certainly a desire to add to it and gain further understanding, further experience and further learning – that will only improve our knowledge of the sector, which is what we’re all about.

The company has taken six Cityline Sprinters from EVM thus far

“We have six EVM Citylines at the moment, the first of which we took delivery of in February last year. To give EVM the credit, their aftersales service is top-notch. We made an initial order of three vehicles, but aftersales was superb so we placed orders for three more vehicles throughout 2020. We took delivery of the final one in December, but there’s certainly a desire to add more EVM vehicles to our fleet – not just Citylines either.

“Our orders with EVM certainly raised eyebrows – I think we were their youngest customers ever at 23! I think there were a few dropped jaws when I walked in to collect the first vehicles, never having met them before.

“Elsewhere in the fleet, we have four Wrightbus Eclipse Gemini-bodied Volvo service buses, which run on our services down in Essex. We really wanted to understand how a ‘traditional bus’ operates, which is very different to the minibuses we’ve had from EVM. They are 2013 models, we bought them second-hand.”

The company owns several coaches too, including Scania Irizars and a couple of Mercedes-Benz. “It’s quite a varied fleet, which is very much a consequence of our want to understand how things operate,” continued Dominic. “Yes, we want fleet standardisation, because that results in cost savings, but actually it’s about getting experience of operating different types of vehicles in different situations and circumstances. For us, that’s the key thing, as it’s the reason we entered the market in the first place.”

Overall then, how has entering into the local bus market altered Vectare’s approach? “It’s certainly improved our knowledge and understanding,” Dominic said. “All of our staff understand both areas of the business, which is important; we hold a weekly meeting every Monday morning for all staff across both sides of the business so that everyone knows what’s going on. For us, that’s crucial – the little nuggets of information we’re able to translate to our clients, whether it be miles-per-gallon or operational compliance, really matter. Those little bits of information are gold. We describe it as giving our clients a ‘magic moment’ – we’re able to tell them things they wouldn’t find on Google! That, in turn, helps our clients to grow.

“In terms of future plans, I can only disclose so much, but we’re exploring other opportunities on both sides of the business. I expect we will bid on tendered services in our local bus market, and we’re also keen to improve further on the school side of the business. There’s no signs of that slowing down – we have some extremely good clients and we’ve built our reputation by simply doing a good job.”
[wlm_nonmember][…]

Are you enjoying this feature? Why not subscribe to continue reading?

Subscribe for 4 issues/weeks from only £2.99
Or login if you are already a subscriber

By subscribing you will benefit from:

  • Operator & Supplier Profiles
  • Face-to-Face Interviews
  • Latest News
  • Test Drives and Reviews
  • Legal Updates
  • Route Focus
  • Industry Insider Opinions
  • Passenger Perspective
  • Vehicle Launches
  • and much more!
[/wlm_nonmember] [wlm_ismember] Dominic Kalantary founded the business with his university friend Peter Nathanail in 2016, with the aim of changing school transport for the better. VecTive was the solution they came up with, and combined a booking system with vehicle tracking and passenger registration. By the time the pair were recognised at the UK Bus Awards, their business had already made a name for itself in the school transport sector, racking up clients and continuing to grow. So what happened next? “2019 was an interesting year,” began Dominic. “At the beginning of that year, we were very much a technology-focused business, working with our independent school clients to provide exceptional levels of high-quality technology. Our goal was simply to provide the very best, market-leading technology for them, which is similar to what Kura does now – they’re our biggest competitor.

“We’ve never lost a client. We continue to provide exceptional levels of service, and our technology continues to go from strength to strength. That’s only been possible thanks to our staff; for me, it’s all about having the very best quality staff you can find. So, we’ve really been able to build upon the success we had back in 2018 with our UK Bus Awards win.

“With that in mind, we decided to broaden our focus to try and better understand our operators, and learn more about the challenges they face. We decided we wanted to actually operate some vehicles ourselves, not just so that we could understand fully what it’s like for our operators but also so that we could test our technology ourselves.

