Growing through the generations
Change is constant in today’s operating environment but recent events at Dews Coaches, based at Somersham in Cambridgeshire, mark a significant landmark for this third generation family run business. Simon Dew and his wife Debbie have been at the helm for some years now but Simon’s father, David, now 72, has voluntarily taken the decision to stop driving buses professionally after 51 years at the wheel. He won’t be handing in his licence because he still enjoys looking after the company’s heritage fleet but he will no longer be undertaking revenue earning duties.
‘I thought it was the right time to call it a day. I always intended to do 50 years and I’ve done 51,’ he said.
David had passed his test in 1964, exactly 51 years prior to my visit. He celebrated his 21st birthday on the Wednesday, took his test on the Friday and passed first time in a Bedford SB5 Bella Vega from his father’s fleet. ‘We went round Cambridge and half of the roads we drove down you can’t drive down any more. You had to watch out for the shop canopies and at one point the examiner got out and moved a bike that had been left in our way,’ he recalled.
With his test passed he had the freedom to drive anywhere for the business which had been started on 1 April 1953 by Ron W Dew and his wife Frances. Like thousands of other operators, Dews undertook a lot of private hire work as well as school contracts. Ron’s father-in-law, Walter Aubrey, ran the village fruit and vegetable shop which Ron and Frances took on as well as looking after Walter. People would call in at the shop at 52 High Street, or stop David’s mother in the street to book a trip to Hunstanton or Yarmouth for the British Legion or one of a number of groups that Dewsway (as the business then traded as) regularly undertook work for. The yard at the back was used to park the coaches though access on to the road always required skill, increasingly so as coaches grew in length, to the point that some could only access it from one direction.
In the early days, the coaches were secondhand from other fleets, though by 1961 the business was already buying new, when a Yeates Fiesta Bedford SB1 was acquired, only staying two years before it was exchanged for a Duple Bella Vega. Acquisitions were invariably lightweight, and usually Bedford, though there were also Commers and, apparently very briefly, a Ford. Bedfords operated included OB, SB, VAS, VAM, VAL, YMT, YNT and eventually YNV types and there is still one late YNT example used on schools today, in fact Bedfords have been ever present since the early days. A Duple OB, a twin-steer VAL Plaxton Elite, a J2SZ10 Plaxton Embassy and a rare Duple Dominant III bodied YMQ with small elliptical side windows serve the heritage fleet, the latter nearing the completion of a lengthy restoration process.
The first of two moves the company was to make came in 1971 when the operation transferred a few hundred yards to Parkhall Road. Here there was a small garage and a more accessible yard as well as space to build the family home alongside. The fleet was no more than eight at the time of the move.
Much of the workload remained as it had but it was also in 1971 that David first took a coach abroad, something he continued to do regularly until five years ago. ‘It was all new to me and our company and I enjoyed what you saw and who you met,’ said David, who regularly went to Kandersteg in Switzerland and Seefeld in Austria as well as Paris and the Rhine. His favourite memory of driving abroad was being able to take an Irizar Century through Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. ‘In those days a trip abroad was something special; now we go all of the time. There’s one gone to Holland today,’ he said.
Twenty years later in 1991 a former farm, just out of the village on the road to Chatteris, was purchased and, after obtaining planning permission, a new three bay workshop with adjoining driver facilities and offices was built. The fleet size was probably just into double figures at the time. I remember going with the family to see the premises before the building started and thinking how big the site seemed, and it didn’t look any smaller when the work was complete and they moved in. There is also a field to the side that isn’t currently used by the business, though the Bedford Gathering for preserved vehicles has been held on it a couple of times. The Parkhall Road site became a doctor’s surgery.
Simon had passed his PCV driving test at 18 in 1988 three years sooner than his father had thanks to changes to the rules in the interim. After finishing his apprenticeship elsewhere he joined the family concern in September of the following year while still at the old premises and began learning the ropes with his parents, Linda and David. There was no huge rush to expand though the scope to do so was always there and throughout the 1990s and early 2000s the emphasis remained primarily on coaching backed by some school contracts, though Dews stopped operating their own holiday programme in 1991. David’s father, Ron, died in 2001.
From 2004 to 2009 perhaps the widest diversification Dews has yet undertaken saw a skip lorry operated carrying coloured mortar. It made a useful contribution until the local gravel pit closed and was subsequently sold. An earlier, somewhat briefer experiment had seen a fleet of open top Leyland Atlanteans operated around Cambridge on behalf of Lothian Region Transport during the 1997 and 1998 summer seasons.
