Face to Face with: Alan White
Owner of Minis to Midis
If you think mini coaches then the name Alan White won’t be very far from the forefront of your mind. He is celebrating 40 years of working in the industry this year and Kirsty Flatt travelled to Doncaster to get to know a bit more about the man behind Minis to Midis and the latest additions to his range of vehicles.
Alan’s career history has been well documented and by his own admission, the best job he ever had was as a coach driver for Leon Motors in Finningley which was also the worst paid at the time! He progressed from being a bus driver but continued on a part time basis whilst working in engineering for a local tractor manufacturer. In 1985 an opportunity arose to join Coachcraft in Doncaster, a converter run by Mick Mullins, as Transport Manager. Alan got involved in running local bus transport and experienced ‘a few run ins’ with South Yorkshire Transport. Fortunately Mick gave him the opportunity to move into sales selling conversions that were previously sold through Crystal.
After a year he was approached by Europa Coaches Ltd who were also a Doncaster based company. They had links to the CG Whittaker group who were a Mercedes-Benz dealership selling cars and commercial vehicles. Alan remained there as Sales Manager until the demise of the Whittaker group in 1991. He credits this experience in sales and management of both conversions and, towards the end, coachbuilt in part to his success today, ‘It taught me a lot and also increased my own customer base and position in the market, we were very customer focussed and I have always been. It also taught me about procedures and getting your admin done.’
With a partner, Alan set up Autobus Classique Ltd, carrying on where Europa left off, converting vans and also selling coach built vehicles. Despite being sorely under funded, they progressed to the point of, in Alan’s words ‘being guilty of over trading.’ They didn’t have funds to grow as quickly as they could have to meet demand and the business was acquired by Optare in 1996. The Autobus brand continued for a while and Alan speaks very positively about the buyout. ‘Being at Optare at Hellaby we had access to better facilities and suppliers. With their expertise and buying power, we were able to do things, it was a positive move.’
‘My second personal grounding was working under Russell Richardson who I admire greatly, he has influenced me a great deal. He is very very professional and very experienced in marketing, an expert in fact. He projected a strong image and we achieved it. I guess that the seven years under Optare moulded me in to the person that I am today.’
Alan progressed to Sales Director of Optare Coach Sales and oversaw the imported products from Spain plus the Nouvelle, which was originally an Autobus product launched in August 1995 ‘to great acclaim’ and retained by Optare. It won midicoach of the year for two consecutive years, three years in all and Alan always say to people, ‘looking back at what we did then and what we sell now, I’m amazed how many we sold! Under the Autobus banner the product was only ever about 70% but the back up was120%, people loved us for it.’ ‘We established the mark and level of service and Optare improved the quality and helped finish the package. It was built more efficiently and cost effectively.’
Alan remained with Optare until April 2004 then set up Alan White Coach Sales and became an Optare agent. He was also Deputy Chair of the Suppliers Section at the CPT until 2004 and continues to be a member with Minis to Midis.
Minis to Midis
Later that year, Alan was approached by Danny McGee at Esker to become their UK agent. He felt that the company wasn’t big enough to handle the importation side of the business and so he joined them as General Manager to oversee the sales in England and Wales, which he did under consultancy of the Minis to Midis brand having since closed Alan White Coach Sales. The contract was for three years but he remained for three and a half.
At that time Minis to Midis was a used vehicle website being operated by his wife Kathryn and his two sons. The used vehicle sales model that they started has since been copied by the industry and although they will accept part exchanges against new models, second hand vehicles aren’t something that they actively push. As Alan explained, ‘We aren’t a second hand dealer, although we do get calls all the time for them. Our intention is to move them through and not have a stock as such.’
At the end of the consultancy contract, Alan became an agent for Esker selling their vehicles until 2009 when Esker ceased trading. The focus then switched again to Optare products and to Caetano UK selling the Toyota Optimo. Once Unvi decided to import directly to UK, they appointed Minis to Midis as their agent as essentially it was the same products that Esker had sold and the Optare range was relinquished due to conflicting products. From 2009 to 2012, Minis to Midis was essentially an Unvi and Caetano UK dealer.