“So, we took a foray into the local bus service market, winning a few tenders with Nottinghamshire County Council – we’re still running those services today. Generally, our fleet now is made up of high-quality EVM products, the Cityline-spec Mercedes-Benz Sprinter in particular.

“We’ve really been building on those beginnings since the back end of 2019, and through the pandemic in 2020. That’s meant more tender wins and opening additional sites down in the Essex area last summer. Today, we operate a wider range of services than ever before, which is complementing the technology side of our business nicely; we’re working with some clients on both the operation and technology sides of the business.

“Like I said before, it’s so important to us to know and understand what bus operators do – and the only real way to do it is to experience it for yourself. Now we know how it’s done; when it comes to costing models, we know how much a school run costs to do, how much vehicles cost to operate in a day and so on. For us, that’s really important, because it allows us to really understand our clients on the technology side – how their business model works and how they operate.”

Lucky escape
I was keen to ask Dominic how the pandemic had affected their plans over the past year. “From our point of view, we were very lucky – the business certainly didn’t contract or perform badly,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, it didn’t perform fantastically, but really the pandemic hit us more in lost growth rather than a loss of business if you see what I mean.

“We were very lucky – it was probably more about timing and luck for us than anything else, there was no science behind it. Yes, we had diversified our income streams and, yes, we had various contracts across different sectors (both in the public and private sector), which helps because if one area of the business slumps, often the other picks up and vice versa.

“We operate quite a lean cost model too; we try and do everything very efficiently and use as much technology as we can to reduce our fixed cost.

“But, despite all of that, crucially the pandemic hit us more in terms of growth – we have seen a reduction in growth year-on-year compared to pre-pandemic. Don’t get me wrong, growth was still very good – it was in the hundreds of percent – but we’re probably not quite where we would have liked to be if the pandemic didn’t happen. That was a shame for us, we were very disappointed, but we do count ourselves as extremely lucky that we found ourselves in the situation that we did.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of coach and bus operators throughout this, and the market out there is still pretty bleak. We’re not quite in that situation, which we’re very thankful for.”

Currently, Vectare works with just shy of 50 schools and a similar number of operators. “It’s broadly one school for each operator,” Dominic elaborated, “although some schools operate all of their transport in-house using minibuses while others have multiple operators involved in their school services. In terms of the number of pupil journeys we’re involved with each year, the number is in the millions – as is the number of vehicle movements.

“We’re very much a high-growth business, driven pretty much entirely by referral. We do little to no marketing, and we’re very proud of the fact that our business is driven by referral and delivering high-quality work for our clients.”

Bold move

Dominic Kalantary

The decision to branch out into local bus operation can’t have been taken lightly, but for Vectare, the motivation behind the move has always been its quest for knowledge. “It is definitely about us putting our money where our mouth is, if you like,” Dominic clarified. “I can’t say to someone, ‘that route is overpriced’ or whatever without having that first-hand operational knowledge. We’re very clear, we will only work with very high-quality operators for our school services, who do come at a premium. And, to be fair, we would describe ourselves as a ‘fair cost’ operator too – we’re certainly not the cheapest, that’s for sure. That’s deliberate of course: we’re running an expensive (£90,000 a shot) fleet, but that’s because we want to run high-quality vehicles.

“For us, the decision to operate our own vehicles wasn’t just about ‘putting our money where our mouth is’ though, it was about gaining a greater understanding of the market – understanding what does and doesn’t work well and trialling our technology to determine what works in that regard too. Having the ability to do that in-house is very good; we’re very quickly able to identify what works before giving it to our clients.

“We’re constantly testing and evolving our technology based on our findings, and we pretty much have real-time driver feedback as we have our own drivers now too. Before we give any updates to external third-party drivers or contractors, we can now make sure we iron out all the kinks. Now we know that when we release things out into the world, they’re already proven to work.”