On a freezing cold day in December 2005, Simon married Debbie who has become increasingly involved in the business, working full time since 2010, though she had obtained her PCV driving licence prior to that. Simon’s son Sam was joined by William born in 2006 and Evie in 2008.
2006 was a significant year, because not only did his mother and father officially retire, but Simon began to change the emphasis of the operation. I say officially retire because both continued to do a great deal for the company and Linda still lives in one of the two houses built in front of the site, while Simon, Debbie and their children live in the other one. The big change was a decision to start expanding the school bus fleet as well as taking on a small amount of bus work. At the time there were six school contracts held and after the total doubling in 2006 it has continued to increase gradually. Four years ago a six vehicle a day contract to Huntingdon Regional College was won and with this and other gains the buses are now covering 60 contract movements a day, 57 of them school or college related.
On the bus side the contract for the 106 rural service from Haddenham to Ely was won from Cambridgeshire County Council and a new Optare Solo was rented to operate it with. There have been changes to it since including rebranding as ‘The Zipper’ but it continues to serve the same communities covering a broadly similar route. When first taken on it was rather a baptism of fire because for various reasons the lead in time they had was only ten days. Simon recalled, ‘We had nothing: no registration, no bus, no drivers and no tickets machines, but we got it sorted.’
Another unusual bus service is a Bike Bus which operates every Sunday all year round. The route started in July 2014 and runs from Cambridge Railway Station to Wimpole Hall and Gamlingay serving the villages en route. It involves the bus towing a trailer to accommodate the bikes. Further long standing contract work sees two buses occupied every Wednesday running for Tesco, one bus having carried full Tesco colours for a period.
Explaining the motivation for the new emphasis, Simon said, ‘We wanted to expand our contract base to give a more firm day to day basis. We wanted to move forward financially and County Council contracts gave us a fair basis to do so. At that time we only had contracts to one school and they all expired at the same time, so in theory we could have lost them all at one go. Strategically we have gone out to ensure that we have a mix of expiry dates in a mix of areas so that, if we did lose some it would be a pain, but it shouldn’t affect us too much.’
‘We are continually working to meet market needs, which enables us to grow and develop,’ said Simon. Growth brings with it additional challenges, not the least of which is looking after the fleet. Whereas once David and a helper could manage the maintenance, there are now four people in the workshops. Maintenance Manager, Tom Williams, joined in 1997 and as the business has gone forward other have joined. Lance Keatley joined as an apprentice five years ago and is now fully qualified and six weeks ago Lewis, who is one year into his apprenticeship, joined. There is also Stan, ‘who has been with us forever, on and off. He sorts electrical stuff the manufacturers can’t.’
There has had to be investment in the operations side too. Originally, Simon handled all of the operational matters. Nick Tetley, formerly of Yorks of Northampton, has joined as General Manager and working with him is Ester Aldred who is a trainee Operations Manager, and had completed her Operator CPC with CILT the week before my visit. The latest recruit is Kerry O’Neill, from Kent but no relation to anybody at The Kings Ferry, who joined six weeks ago as Customer Liaison Manager. She will be handling face to face sales of private hire and excursions, a small excursions programme having been reintroduced around a decade ago which Simon would like to see further expanded. Another integral part of the team is Colin Dorrington who helps with CPC training and compliance. Providing Mercedes-Benz branded training, he works on a consultancy basis and looks after the drivers’ hours requirements along with Nick.
Debbie acts as Accounts Manager, though she describes the role as one of supporting Simon who does ‘the big picture.’ She plays it down but it’s a big job that includes some finance, wages, marketing and the company newsletter among other things. A Human Resources consultant, Caroline Watts, is employed on an ad hoc basis, coming in one day a month though drivers can contact her at any time during office hours. Debbie also does the general legwork behind Caroline. ‘It’s a real privilege to be part of something that’s been going so long, and to be able to work alongside Simon,’ said Debbie. ‘It gives me flexibility and enables me to be around for the children. I’m proud to be part of it.’
The driving team has 11 full timers with two more about to start, as well as 16 part time school bus drivers. All of the management team have their licences but none are scheduled to drive regularly. There is a driver welfare programme that includes regular health checks and access to a local gym in addition to which there is annual training on health, well-being, sleeping and driver’s hours.
