Same but different

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Chris Goodman is no stranger to starting his own business, having operated Aardvark Coaches for a decade and a half. But starting a consultancy business in the midst of a global pandemic is an entirely different proposition. He explains to Peter Jackson why the time was right

I’ve had a few career changes over the years,” began Chris Goodman, thinking back to his first taste of the industry almost three decades ago. As I would discover during our half-hour-long chat, the founder of start-up firm CNIKK Coach and Bus Consultants is a man who holds the trade close to his heart. Having occupied an array of coach and bus-related roles during his career – including a lengthy stint owning and operating a coach company alongside his brother – it’s evident from talking to him that this was no accident. “It’s in my blood this business,” he admitted.

Like many who’ve made a living in coaches and buses, Chris got his start thanks to his dad: “When I first left school I joined the army for six years, before going into the prison service until 1996,” he continued. “While I was off doing all that, my father was running a small minibus company with my mum called Avia Travel (which encompassed BW Minicoaches), doing a few local school runs. He decided he was going to retire, so I left my job in the prison service and took on his licences; I’d already done my CPC exam a couple of years prior.

Chris today (top) and during his time running Aardvark Coaches
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“After I’d taken over the businesses, I combined them under the name Aardvark Coaches and built the new company up gradually; at one stage we had between 40 and 45 vehicles on the fleet. I ran Aardvark in partnership with my younger brother, and we had our own yard, our own workshop and everything – we became self-contained as a unit.

“It was going quite well, we were the largest school transport supplier in both Peterborough and Cambridge. We started off with just Cambridge as, during my tenure, the council split from being just Cambridge to encompassing Peterborough as well. All of the area’s transport used to be handled by Cambridge Council, but that all changed in the late ’90s.

“We were never a ‘top of the range’ company, we always offered affordable transport. That’s why we had so many school contracts. We charged the prices for the vehicles we had; although we looked after them all well and kept them legal, we didn’t have newer vehicles. That was always our intention, to be more affordable than other operators in the area.

“Then in 2008, Peterborough City Council decided that they were going to change what they were doing with school transport. They invested quite heavily in their own fleet of buses (which are now run by Amey), and it got to the point where we could no longer compete with the prices they were charging for school transport. They said they were being fair, but we didn’t think they were; they didn’t have to make a profit at the time, so they were doing everything just above cost. We obviously couldn’t compete with that.

“We struggled on for a little bit longer but we lost a lot of contracts. At the time, we were Peterborough Council’s go-to company for testing out new rural bus routes as well, but then they started doing that themselves too. It was unfortunate for us, but that’s the nature of that type of work – you don’t know where your next competitor is going to come from.

“We downsized further and further, doing less for Peterborough Council and more for Cambridgeshire Council. By 2008, we were a very small company with only four contracts and half a dozen vehicles. Along with the private work we were still doing, this was enough for myself and my family to earn a crust.

“In 2012, we applied for three contracts in the Whittlesey area that we had run previously for 12-13 years. We won the tenders, and then Cambridgeshire Council decided to change their tendering method – the three lowest bidders were put on a ‘bid-downward’ thing online. Basically, they said, ‘you are the three lowest bidders, start bidding downwards if you want the contract.’ A company called Judds Travel just underbid us and took the work (but then went bust the year after), and so we said, ‘that’s enough’ and called it a day with Aardvark. We were busy fools, working our socks off and not getting enough out of it.”

With the stress of council contracts behind him, Chris thought it time to explore another area of the industry. “I was very good friends with the owner of Apex Driver Training, Malcolm Brunyee, for many years – he was my best friend. I went to his company as an instructor, teaching Driver CPCs, PCV driving, forklift driving… I was basically an instructor of all things in the training centre. I did that for four years. My wife still works at Apex, so I still have a close connection to that company too. Unfortunately Malcolm passed due to cancer only three weeks ago but I am still very good friends with his widow Steph who now holds the reins at Apex.

“In this industry there are very few jobs where a transport manager can be a transport manager full-time unless they’re running their own business – people only tend to get the PCV certificate of competence if they run their own business (although there are plenty of full-time openings on the HGV side of things).

“Nevertheless, a job did come up at a company called Blue Fox Transport, the transport suppliers for recruitment company Staffline – that’s all they did. They’re now operating as Godwin Transport and still doing the same work for Staffline, and I’ve been Transport Manager now for both companies.”

Taking the leap

That brings us to today, and to the extremely weird – and terribly damaging – global pandemic which is wreaking havoc on public transport as a whole, but particularly on the coach sector. This led Chris to think about what he might be able to do to help.

