Testing times

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Jonathan Prime, recently-appointed Director Sales Mercedes-Benz, and Managing Director Michael Thielmann update Andy Izatt on recent developments at EvoBus (UK)

This year has been a transitional time at EvoBus (UK) as two board members have changed since January. In addition to Jonathan Prime’s appointment as Director Sales Mercedes-Benz, Taras Tokarek has become Chief Financial Officer. Coming from EvoBus headquarters in Germany, Taras has known Managing Director Michael Theilmann for more than a decade. Despite his finance and controlling role, he is very customer-focused like the rest of the team. Andy Howes continues as Director Customer Service and Parts.

A customer handover centre has been opened by EvoBus (UK) at the Cross Point Business Park, Coventry. ANDY IZATT

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Michael reflected that from a management point of view the new business team is once again very integrated. “We have different personalities and strengths and come from different backgrounds, but it only took a few weeks to grow together as a new team,” he said. “We are very much aligned to the overall targets of the business.”

EvoBus (UK) had a challenging start to the year with delays in vehicle registrations. “Thankfully our customers’ patience and understanding along with the dedication of our staff to find a solution to this unfortunate incident has enabled us to move forwards together in a positive way,” said Jonathan.

The business is once again on target to sell around 300 coaches in 2019, including another 29 to loyal customer Specialist Leisure Group (Shearings & National Holidays) and 11 that are wheelchair accessible for new Tourismo customer, Oxford Bus Company.

Broader offering

Michael Thielmann (left) and Jonathan Prime: ‘This year has been a transitional time.’ ANDY IZATT

With the introduction of the latest version of the Tourismo in 2017, EvoBus (UK)’s coach offering became much more comprehensive. At 12.295m (12m), 49 to 55 seats are available. It’s 53 to 57 inside the 13.115m (13m) M2 two-axle variant and 55 to 57 in the 13.115m (13m) M3 tri-axle. The 13.935m (14m) Tourismo L tri-axle seats 59 to 63 with Luxline, Softline and TSE (Travel Star Eco) trims available across the range. All have centre sunken toilets and continental doors.

While OM936 260kW and OM470 290kW engines are available in the 12 and 13m two-axle coach, other variants all use the OM470, although customers can choose between a ZF EcoLife or PowerShift gearbox. The OM936 is available only with PowerShift.

“We’ve sold some Tourismos with the smaller engine,” said Jonathan. “Alpha Coaches took 10 this year as part of its normal replacement cycle, and there have been other customers as well.

“With the introduction of the two-axle 13m M2, we thought that was what we would predominantly sell, but that has proved not to be the case. Around 45% of sales have been 13m, but the 12m still accounts for 40%. I think what has made a difference is being able to offer 53 seats in the 12m, which is an industry standard. Previously it was only 51.

“However, being able to offer the 13m two-axle coach with 57 seats has increased sales. It’s created opportunities for us that weren’t previously there. Interestingly, Shearings has gone from a tri-axle specification to 13m two-axle that is standard across its operation, but there will always be customers that buy a tri-axle because of the improved turning circle. Our 14m is aimed at a niche market and we are happy to have an offer for this specialist segment. Having the whole range gives us much more flexibility in meeting customer requirements.

“Travel, Touring and Touring Plus are our three models whether they’re 12m, 13m or 14m. The difference from the previous Tourismo is the current range incorporates a lot more options than had previously been available.

“There were always separate lists of Setra and Tourismo moquettes. We in the UK were allowed a degree of flexibility to choose either. This proved so popular with customers that when the new moquettes are launched next year there will be a unified range offered Europe-wide.

“Although the new Tourismo is an all new vehicle, part of the updated model’s appeal is there is commonality in appearance with the previous version. Park the two together and neither looks out of place. The feedback we’ve had from customers is they appreciate the improvements. Drivers especially are very complementary about the dashboard layout and how the coach drives.

“It’s still quite a small industry. Operators speak to each other and hopefully say good things about Tourismo. Good news travels quickly, but so does bad news so we can’t take anything for granted.

“Success comes from the strength of the brand and having a reliable, well built, competitively priced product to sell. Having a professional, consistent and settled sales team helps. Conquest business has been key to our growth. There was a competition run by EvoBus centrally for 2017 and 2018 based on most sales in each country to conquest customers and we came top for the whole of Europe. There are only so many operators we can sell to, but obviously the aim is to get into as many as we can.”

Reading the market

EvoBus (UK) is now once again on target to sell around 300 coaches in 2019. ANDY IZATT

“The hope is there will still be an orderly process for stepping out of the EU,” said Michael. “However, while Brexit has created a lot of market uncertainty, we’ve not seen it impact on our sales. If operators are doing fewer tours to Europe, it seems to be compensated by the work they have within the UK. Maybe because of the exchange rate, more visitors are coming into the country and requiring coaches.

“We have several strategies in place to continue our support of customers in the UK and the Republic of Ireland (ROI) whatever the outcome of the Brexit saga. Because of it and the possible cost implications of import delays and duties, we brought in additional parts and vehicle stock. We probably have 20-30 more coaches available than we would normally have at this time of year. However, the European market is booming and that has put pressure on our factory in Turkey. Production capacity is full until January 2020 and if we’d not placed orders well in advance we might have been unable to provide customers with the availability they require now.”

“Having plenty of stock has been a significant factor in our success,” said Jonathan. “We know that eventually we will reach saturation point with Tourismo, which is why we showed a Mercedes-Benz OC500RF tri-axle chassis at Euro Bus Expo last year. It would enable us to cover options such as front entrance wheelchair accessibility, which we can’t currently offer. Discussions with potential bodybuilders are ongoing.