Due to internal issues and the logistics of how part of the operation was managed, it didn’t suit Alan’s business model and with this in mind they looked for another company to match their profile, although Alan admits that in 2012 he did consider retiring!
He had met Mark Noone in the past through his Irish connections at Esker and knew he was launching a Vario based coach, the Turas 800. He also agreed a deal with Paramount Conversions and pulled out of the Unvi dealership completely. By September 2012 he was a Noone and Paramount dealer. The projected sales for the T800 was 15-20 for year one in Britain. They sold 100 in 14 months, between themselves and Noone.
Next to follow in the range was the Sprinter based Turas 500, which was also coach built. Noone also decided to launch their own Sprinter conversion range branded Turas 500C and because of the conflict in interest, Alan stopped working with Paramount. There are three ‘lines’ to the T500C; the mid luxury M line, the Hi line and top of the range Top line. In April 2014, the last of the T800s came off the production line and so in 2014, the conversions were a key part of their business.
There are two new products on the market this spring which will complete the range. The Turas 900 is built on a Mercedes Benz Atego 9.5 tonne truck chassis where the driver is normally seated to the side of the engine. Noone’s innovative design means the driver is now positioned further back and the nearside entry door allows easy access for driver and passengers.
Although it is not a direct replacement for the Vario, they wanted to retain the high teens mpg it achieved, whilst keeping a low GVW. Alan referred to it as an ‘Enhancement from the Vario product’ saying that because the Vario was a somewhat dated but well proven chassis, the Atego offers a more refined solution. At 2.4m width, it is still suitable for many operators in rural locations and having up to 33 seats plus courier, it is a serious contender for the new ADL Cheetah. It offers up to 6m3 of luggage space so is also ideal for airport runs. There are various specifications available but with Noone’s and Minis to Midis’ wealth of experience and market knowledge they are confident that they know what customers want from a midi coach of this type.
The T900 prototype was first revealed at Euro Bus Expo in November where it gleaned a lot of interest and pre-orders. Due to its popularity, they already have orders to fulfil that will take them to July. They are being built by Erduman Automotive in Turkey and not the Portuguese company Irmaos Mota who have developed the rest of the range. The first are expected to roll off the production line at the end of the month and full details will appear in a later issue of Bus and Coach Buyer so I won’t go in to too much detail here. It is worth noting however that the styling has been refined since Euro Bus Expo to offer a sleeker, more streamlined look with ‘a less prominent nose’
The projected sales for year one were 70 vehicles and they already have orders for 50, with three more coming in on the day that I visited Alan. Although this sounds as they are well on course to achieve their target, one must consider the seasonal buying market for this type of vehicle.
Joining the range imminently is the Turas 700 that, breaking away from the rest of the range, is built on an Iveco chassis by Irmaos Mota. It was launched at the show with 27 seats plus courier but after assessing the weight, it was realised that 29 seats plus could be accommodated with a slight increase in length. Alan explained that the T700 was essentially the T800 body, adapted to fit the Iveco 70c17 (7.2tonne) chassis. With the exception of three pieces, the glass set is the same as the T800, which Alan points out, ‘is good from a service support perspective.’
By the end of this month the Turas will have become a full product range in less than three years. They are so confident about the quality of their vehicles, that they offer a two year warranty and should an operator wish to sell their Turas back to Minis to Midis five years after purchasing, they will offer them 50% of its original net value in part exchange subject to normal appraisal, assessment and mileage conditions.
The core of Alan’s business has always been in the south, which he says stems from his childhood spent with relatives in the south and being familiar with the area when ‘everybody else wanted to cover their local area’. The business now is very much UK focussed although Northern Ireland is serviced by Noone. Alan stressed. ‘Service support is key to continued business with customers, you’ve got to look after people.’
They have a body support service network in place with two more service agent appointments pending that will take the number to eight covering from Scotland to the south coast of England and Wales.