“Over the years in these different roles, I’ve made lots of contacts – and friends – and in my tenure at Godwin, lots of people have come and asked for advice,” he said. “I’ve helped people start up and apply for licences, given advice and helped out. With Covid coming in (and making things very difficult for the industry), it got me thinking that at some stage, there’s going to be a lot of bits and bobs out there that I could probably help with.

“I mulled it over again and again, and my wife and I decided, ‘now’s the time, let’s get back into another business.’ We wanted to do it by ourselves so we weren’t beholden to partners, which can be difficult at times.

“There are lots of small operators out there – and this is a constant in the industry, not just during Covid – who don’t have the money to pay for a full-time transport manager and may not feel confident enough to pass the exams themselves. That means they need an external transport manager who can go and see them once a week, for example, to keep them up-to-date and compliant.

“There is definitely demand for this as people started calling me as soon as word started to get out about the business. From passing it around in my own network, people are asking me different things and are keen to find out what I’ll be offering.

“In the meantime, I needed to give a three-month notice at Godwin (it’s only fair to do as a transport manager), but as I’ve been setting up my business I’ve booked in work with them up until the end of March. Through my business, I’m preparing two of their staff members for the transport manager exam, but until they pass I will be the external transport manager for the company for three days a week! So I’ve certainly hit the ground running, and I’m in a really good position going into next year.

“On top of that, I’ve got experience in driver assessments, compliance audits and so many other things within the trade – there’s lots I can offer. I’m currently having a website and business cards made for the launch on 2 December, which is when the business officially comes into being as my notice period ends at my current job. So we’ll see how it goes!

“I expect it’ll probably take a year or two before I properly fill my diary with regular work, but I’ve got my PCV and HGV licences so I can always do some driving for agencies to top up my income if needs be. But the joy of this business is that’ll I’ll be able to put to use all of my experience and all of the courses I’ve been on over the years, all of which I’ve long paid for – my startup costs are minimal.

At its peak, Aardvark was the largest school transport provider in Peterborough and Cambridge

Lending a helping hand

Based on the feedback he’s had so far, Chris is positive about the future of the new business. “I didn’t know at first whether there’d be any interest in a new business startup in this current environment,” he said, “but so far the signs are encouraging. Due to the financial pressures placed on companies at the moment, I’m hopeful that there will be demand for someone like me to help them out as and when they need – either on an hourly or daily rate – instead of having a to employ someone full-time.

“In time, the ideal scenario would be that I’ll be able to take on other people who I can send out to operators. I’m 58 years old and I’m starting a new business – it’s not the ideal time in my life. When I was running Aardvark, I thought that by the time I was 55-60 I’d be retiring! Of course, things change. Despite that though, I’ve got all of the buzz that I had when I first started Aardvark, I’ve got all of that excitement going on. But the difference with this business is that I’m not having to go out an buy expensive equipment (like coaches) to get started. I’ve got all I need in my own brain and within my family really to get started.

“It may seem like a daft time to start a new business, but part of what prompted me to start it was that I think it could help in the current situation. My father was doing this type of work before me, so he always passed his knowledge onto me – I still know some of his old friends. My dad’s gone now, bless him, but I still have that connection to him through his friends, some of whom are still in the industry.

“You can never know enough people in this trade. On my webpages I’m going to list everything I’m offering, which to start with will include acting as an external transport manager, carrying out compliance audits, driver assessments, driver training (using an operator’s own vehicles), management CPC tuition, as well as helping to put people on CPC courses elsewhere. But at the end of that list will be a note saying, ‘if you have a question relating to the PCV industry, please ask for advice, because even if I don’t know I’ll probably know someone who does!’ I’m willing to pass people onto my contracts in the trade because I know they’ll then return the favour – we all look out for each other.

“I’m pleased that Godwin has asked me to stay on and train up a couple of new transport managers – that to me is an endorsement in itself. I’ve spoken to a number of other firms including John Hill Coach Sales, who’ve said they may have a bit of work for me. It seems positive so far definitely. But everything I want to do is positive – I want to help people get on, that’s what this is primarily about. I want to get on myself of course, but I want to help others at the same time and help put them in a better position.

“You hear all the time about companies going bust, but I hope me starting this business will encourage people to think a little more positively and look ahead – we’ve got to all work towards a brighter future for everyone in the industry.” Amen to that.

You can reach Chris on 01733 834064 or 07982 633055, or via [email protected]. His website is not yet live, but will be found at cnikkcoachandbusconsultants.co.uk

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