Though the growth in contract work represented a significant additional management requirement and needed investment in vehicles, staff and infrastructure, there has been no easing off in attention to Dews’ traditional core private hire market where there is a drive to expand the customer base, with Simon seeking out new high quality work where he can find it. ‘We do try and spread ourselves across many facets of the private hire market,’ said Simon, ‘We contract to a lot of people but try not to have all of our eggs in one basket.’
As I drive about the country I regularly notice the green liveried coaches on tour and a lot of the work done is for top organisations. Dews have worked with the Rugby Football Union (RFU) since 1997 and have recently been involved in the Rugby World Cup and when the Olympics were staged they helped look after Coca Cola for International Trailways.
Today’s operation is a far cry from what it was in Ron’s day. The number of licences has just been increased from 35 to 40, though the fleet currently stands at 36 plus the five strong heritage fleet. This effectively breaks down into three separate fleets with over 20 school buses, including a Ford Transit committed to the contract side; eight front line tour coaches, including an Esker Riada Vario minicoach that Simon is reviewing as he thinks it is under-occupied; and a small number of local private hire coaches. This leaves aside the heritage fleet. In revenue terms, the split between private hire activities and contract work is now roughly equal.
There is plenty to do within the business but Simon also finds time for other responsibilities, as well as joining B&CB for road tests from time to time. Dews Coaches is a member of CPT’s Coachmarque scheme and he is proud to be on the Coachmarque Committee. ‘The networking side is valuable and the compliance side does lift you,’ he said. ‘We also comply with the School Travel Forum (STF) which is also now aligned with Coachmarque.’ Locally, he is a member of the Mid Anglia Coach Operators Association and has organised a factory visit to one of the manufacturers most years on their behalf.
Dews don’t charge staff for providing a CPC training day which they do annually. It is backed up with other training such as snow awareness training and tuition in how to fit snow chains, while Nick Tetley provides driver’s hours refreshers in-house. Also additional is customer care training and, if work is being undertaken for a group with particular needs, specific relevant tuition will be provided if necessary.
Recruiting is an issue but one thing Simon takes heart from is the fact that there is a relatively good age profile among the driving team, with most under 45 and five drivers in their 30s. Elsewhere in the business the profile is also well balanced.
‘We continue working on our job descriptions to make sure everyone knows what they are doing and are in the right place,’ he said.
One thing Simon finds is improving is background checks. ‘DBS is getting much, much quicker now it is done on line, though it still takes quite a while if people are relocating from outside Cambridgeshire. It’s only the odd isolated one that takes a long time now and you can only go as quickly as they will allow you. It aught to be national, not county based, and there should be a three month grace period if you move. Locally, Cambridgeshire are very stringent about it and you can understand that,’ said Simon. ‘Personally I think everyone should have an ID card with your DBS, your CPC, your organ donor card; everything.’
The first heavyweight chassis was not purchased until 1980 when a Volvo B58 Plaxton Supreme IV was acquired. Simon and his older brother Nicholas, currently a Professor in the USA but still keenly interested in the business, went along with David to collect it. Before long, possibly influenced by Dick Sworder, the appearance had been enhanced with a windscreen visor, twin roof mounted air horns and a chromed front bumper and a high standard of presentation, though not necessarily the added bling, has always characterised the coach fleet.
Since then, most but not all purchases for the main coach fleet have been bought new, with Volvo and Scania popular in the 1990s, along with a solitary Iveco EuroRider Beulas, though the acquisition of several Mercedes-Benz Touros from 2003 started an affinity with the marque that has dominated new purchases since, with an exception being a tri-axle Volvo 9700 bought new in 2011 because Mercedes-Benz could not offer the capacity at the time. Currently there are five Tourismos operated, the latest being a tri-axle M model bought late last year, with another similar coach on order as the demand has moved toward 53 or more seats and a toilet, rather than the 49 plus toilet that was hitherto to the norm.
Simon commented, ‘Our policy is to buy what is required to do the job. I like the Tourismo, I think they are built incredibly well having been to the Hosdere plant in Turkey twice. The Mercs have been very good on fuel and when they do go wrong, which every coach does, Tom knows how to fix them. We like to have everything pretty similar so that all of our customers get the same standard. They wouldn’t know whether it was a 2008 or a 2015. Having a standardised fleet is a big maintenance advantage and it’s good for drivers to because when they get in they know how it works. The oldest Tourismo operated is a 2008 model and I see no reason to shift it. It will probably be here for some years yet.’