The Midland’s region is covered by themselves from their Doncaster base with Alan’s brother, Steve, who has a previous service and sales background but trained as a commercial vehicle fitter. GB Fleet Maintenance (Golden Boy) is the main agent just north of London.
Being a family run business is something that Alan is very proud of. He says, ‘it is typical of this industry and makes it more personal, you don’t turn your back on customers, You never get it 100% right all of the time but if you’re working for someone else you can step away, when you own the company you own the problem and go that extra mile. We take pride in everything we do.’
His wife Kathryn, whom he refers to as ‘the real unsung hero’ and himself are the sole owners. Kathryn’s area of expertise is accounts and administration and they have worked together for many years, she was responsible for putting Autobus Classique sales system through its ISO 9001 certification. Their son Jamie is, in Alan’s words ‘there by default’ and is responsible for managing parts and stock. Although their other son, Tim, doesn’t work for Minis to Midis, he was instrumental in setting up the IT systems and website with his wife who also previously held a role within the company.
Steve White is the Operations Manager and his partner Linda Trees also works in an administrative role within Minis to Midis. They are currently looking for a full time Sales Administrator, another sales person and possibly a workshop trainee to join the team.
They outsource some of the lead generation to a telemarketing company that specialise in the coach and bus industry.
Alan will be 63 this month and the subject of retirement is never too far away. He says that ‘when the time comes it isn’t essential that it stays in the White name’ as he is aware that it probably isn’t something that either Jamie or Tim would want to continue. Interestingly, Alan has another son who works in the industry, Paul Gardiner, who recently became the General Manager at MAN. Alan went on to say that ‘Noone is also a family run business and we have a very close working relationship. We would like it to remain a family business and we would have to have the conversation with them before making any decisions though we do not see that as imminent in the near future.’
Outside of work, Alan likes to go walking, particularly in Scotland although he loves Guernsey and has been returning there since a school trip, aged 12. He used to own a Harley Davidson which would be used for weekend jaunts, but he hasn’t had one for four years now and these days he prefers to use his car. He and Kathryn are both National Trust members and spend a lot of time exploring their properties.
When I asked him what he would like to do when he retired, his answer rather surprised me, ‘I would like to write a children’s book. It would be an adventure story based in the woods with all the animals.’
So, what grinds the gears of someone with an urge to write a children’s novel? Alan, needed little time to answer, ‘Poor service, in anything. Being polite costs nothing. If you were to ask Kathryn, she’d say rubbish, she hates seeing litter all over the place.’ A tour of the showroom area confirmed this with an array of spotless, perfectly labelled, recycling bins placed in the corner.
Five interesting facts:
- ‘As a teenager I was quite a useful goalkeeper representing school, Doncaster Youth League and Doncaster Rovers.’
- ‘I spent five years in the British Transport Police and was voted top recruit in the country in 1973 upon completing the 2 year probationary period.’
- ‘Although a keen walker who had completed the three peaks of Yorkshire amongst others by 21, climbing my first Munro, Schiehallion, had to wait until 2008 when I was 56 and Snowdon until March 2014. Of course our company secretary had to accompany me on both occasions.’
- ‘On my father’s side we originate from Cork in Ireland. My great grandmother was Catherine Collins who married Owen White. She was a cousin of the famous/infamous Michael Collins’
- ‘My fame from the much missed annual Brighton Coach Rally came not from the coaches I displayed or the trophy sponsored or the amount of alcohol I did not drink, but from part of my attire. I always brought a selection of hats to suit all weathers and often got to wear them all in the same weekend. I seem to recall Mr. Jones once snapping me off guard whilst wearing a ‘Tilley’ or similar in the sunshine enjoying an ice cream. Those were the days.’
Alan is in the process of leasing another unit across the road which will then become the showroom and the current premises will remain as the head office, parts and handover area.
To view some of the Turas range, visit Alan and his team at Unit 8, Guildhall Industrial Estate, Sandall Stones Road, Kirk Sandall, Doncaster, DN3 1QR.
To make an appointment call 01302 892060 or email: [email protected]