Operator Focus – Roaring to sporting success
The team behind Country Lion explores what it’s like carrying Northampton’s top sports teams.
Lions have long been associated with sport; England’s football squad being one example. Unfortunately, three lions on a shirt may not have transported the country to the success it dreamed of in last year’s World Cup, but there is another lion that has brought teams to sporting victories. Namely Country Lion, an operator well known to sports fans in its native Northampton, where it carries the area’s top teams to their fixtures.
Taking sports clubs to cup finals is perhaps one of the most exciting jobs in this industry; transporting squads across the country to decide their fate on the playing field. But what is it really like? The family behind Country Lion gives an insight.
Like a few sports teams, the operator uses the lion as its emblem, as is apparent on entering the company’s depot. Not only is the big cat featured on its livery, but ornaments, pictures and even full-size statues of the feline festoon the site. The theme even continues into the management team’s office, which has a tawny colour scheme reminiscent of a lion’s pelt.
Sat around the management table was Dan O’Dell, Richard Bull and Julie Bull, the latter being the wife of the late John Bull, founder of Country Lion. Joining them was Michelle Cox and Paul Shaw, the Transport Manager and long-time team coach driver. Paul is perhaps well qualified to talk about driving team coaches, as he is nearing his 30th year working for the firm.
Country Lion provides transport for a number of Northampton’s sports teams, including Northampton Town FC (the Cobblers), Northampton Saints rugby squad and the area’s local cricket team. With the latter sport being played in summer, it provides a handy fill-in for when the other two are between seasons.
League fixtures give good regular work, but tournaments can prove harder, especially finals that attract more supporters. Michelle said: “The requirements of finals can be challenging. When the Saints played in Twickenham recently, we subsidised travel for supporters.”
Paul added: “We provided 70-plus vehicles. And the customers report to us for all of them, so they only have one point of contact.”
What is it like directing such a considerable amount of coaches? “It comes second nature to us,” answered Paul. “It’s routine. We have a list of suppliers we would use. It takes a few weeks to organise. We have staff down there at the destination on the day to help with the vehicles.”
A Plaxton Elite based on the Volvo B11R and a Plaxton Panther with the Volvo B8R chassis are dedicated to transporting teams. Both are specified with five tables in the saloon, wifi, serveries, USB sockets, microwave and DAB radio. Michelle said: “Clubs are very happy with them.”
There is also a Plaxton Cheetah XL that can be used for transporting smaller teams. It is a 27-seater with toilet. Michelle said: “We use this for youth or reserve teams. It has all the same facilities as the other ones. They do like that.”
Dan added: “We have an identical one coming. It’s proving popular. It’s done things like proms too.”
“Next week, it’s going to be transporting a school’s under-15’s team,” said Michelle. “They like it because it’s like they get the same treatment as the Saints. It also goes to places like Ascot; it gives that extra luxury.”
Julie also said it is used on Country Lion’s Cloud Nine Holidays services too, a coach day trip provider the operator took over in 2006.
It was John Bull, the founder, that began Country Lion’s association with transporting sports teams back in the ‘90s. He was heavily involved with the local rugby scene, having been an amateur player himself. Julie said: “He knew several people who played for the Saints.”
Michelle added: “He had business links and he got the contracts through his connections in town.”
She continued: “We have been doing the team transport for so long, it just works like clockwork. One thing we do is that with all of the teams, we have a regular driver. They are drivers with knowledge of where they are driving to.”
Dan said: “We have one that has been to every ground in the country apart from perhaps six.”
How challenging is it to run these services? Michelle answered: “Actually, the team coaches are one of the most simple things to deal with. It’s just a case of arranging timings and hotel stops.”
Paul said: “What helps is that the drivers are supporters of the team they are transporting”
Michelle said: “Our team drivers do take real pride.”
Being a team coach driver is considered one of the most prestigious jobs at Country Lion and is not one typically given to new employees.
Michelle said: “We ensure all drivers know that’s something they can aspire to. We have a senior and second driver for these services, for all the teams we do. It is something they have to work to and show interest in. The drivers on these services tend to be there for the long run. For instance, Paul has been transporting the Saints for ten years now.