Turning to the local coach market Simon said, ‘To be competitive in the schools and local private hire market you need middle of the road 8-12 year old coaches like our ex-Safeguard B10M Paragon. The school private hire market is very competitive.’
Simon has regularly hired in a vehicle for the summer season, usually from Arriva, something he would rather do than buying an additional coach that will not be needed outside the peak. In recent times this has often been a Temsa Safari.
Distinguishing most of the coach fleet is the use of distinctive DEW registration marks, quite a collection of them having been built up before the market for private plates took off. EW was a Cambridgeshire mark so Dews were well placed to obtain them, and did so ahead of the trend with the first example applied to a secondhand B58 Plaxton Viewmaster in 1981.
When it comes to the contract fleet, whatever is purchased has to be economical because margins have been squeezed. Cambridgeshire did use e-bidding, though they are moving away from it now. With the exception of one Trident and a Ford Transit the main school contract fleet is Volvo, ten of them double deckers. There are two Olympians that were formerly with Delaine and the rest are B10Bs, B10Ms or D10M/Citybuses. A B7TL is set to arrive shortly. Simon commented, ‘We wanted to broaden our scope on double deck and get a bit newer but we’re now thinking the Trident isn’t the bus for us. We’re buying the B7TL and, if it’s OK, we may drop some more in. We won’t buy any more Tridents or Olympians. On single deck, we’ll stick with the B10B. We did buy an ex-Stagecoach B10M Modulo Interurban and bought a nice set of secondhand seats to put in it. I’d have more of them.’
For the bus services an Enviro200 is rented from Mistral, the latest being an ADL Enviro200 delivered in July this year. This is backed up by a Plaxton bodied Dennis Dart with the appropriate registration BU52ELY (Bus to Ely).
You could argue that the heritage fleet forms a fourth arm of the business. Although there is quite a demand for the older vehicles for wedding, prom and special event work, they do not represent a large part of the turnover and are primarily retained because Simon and David like them. Nevetheless, they go out if they are needed. It is mainly the Bedford OWB Duple and an ex-Ramsbottom municipality Leyland PD3 double decker (among the last half cabs built) that people want to hire. Attractive though it is, there isn’t a lot of demand for the 1973 Bedford VAL, which last year did two weddings and only clocked up 370km between MOTs. A separate garage has been erected in a corner of the yard to house them and protect them from the elements. Unusually, to make it easier for David to drive, the OWB has been retrofitted with the Dutch EZ Power Steering system.
For the future, ‘We’d like to continue moving the business forward,’ said Simon. ‘Debbie and I try not to forget the responsibility we have to people for job stability and security. We have 47 people on the payroll now, including all of the part timers. It’s a huge responsibility. We have two more tour coach drivers starting and another coming in January. We continue to interview because finding staff is an ongoing challenge; there’s such a massive driver shortage.’
‘We have this quest for more stability, possibly through contracts, but we also want to keep developing the private hire side, though we won’t be buying three or four new buses and scooping up all the low paying work. It’s only worth expanding if the work justifies it. There’s a huge difference between doing the odd job for a bit less than you would like when it would otherwise be sat there and buying a new coach to dedicate to poorly paying work.’
Asked what he’d like to see from the legislators Simon said, ‘Rather than any legislation changes I’d like to see less traffic on the roads,’ adding, ‘but it isn’t going to happen.’
Does he still enjoy it? ‘Yes I do, most of the time. We’ve got a lovely house and I don’t underestimate how lucky we are, but would I live on site if I had my time again; I wouldn’t! I wouldn’t want to be very far away, but every time you look out of the windows you can see buses.’
I might have thought the place was massive when I first saw it but growth changes your needs and Dews are currently putting in for planning permission to extend their existing facilities, putting in new offices and a driver welfare facility.
The succession question always arises with family run businesses though it isn’t one Simon and Debbie will need to worry about for a while yet. They are taking the business to new heights at the moment and beyond that it is just too early to say. Sam, the eldest of the next generation at 18, already has his PCV driving licence and drives when he is not at college. He is studying Motor Racing Engineering at Oxford Brookes University, where he is also involved in the pan-European Formula Student competition and has already designed a brake light for his team. Whether he or his siblings want to carry on the family tradition or not remains to be seen but they unquestionably have the pedigree for it.
For his part, David will still be turning up and doing things as well as pursuing his hobbies, which include jiving one day a week and restoring old jukeboxes and petrol pumps. He’s happy to be stepping down now: it’s a very different business to the one he joined and Dews has developed to remain abreast of the changes.