– 70 years of family service
Richmond’s Coaches of Barley in Hertfordshire is a family business in every sense of the word. Not only have three generations of the Richmond family run it since former RAF Wellington pilot, Harold Victor Richmond (known as HVR), acquired the operations, fleet and premises of A Livermore in July 1946, but generations of other families have worked for them.
Among today’s staff of around 60 there are multiple members of many other families including: father and son, Pat and Jack in the workshops: father and son, Rick and Craig in the management team; mother in law and daughter in law, Audrey and Lisa in the office; father and son drivers, Jim and Alan; and father and son, driver and mechanic, David and Scott, in addition to which there have been many other father, brother, son and cousin combinations in the past.
In this their 70th anniversary year, the third generation is at the helm. Former MD, David Richmond and Engineering Director, Michael Richmond now take more of a back seat, working one and two days a week respectively, while David’s son, Andrew has become MD, daughter Diane is the Tours Manager and Michael’s daughter Emily is the accountant with her sister, Natalie Hyndman, working three days a week handling quotations and bookings.
Andrew told me something about the company, what it does and how it operates, as well as passing on some of his thoughts about the industry when I met him at Barley recently.
Andrew started his career working for Armchair Passenger Transport under Simon Newman as a student on placement in 1989, subsequently joining them. Apart from being laid off for a short period in 1991 as a result of the Gulf War, he stayed until 1997 when he joined the family firm, initially working alongside his father and uncle along with the rest of the office team.
He commented, ‘There was no pressure on me to be involved and I suppose it made me more interested in being involved. I think it was a good thing I did something else first. There were lots of other things I could have done instead but I don’t regret coming into the business. We have a very stable business and that stability is valued by everyone, a very important thing in today’s world. I’ve high earning friends in the city and tomorrow they could be out of work.’
In total there are around 60 staff today, 37 of whom are full time drivers, operating a fleet of 29 coaches on 30 licences. Andrew believes having a large full time driving force is rather different to the way many operators work. ‘We have a very good team around us, not only of drivers but also in the workshops and the office. It comes from us being an approachable family. Anyone can ask us if they have a question and they will always get an answer. We are all, without exception, out to do the best we can to give the customer what they want, whether they are on bus services, private hire or excursions.’
It is Andrew’s philosophy that managers manage, the maintenance team maintains, drivers drive and cleaners clean, and to this end a full time team of five cleaners is employed working a four days on, two days off roster system so that there is always a cleaner on the premises from 05.00 to 22.00 daily. Despite this, I noticed a lot of drivers doing little cleaning jobs on their coaches. It explains why you never see a badly presented Richmond’s coach and rarely see a dirty one unless the weather makes it unavoidable. The cream and brown livery dates back to the time of Livermore’s, although the brown they used was apparently a little darker, and for a while in the 1960s and 1970s an all cream scheme was used. The winged emblem harks back to HVR’s RAF days with his initials added in the centre.
There is a maintenance team of four full timers. They are kept busy in the well equipped four bay workshops, with their immaculately painted floors. These have a variety of stores and offices off to one side in what had originally been a stable block. There are no apprentices at the moment, though there have been in the past and both Scott and Patrick undertook their apprenticeships in Barley.
Staff turnover is low and many individuals have been with the company for a very long time. Jim has been with Richmond’s since 1977 and Rick since 1978. The longest serving of the cleaning staff, David has been in the role since 1984.
A contributory factor in the retention of staff may be the fact that drivers are generally trained by the company. This training is carried out in Peterborough using one of Richmond’s’ own coaches. Praising the team for their loyalty, Andrew believes in-house training ensures people are ‘trained in our ways without preconceptions. They do more basic jobs until they gain experience and work through in terms of quality of vehicle and work.’
The Richmond’s Coaches workload is infinitely varied. They avoid stag and hen trips like the plague and don’t tend to do football and rugby work but apart from that they do pretty much anything and everything with all ages and nationalities catered for. The private hire side includes UK and continental touring, including a small amount for a tour company with which there is a longstanding relationship, cruise ship transfers, rail replacement, conferences and corporate work. As well as this there is a lot of niche private hire for clients across a wide area and regular work for inbound and outbound groups.
Both day excursion and British and Continental tour programmes are operated in their own name. HVR had run a tour programme back in 1946 though this was discontinued during the 1980s along with the day excursions. What saw excursions reintroduced was the acquisition of the fleet of Smiths of Buntingford in February 1994 which had its own programme and this was followed in 2003 by the reintroduction of tours, around 30 of which will operate this year. The excursion side is now quite extensive, tying up one or two coaches for the best part of nine months of the year. Very few are cancelled though some might be run with a smaller coach such as one of the TX11s and at the other end some departures need two coaches or the use of a double decker.