Michelle said: “The level of professionalism on these services is the same level we put in for any other contract or service. We have good support staff to back us up.”
We are passionate about it
“We are passionate about it,” Julie said. “We focus on service delivery. We think that if we do something well, our customers will be more likely to do it with us again.”
Above and beyond
Country Lion’s clients certainly seem to keep on returning. Explaining what sets it apart from other operators, Michelle said: “There are certain accreditations we go for that others don’t. We have achieved the DVSA’s Earned Recognition accreditation. We are the only operator in Northamptonshire with Earned Recognition. We hope the quality of our vehicles background is the highest in town. We have also signed up to BUSK Benchmark.”
Julie said: “It takes a lot of hard work to make sure the standard is right.”
Dan agreed: “We are not scared to work hard. We pride ourselves in that.”
Michelle said: “It’s like when the council required us to have CRB checks for our services, we were already doing that anyway. They actually put other operators onto us and we told them the best way to do it. We’re about being ahead of the game.”
One of the tools Country Lion uses to help keep them ahead of the game is Distinctive System’s fleet management software. It also uses Distinctive’s Tour Booking System for running its Cloud Nine holidays. In more recent times it has rolled out the software developer’s workshop management package. For tachograph analysis and processing, it uses TruTac.
Even though Country Lion strives to go above and beyond ordinary operating standards, the team know they do not operate in isolation. Julie said: “We have good relationships with other operators.”
Dan was keen to mention one way it helps out local operators is in its DVSA approved ATF lane. “Other operators can have their MOTs done here. We can do a brake test too.”
Paul added: “We don’t stand here and say we’re better, we try and help out. For Driver CPC training, we often have spaces open to other operators to send their staff. We also try to get other Northamptonshire operators around the table to discuss things. We have our next one planned for this month. It helps keep them abreast of legislation changes. One thing we have decided to do more of is to pass on work to other operators when we get situations where we could take on more work than we can cope with.”
To ensure it has the drivers to deliver such a professional service, Country Lion takes on trainees, instructing them in its high standards in-house. Last year it took on ten such learners.
“We support apprenticeships too,” said Julie. “We have them in the workshop and here in the office. They tend to stay on after their apprenticeships.”
Paul said: “Training staff works well for us.”
Dan agreed: “It’s good; you get new blood into the industry.”
Michelle is passionate about promoting younger people into the business: “We have put in about six new people recently and all bar one was under 30. We make sure they know there is a chance of progression. Paul started as a trainee, through to assistant Transport Manager and on to Transport Manager. The second drivers for the Saints and Cobblers both started as trainees.”
“We’ve probably trained about 50% of them,” said Dan on the current roster of drivers.
“It’s difficult to get drivers,” Michelle admitted. “That’s why we go down the training route. There is a certain personality we look for when interviewing for trainees. We look for people who are enthusiastic and friendly. We always take them for a test drive in a small vehicle to make sure they are of a good enough standard to train. Our staff are our biggest advert, they are what sell Country Lion.”
The operator took on some female drivers recently. “It is a male dominated industry,” Michelle said. “There’s not a lot of female coach drivers around. Our two most recent trainees are both female, but no allowances are made because they are not male. They are both doing really well. I’ve noticed they have mellowed the male drivers a little. They have changed the canteen culture.”
As well as new trainees joining the operation, Country Lion has also added some new vehicles lately, including some more Plaxtons last October.
Michelle said: “We have started to alter the seating of our coaches. Historically, we have used a lot of 53-seaters. But there is now more demand for higher seating capacities. So we have added two 61-seaters and three 59-seaters. We are finding there is a lot of demand for the high 50s. You can get more people on and make it cost affective. From a school point of view, 70-seaters do well.”
Coaches that can fit over 60 people tend to be popular with their sports team supporter trips too. It means the supporters clubs can sell a few more seats and bring the overall cost of travel per member down.