I asked Dominic whether his expectations of bus operation tallied with the experience him and his team have had so far: “Certainly, from my point of view, running a bus company is a lot harder than people think it is,” he replied. “I think the hardest part is the fact that you’re on call 24/7 pretty much – which is not the case in a technology business. I was having a conversation with a colleague of mine a couple of weeks ago, and we agreed that running a technology business, while not strictly nine to five hours, you’re not going to get a call on Boxing Day or whatever – you have an element of stability and you can nicely plan things out.

“When it comes to running bus services though, you certainly don’t have that luxury. Things can happen at very short notice, which has given me a real appreciation of operational constraints. For me, going into operating vehicles has been massively eye-opening in terms of risk and liability. Having vehicles out on the road, you can very quickly rack up bills in the tens of thousands of pounds from your insurer. On the flipside, running a technology business, yes you can have a data loss, but you don’t literally have people’s lives in your hands! Plus, you don’t have vehicles that can break down on you, so there’s that risk too – although that risk is lower for us as we’re operating a very young fleet. So, for us, it was a big change, but it’s been well worth the adjustment to gain that first-hand experience of running services.”

Fleet and future plans
Next up on the agenda was vehicles – what does Vectare operate and does the company have plans to expand the fleet in future? “We certainly do have plans to add more!” Dominic responded. “We have 21 vehicles in our fleet currently across our two sites in Nottingham and Essex, so we’re not enormous by any stretch of the imagination but we’re not tiny. It’s, from my point of view, a thoroughly enjoyable operation; we want to be seen as an operator that goes about its business and doesn’t shout much about it on social media or whatever it might be. Instead, we’ll quietly and confidently go about what we’re doing and deliver a high standard of service day in, day out.

“Currently we have 18 O-licences, so we have a few vehicles in reserve. And there is certainly a desire to add to it and gain further understanding, further experience and further learning – that will only improve our knowledge of the sector, which is what we’re all about.

The company has taken six Cityline Sprinters from EVM thus far

“We have six EVM Citylines at the moment, the first of which we took delivery of in February last year. To give EVM the credit, their aftersales service is top-notch. We made an initial order of three vehicles, but aftersales was superb so we placed orders for three more vehicles throughout 2020. We took delivery of the final one in December, but there’s certainly a desire to add more EVM vehicles to our fleet – not just Citylines either.

“Our orders with EVM certainly raised eyebrows – I think we were their youngest customers ever at 23! I think there were a few dropped jaws when I walked in to collect the first vehicles, never having met them before.

“Elsewhere in the fleet, we have four Wrightbus Eclipse Gemini-bodied Volvo service buses, which run on our services down in Essex. We really wanted to understand how a ‘traditional bus’ operates, which is very different to the minibuses we’ve had from EVM. They are 2013 models, we bought them second-hand.”

The company owns several coaches too, including Scania Irizars and a couple of Mercedes-Benz. “It’s quite a varied fleet, which is very much a consequence of our want to understand how things operate,” continued Dominic. “Yes, we want fleet standardisation, because that results in cost savings, but actually it’s about getting experience of operating different types of vehicles in different situations and circumstances. For us, that’s the key thing, as it’s the reason we entered the market in the first place.”

Overall then, how has entering into the local bus market altered Vectare’s approach? “It’s certainly improved our knowledge and understanding,” Dominic said. “All of our staff understand both areas of the business, which is important; we hold a weekly meeting every Monday morning for all staff across both sides of the business so that everyone knows what’s going on. For us, that’s crucial – the little nuggets of information we’re able to translate to our clients, whether it be miles-per-gallon or operational compliance, really matter. Those little bits of information are gold. We describe it as giving our clients a ‘magic moment’ – we’re able to tell them things they wouldn’t find on Google! That, in turn, helps our clients to grow.

“In terms of future plans, I can only disclose so much, but we’re exploring other opportunities on both sides of the business. I expect we will bid on tendered services in our local bus market, and we’re also keen to improve further on the school side of the business. There’s no signs of that slowing down – we have some extremely good clients and we’ve built our reputation by simply doing a good job.”
[/wlm_ismember]