Discussing the state of the industry, Andrew said, ‘The operating environment is still tough. It always has been going back for generations. A lot of people have a negative viewpoint and while it definitely hasn’t got any easier it is difficult to quantify whether it has actually got harder or just presents different challenges. The expectations of the travelling public are a lot higher; if you look at the standard of vehicles supplied now compared with the 1970s and 1980s it is completely different and they just expect it as the norm. There’s a lot less tolerance of anything going wrong, whereas in the past they would just have accepted things. There are a lot of human elements in the job and it places a lot of pressure on drivers, making it difficult for them. For example trying to drop off and pick up, nobody gives any thought to how a coach is going to get in to pick up. As an industry we do a very good job for the consumer. I don’t believe anybody goes out to do a bad day’s work, from whatever company, they try to do their best; but it’s not always seen as that. I don’t think there’s anything you can do to change it. Planners don’t want to listen because they want to pack whatever it is into as small a space as possible.’
‘The other thing that’s going to be a major problem is air quality legislation and the political climate around it. It’s very easy to ban us from somewhere or impose a ULEZ, something that will grow because it is a populist vote, but actually we are part of the solution. Somehow it needs to be rammed home that if local bus services are allowed into a zone, the private hire or contract coach should be allowed too because it is bringing the same benefits to the community, only in a more bespoke manner than an individual buying a ticket on a bus. I think it will become a bigger challenge.’
Andrew continued, ‘Traditionally we do a lot of work in London. London is the biggest destination in the country with all of the attractions, theatres and museums. Everyone wants to go there. We both take people there and pick up from there. We’ve done less to London this year than for many years. Demand has diminished. A London operator told me yesterday that London tourism is down 35% this year. We had a lot of cancellations earlier in the year after Brussels and Paris. We have a lot of regular incoming groups that have postponed for a year and we believe a lot of the demand has evaporated on the back of the perceived terrorist threat to Europe. From the other side of the globe we are perceived as Europe. A lot of people who were coming were taking in London as part of a wider European tour and they have changed their holiday plans.’
‘A lot of UK groups have avoided London, gone to the coast or somewhere else; we have not been taking the volumes of school children to London that we normally do. We have taken people other places instead. I think that the politics played out over the last 12 months over Brexit may have masked a downturn in incoming tourism, even before ISIS made them change their plans. 2012 was disappointing because of the Olympics but from 2013 to 2015 there was an “Olympic bounce factor” but I do think there has been a general decline in tourism this year. The Brexit has got people talking about the UK again, because it has been reported globally, and with the pound being a little bit weaker I’m hopeful that next year will be busier again, unless we get a terrorism act.’
‘Another thing we’ve done less of this year is battlefield tours, despite it being part of the school curriculum, because of the perceived terrorist threat.’
Looking back, though there has always been a degree of variety in the fleet, at any given time one brand dominated. Initially it was Bedford but in 1961 a batch of three Duple Ford 570Es arrived and the marque was then favoured, particularly once the engines gained turbochargers and ‘would overtake any Bedford’ though they needed some notice to stop. From 1982 Volvos with Plaxton and later Van Hool coachwork took over, accompanied by Mercedes-Benz and Toyota minis. Four short Dennis Javelins with Berkhof Axial bodies were bought between 1997 and 2001 and from 2003 Bova/VDL Futura Classics became the norm, accompanied by a pair of Van Hool Alizees in 2005. More Van Hool bodied Volvos were purchased, and though there have been a couple of subsequent secondhand Volvo acquisitions, the last brand new example, a B12BT Van Hool arrived in March 2008. At the same time a pair of DAF powered Van Hool T9 Astron integrals were bought and except for three more Futuras, all new full sized purchases since then have been DAF engined Van Hool integrals.
This year’s three coach acquisitions are all three-axle Van Hool TX integrals purchased through Arriva. Two are 13m 53-seat TX16 Astrons with toilets and the third, a TX18 Altano, marks a departure for Richmond’s in having 61 seats. Though it has less seating capacity than a double deck Astromega, it has a lot more luggage room and is well suited for tasks such as cruise feeders.
Of the 23 coaches, all but five are either Van Hool bodied or Van Hool integrals, the remainder being three VDL Futuras and two Sitcar Beluga bodied Mercedes-Benz Varios. Richmond’s like Van Hools because they believe they are: ‘strong, durable, everything works, everything is repairable and there is good parts provision. They come in for routine maintenance and go back out again,’ said Andrew, adding, ‘We have them built to order and nothing is too much trouble. They’re also the coach to sell when you’ve finished with them.’