“It’s planned we will be able to offer the Tourismo K midi coach in right-hand drive from 2021 when the left-hand drive version of the new model is introduced. Midi coach is once again not a huge market, but we sold the Tourino successfully and for customers that want a full integral, there’s limited choice currently.

“Selling new coaches goes hand-in-hand with taking part exchanges. Probably around 50% of new sales come with a trade-in. Andy Nixon re-joined us in March 2018 as our dedicated Used Vehicle Manager and now has Jack Wallen out on the road as a used vehicle salesman. Jack started with EvoBus (UK) four years ago as an apprentice. They’re now challenged with selling Euro V stock into a Euro VI market.”

Bus and minibus

West Coast Motors subsidiary Scotline Coaches is operating this tri-axle Mercedes-Benz Tourismo on Trafalgar tour work. RICHARD WALTER

“The take up of electrics in Europe is much talked about, but it’s still not as strong as some would have anticipated,” said Michael. “Every electric bus deal in Europe is given much press coverage, but the big volume is not there yet. In line with our competitors our factory in Mannheim is busy because operators still want to go for Euro VI and hybrid. For them it’s known technology and the pressure to buy electric is predominately political. However, we’re all aware that change is coming. The electric Citaro was launched in Europe in 2018 and we will have a right-hand drive electric city bus available for UK customer in 2021.”

Said Jonathan: “The issue is the heavy-weight nature of Citaro effectively precludes us from a big part of the London market. As part of our future product discussions, we are looking at all the options. That includes solo and articulated buses as well as chassis options.”

“EvoBus (UK) understands that the British market is slightly different from a lot of others in Europe,” said Michael. “We’re looking into all market opportunities. We want to find market specific solution that fits.”

The Citaro hybrid exhibited at Euro Bus Expo last year has been out on demonstration and Jonathan is optimistic that he will soon be able to announce a first customer. “There’s a tender that includes some hybrid vehicles as well as diesels for the same customer,” he said. “A lot of interest in Citaro comes from airport customers and that has been a successful market for us. We are the only manufacturer at the moment that can offer an artic. While a right-hand drive artic hybrid is not an option, an electric eCitaro will be.

“We’re in a transitional stage with Sprinter. We had hoped to be launching a right-hand drive version of the new model this year, but it’s going to be 2020 because of product availability. There are several different products and strategies we’re currently exploring, but there will be a Sprinter City for the UK.”

Full support

Redwing of London has standardised on Mercedes-Benz Tourismos for many years. RICHARD SHARMAN

Michael pointed out that the restructure that is currently taking place at Daimler is creating new aftersales support opportunities for EvoBus (UK).
“Daimler is in the process of forming four different companies,” he said. “That’s Daimler head quarters, the Mercedes-Benz passenger car division including vans and a Mercedes-Benz commercial vehicle division called Daimler Trucks that includes buses and coaches. There’s another company focusing on mobility – Daimler Mobility.

“As for the UK, we’re not merging with trucks, but we’re very closely aligned and we collaborate more frequently than we have done in the past.
“With the truck and van networks separating, those service partners choosing to focus on truck are now looking for additional business which creates an interesting opportunity for us. We’re the perfect addition because drivelines and a majority of parts are similar. The change is in line with our additional sales volume which further adds to the attractiveness of our bus and coach franchise.

“We have taken back the Southall service centre in London from Rygor in order to focus entirely on servicing the large number of Tourismo coaches in and around London and some of the buses that still operate there.

“Any service network is always under the spotlight because customers use it when they have a problem. Our UK and ROI coverage has improved over the past few years, as has the knowledge of our service partners thanks to our training programmes.”

Said Jonathan: “On top of three of our own coach and bus specialist service vans that we run out of Coventry and Southall, there are an additional 12 run by our service partners. Buy-in from them is important, which is why we support them by supplying these vehicles with our standard mobile specialist service equipment. The service partner then provides an EvoBus-trained technician. Due to this concept, every service specialist has his ‘home base’ and that’s where the coach will go if special equipment is needed.”

“This is not our 24-hour emergency service support,” said Michael. “That sits on top of this. We are proud that the 24-hour service response rate we offer in the UK and Ireland is the highest in Europe.”

Growing business

Oxford Bus Company has bought 11 wheelchair accessible Mercedes-Benz Tourismos. RICHARD SHARMAN

Talking about the opening of a customer handover centre with undercover vehicle parking at Cross Point Business Park across the road from EvoBus (UK)’s headquarters in Coventry, Jonathan pointed out that while the business has grown, the existing site didn’t have the space to grow with it.

“We took on the additional premises around 18 months ago and have created a Customer Sales Lounge which replicates, albeit on a small scale, what we have in our sales headquarters in the Mannheim factory. Customers appreciate what we have done as it underlines our commitment to providing a more convenient solution for choosing interior colours, materials, seats, etc.

“A further benefit is we have a dry undercover area where the customer can look at vehicles or inspect their ordered vehicles without being exposed to the weather. We have also used this space for events, for example the CPT (Confederation of Passenger Transport) Coaching Event in December 2018 and for our own Open Days.

“Like many companies today, we are facing challenges. Business uncertainty is rising due to Brexit, among other reasons, and at the same time we receive budget or headcount requests from headquarters. This is especially demanding as we are now doing more business than ever before with the same number of employees. In order that we not only continue to respond to the expectations of our customers, but exceed them, we are heavily investing in training and have introduced an internal programme to further develop and empower our current workforce.”