Julie noted having the larger vehicles gives them more flexibility for the holiday side. “If the holidays really sell well, then we know we can put bigger vehicles on for them.”
Country Lion’s location is good for operating. Michelle said: “We’re well placed. We’re near the town centre and the ring road. We have ease of access to everywhere, particularly the motorway.”
The operation has been at its current Brackmills Industrial Estate base since 2010. Paul remembers the old site well: “We had outgrown the yard we were in. It was split across two buildings and the time had come to move. We wanted room for expansion. When we moved in, we thought we would never fill that much space. But we did.”
Moving with the times
Country Lion continues to grow and move with the times. One way it is going to have to do this is in response to the ULEZ that is about to commence in the capital. “A lot of our private hire goes into London,” Michelle said. To help negate any negative effect this may have on the operator, its range of Euro VI coaches that meet the Zone’s standards is increasing.
“What we always try to do is stay ahead of the game,” said Michelle. “We are just too big to rest on our laurels. We have a varied fleet, so we have enough vehicles in every sector to accommodate requirements.”
Paul said: “Because we have kept up with fleet renewals, it’s not a major issue.”
We take the stance of ‘it is what it is’
Julie said: “We take the stance of it is what it is. You have got to anticipate and plan for it.
“As for the B word, how do you plan for that? Through Cloud Nine, we have good contacts with agents who have a lot of staff in Europe. They are keeping us updated.”
“You can’t sit there and think it might not happen. We have got tours abroad planned past 29 March.”
“We do four trips abroad a year for Cloud Nine,” Paul reports. “But it’s not the bread and butter of our business.”
Country Lion’s main line of work is contract-based, both through private clients and local authorities. Private hire proves popular and gains a lot of repeat business. Paul said: “We did do some local bus work, but it got too competitive. You have really got to be geared up to do that..”
Michelle highlighted one major customer is the University of Northampton and local schools use the operator too. “We have built up a name for being good quality.”
“You only get repeat business if you do things right,” affirmed Paul.
Michele said: “We focus on overall quality. The vehicles are maintained to the highest standards. We work hard to make sure the fleet is being renewed. We make sure the drivers are professional. Our drivers have a smart a uniform regardless of what work they are on.”
“We don’t cut corners,” Dan was quick to say. “We go above the demands of legislation. That was dad’s ethos and we are very much still doing that.”
Part of the pride
The operation itself has grown dramatically since day one. It has diversified, not just running coaches but having a self-drive hire business, ATF lane and the holidays as well.
Julie said: “I think the big turning point was us moving here. That was down to John, but he never got to see it through. It’s not just about the fleet, it’s about the mentality we have here. We are so immensely proud.”
“Dad always looked to the future,” said Dan.
Paul gave an example of this: “When the Olympics came up, he said: ‘It looks like they want transport for the Olympics’. We got in contact and got our name put in the hat for it. We had eight coaches for the Olympics and Para-Olympics and it was very successful. John was planning it two years before he died.”
Remembering her father-in-law’s attitude to the family business, Michelle said: “He certainly did not let anyone have an easy ride. Dan swept the yard to begin with. He wanted us to learn every aspect of the business from the bottom up. We don’t expect anyone to do something we ourselves wouldn’t do. Drivers respect that.”
Testament to this attitude, Dan said the company is operating 13 more vehicles than 15 years ago. It now has an O licence for 70 vehicles, but currently operates 54. Michelle said: “We believe we can operate a bigger fleet to the same standards.”
Its 54-strong fleet is predominantly Volvo-based Plaxtons. Dan explained this preference: “My dad had a good relationship with Plaxton. His first ever new coach was a Plaxton. They’re British built and they look after us really well.”
There is a focus on being a ‘green’ operator too. It has installed LEDs to illuminate the workshop. Effort has also gone into training drivers to be more fuel efficient. It has used a telematics system from Verilocation, a Northampton business, to monitor driver behaviour in this respect.
Looking towards the future, Country Lion is to expand its workshops in the next 12 months and is always on the lookout for ways to expand the business. Michelle said: “In the same way that John looked to the next generation, hopefully our children will take over.”