‘With standardisation, we’ve sent people for training which makes them easier to fix because we’re familiar with them. I always try and buy with a crystal ball as to what demand will be when they’re finished with and they have that, probably more so now that big fleets are going for other marques on price. For us they represent a fairly standard image for the customer. They know what they are getting and the value of that shouldn’t be overlooked.’
There is a considerable degree of standardisation across the fleet, not only in the number of Van Hools but in terms of seating capacity. Apart from the two 25 seat Sitcars, the three 38/39 seat midis, the Altano and the five 79/83 seat deckers, everything else has 53 seats, although in most cases it would be possible to accommodate more. It is a conscious decision to keep the single deckers as far as possible under 13m because they are workhorses capable of doing any job and Andrew believes going to 14m would result in reduced manoeuvrability. Everything has air conditioning, an automatic or two pedal transmission, a Webasto pre-heater and a reasonable seat pitch. As Andrew observes, ‘We’ve not crammed more seats in. I’m 6ft 3ins and if I can sit comfortably, our passengers can. I’m not selling something I’m not comfortable with. We carry adults as well as kids and we think legroom is important.’
A feature of the fleet is its use of double deck coaches with five currently operated. The first was a pre-owned 2006 B12B Astrobel 79 seater purchased in 2009, followed by another similar used acquisition in 2011 after which new TDX27 83 seaters were bought in 2013 and 2015 and a former Beestons TDX25 79 seater in December 2014. Operating double deckers is quite specialist, not to mention capital intensive. I asked Andrew what he thought was the secret to making them pay? Apart from saying ‘Get them hired out,’ he said it didn’t work only operating one; you needed a number so that you could cover any eventualities. At Richmond’s they are used a lot on the excursion programme rather than allocating a second coach. On private hire, the key to their success is people’s preparedness to pay a premium over the cost of a smaller coach because they don’t need to hire in two coaches to carry between 53 and 80 people. They are prepared to pay that premium because it still represents a discount on the cost of two coaches. ‘Ours offer good legroom and never fail to impress,’ said Andrew.
He continued, ‘They probably depreciate less than anything else in the fleet. They do require substantial investment because you usually have to buy new; you have to be very lucky to find a good secondhand one – most have been to the moon and back. I have been lucky finding good late ones. You do need to get the money for them when they go out.’
When I asked whether trailers were ever used for additional luggage capacity, David replied by asking whether I had ever tried moving a loaded four wheel trailer?
With the exception of the three deckers mentioned, everything now operated was purchased new. ‘Whatever vehicle we buy new, we always go to the factory to specify it,’ said Andrew. ‘We always try something new; this year it was Allison automatic gearboxes in the Van Hools.’ He also pointed out that, since 2009, all coaches have been specified with separate small fuel tanks to run the Webasto on, ‘because heating oil is cheap and diesel is expensive.’
On the bus side, all six vehicles are Optare Solos of various types. Richmond’s’ first Solo was bought in 2000 and the latest are three Euro6 powered SRs purchased for Hertfordshire County Council’s 386 and 90/91 service between Bishops Stortford and Stevenage via Buntingford last year. Asked why Optare was the preferred supplier, Andrew said, ‘David Gabriel, with his can do, will do attitude, has single-handedly ensured we remain loyal to the brand. One day we rang him for advice and he came down and sorted the problem there and then. The vehicles are well engineered and reliable, the helpline is excellent, parts provision is good, the drivers and passengers like them and they are economical and robust.’ Apart from the new trio there is a 09-plate 21-seater on the HCC contracted Royston town service, a 2013 Euro5 SR on a bespoke station shuttle and a 2005 bus that acts as the spare. The bus driving team is predominantly a separate one, many of whom work a four day week to create flexibility, but there are drivers who like to do both bus and coach work. ‘We have had extremely good feedback and staff commendations for the route we have just taken over,’ said Andrew.
Across the board, Euro6 has created no issues at all, ‘I’ve been pleasantly surprised that there have been no issues and no fuel penalty.’ Already eight vehicles are Euro6 equipped and a further three coaches will hopefully qualify on their year of registration. Asked whether the impending ULEZ had altered buying plans at all, Andrew said, ‘Yes, we’re buying three this year and would probably only have had two. Instead of selling our oldest we sold three 08-plates. We have no choice but to invest or we won’t be in the market,’ he claimed. ‘The problem is the change of mayor and his political gesturing with regard to bringing forward implementation and extending the zone. It makes it very difficult to plan when traditionally we would buy new and look to run them for eight to ten years. Our game plan is to be compliant by 2020. If he brings it forward to 2019 or even 2018, it may prove difficult unless there is a suitable Euro6 retrofit upgrade option available. I’m not aware of one as yet. Were there one available, we might well do some, but that’s four years away. In the long term it might be the cheapest answer. After past experience I’m not that keen on the retrofit option.’
David showed me a chart he produces monthly showing the average cost per mile of vehicles over the preceding 12 months. It logs all vehicle costs including parts and tyres, but not acquisition costs and enables one to be accurately compared with another. There have been instances when one of a number of similar coaches has been shown to perform markedly less fuel efficiently than another. On one occasion one of three similar coaches returned one mpg less than the other pair, and after initial manufacturer checks said that there were no faults it transpired that it was down to the gearbox setting. All three were subsequently reset to the economy setting and not only did the target coach perform more fuel efficiently, so did the other two, albeit to a lesser extent. David reckons, ‘If more firms our size and smaller monitored in this way there would be less going out of business.’
‘As we’ve seen in the last years, the number of small family coach operators is diminishing and will continue to do so,’ Andrew observed. ‘There are no more bus companies to buy so the big groups have started to buy coach companies. It is difficult to be a small coach company and continue to invest. If the critical mass used to be 15 coaches, it has increased. We are somewhere in the middle, not small, not big.’
Richmond’s have been members of CPT for many years and David, who continues to keep an eye on finances, still goes to meetings and sits on committees as part of his role; it is something he enjoys. Andrew claims he doesn’t have time for it but admits, ‘If father wasn’t going, maybe I’d make time; it’s part of the problem with modern life. It used to be a way of getting the information first but now you can get it in a multitude of ways.’
As well as CPT the company is an enthusiastic member of the Guild of Coach Operators having been members since 1986. Andrew is Vice Chairman and claims, ‘I learn a lot through it, with like minded individuals speaking openly and frankly about their own businesses and problems and the solutions they come up with.’ They also use it for training engineers, management and the driver CPC. ‘I think the quality audit side refocuses you. Every so often the audit standard is raised forcing you to change something – which is a good thing. In a small business you can become blinkered. While you may already achieve the standard, the audit makes you focus on providing the evidence.’
The company works with other operators all over the country and enjoys good relationships. ‘If we can help someone, we will. We’re very close to Cambridge, South Mimms and Birchanger Green/Stansted, so if someone has a mechanical issue and needs passengers moving we try and help. We often have a spare driver allocated in the yard on standby for our own purposes so we’re worth a call,’ said Andrew.
Based on his experience in the industry, Andrew believes there are a number of areas the Government could usefully look at to improve things for the industry and its employees. The most important change he’d like to see is to the driver licensing and DBS regulations. He believes the DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) (formerly CRB) clearance should be part a person’s permission to drive a PCV, saying, ‘I don’t see why anyone who isn’t of good character should be allowed to drive a PCV. If you fail a DBS your licence should be automatically revoked.’ David added that having to undertake separate checks for different areas was wrong.
Andrew believes there should also be much stricter planning requirements for hotels, schools, attractions and other facilities to ensure there are suitable pick up points provided for the picking up, dropping off and parking of coaches and buses. ‘So often they are only thought about afterwards and we’re left trying to get a large vehicle into a small hole.’
His final concern related to the construction of cycle ways, and wasn’t as it has been for many, related to the disruption caused in creating them, but to ensure they are built in a manner which is sensible and doesn’t result in bikes merging with large vehicles at unexpected points.
I wouldn’t want to give the impression that Andrew is always complaining, far from it, he is very positive, so what is it that he likes about the coach industry? ‘Every day is different, there’s always a new challenge,’ he said. ‘There’s a lot of job satisfaction when you get a letter, email or telephone call of praise. There are a lot of genuine people involved in the industry across all sectors. The technology is not standing still either; there’s a lot going on and making it interesting that the customers don’t generally see, either on the vehicles or elsewhere.’
I haven’t gone too deeply into the previous history of the company because, apart from there not being room, the family commissioned an excellent book by Paul Carter for the 60th anniversary and anyone who wants to know more would be well advised to purchase a copy. Andrew assures me they have a number available at a cost of £15.00 each. And, though they were almost certainly scrapped decades ago, if you happen to know what happened to any of the three Bedford OBs that the company bought new, registered TMV948, GUR985 and SML958, Andrew would very much like to hear from you.
For Richmond’s Andrew is predicting ‘more of the same’ on the basis that ‘if its not broke, don’t fix it.’
‘We’ll take the opportunities when they come and deal with any knocks along the way because there are sure to be both,’ he said. ‘We’re just honest people trying to do the job right; being right with our customers and right with our staff.’