Sharpes of Nottingham
Van Hool enthusiasts
Journalists were invited to an event at Leicestershire’s spectacular Belvoir Castle, hosted by Sharpe’s of Nottingham and Arriva Bus and Coach Sales.
Their relationship has been forged over a number of years, and the purchase of five Van Hools, and the occasion provided an opportunity to view some of the fleet and meet representatives from both companies, whilst enjoying the hospitality and stunning setting of the castle.
Prior to the event I went to Sharpes’ depot in Cropwell Bishop, Nottinghamshire, famed for its stilton creamery, to meet the Sharpe family and find out about their operation.
Sharpes of Nottingham is one of the coaching industry’s success stories, having started with three used vehicles in 2004 and grown to the 50 plus fleet it owns and operates today.
The patriarch of the family is Trevor Sharpe and along with his wife and four sons, they have over 100 years of combined experience in the industry.
Buses have always been in the blood; Trevor’s father was a part time driver, taking workers to steelworks near Barton in North Lincolnshire and Trevor spent much of his time hanging around in the yard. When he moved to Nottinghamshire, the ‘lad next door’ drove buses and so Trevor’s enthusiasm for them continued. Whilst working for Odeon cinemas, he took on a part time driving position with Lamcote Motors Limited, of Radcliffe upon Trent, who put him through his test.
Lamcote Motors also traded in used cars, but it was the coaching side of the business that was financially successful. Twenty years after having joined them, Trevor left his job at Rank Film Organisation to become the Traffic Manager for the company, staying with them for ten years before taking a Transport Manager’s role with Silverdales of Nottingham in 1995.
Trevor and his wife Joy knew the Brown family from Eddie Brown Tours socially through the industry. Trevor realised that he wanted to operate his own vehicles and following a passing conversation with Philip Brown he set up the Nottingham branch of the company, with two of Eddie Brown’s coaches.
In 2004, Trevor and Joy, along with their sons, Russell, Neil, Simon, and James, set up Sharpe and Sons (Nottingham) Limited with three ex Shearings B10M Volvo Van Hool Alizee Coaches. Two of these were converted by Volvo Bus, Loughborough to allow disabled access. They soon acquired two schools and a works contract and shortly afterwards, purchased the business that they had grown and developed from Eddie Brown, increasing their fleet to thirteen.
Present Day Operation
Today they operate 24 contracts a day, employing over 30 full time drivers. Including part time drivers and family members, some of whom drive daily contracts anyway, they have somewhere in the region of 45 drivers on their books and at full capacity, can have 35 coaches out at once.
Operations Director, James and MD, Neil jointly run the business on a day to day basis, with Neil’s wife Claire looking after the accounts. Simon’s area of expertise is finance and Russell runs his own heating and ventilation project management company alongside his involvement with Sharpes. Neil also used to be a heating and ventilation engineer as well as having a talent for painting and along with Russell, designed the original livery. James told me how he had worked his way through the ranks, starting off as a cleaner and commented that knowing all aspects of the operation gives him a better understanding in his current role.
Most of the quoting is still done by Trevor but his real passion is the tours and excursions which he admits that the boys are less interested in. He still drives many of them himself and had taken a tour the previous day to Buckingham Palace Gardens. He was due to go to Germany the following week.
Joy accompanies him on many of these excursions as a courier and her knowledge of attractions is to be commended. Her genuine interest in the places that she visits has helped her to retain this information and has proven most useful when compiling the tour programme.
Tours and excursions represent only 8% of the total operation and they are aware of the declining numbers but will continue to offer them whilst they are still profitable. Trevor commented that it is frustrating when they have to cancel trips due to lack of interest but fortunately this doesn’t happen too often. They always go and visit the attraction first and offer four star accommodation. This, coupled with the fact that they try where possible to offer an ‘all inclusive’ price, has made them a successful tour operator with many regular customers.
The’ bread and butter’ of their business comes from school contracts, whether it is delivering local children to neighbouring schools or taking them on excursions. Trevor commented on how competitive the market is and very price driven. There are 17 double deckers in the fleet which are used mainly for the daily school runs. Among them are 13 ex-Dublin Alexander RH Volvo Olympians, and two MCW Metrobuses that are still in operation but Trevor has earmarked for preservation.
Trevor is pleased with the level of business and the number of quotes coming in. They have invested in some ‘top end’ vehicles and are expanding the corporate side of the business. They recently transported 15 Americans who were staying at Claridge’s Hotel to Yorkshire for a shooting party.
Stag and hen parties are not something they will entertain. James commented, ‘We offer a quality presentation and personal service. When we take a job on we see it through. Dad taught us that.’
CPC training is out-sourced and is an ongoing process. Trevor is keen that they cover a variety of topics which makes the task more interesting and informative, as well as reiterating the legal implications required, such as driver hours.
Sharpes’ progress and expansion has been rapid and they are looking to relocate from their current premises, which they have outgrown. They currently rent four sites, three of which are on the small industrial park where they are based. These include offices, a garage area and vehicle storage. The heritage fleet is kept at a separate location as the day to day juggling of vehicles is already a logistical nightmare. Finding the right premises is proving difficult as they want to be able to continue with the local contracts that they have established. Expansion would open up more business opportunities to them, one of which would be the vehicle maintenance side of the business. Trevor commented that Sharpes’ is ‘all about the vehicle, not the site.’ He went on to say, ‘we never thought we would buy brand new vehicles, it’s a great feeling when we have a new addition to the fleet.’
James, the Operations Director has the arduous task of scheduling the vehicles and contracts and he is assisted in this with the use of a Fleetmatics tracking system. At the moment, they do not have a telematics system that monitors driver behaviour as they have believe that they employ drivers that care about their job and the vehicle.
There are twenty one Van Hools in the Sharpes fleet and five of these have been supplied new by Arriva Bus and Coach, three of which were available to ride on and view at Belvoir Castle. Three were specified by the company and two were purchased from stock. Those to their own requirements have very high specifications which they go through line by line with Van Hool from the vast range of finishes and add-ons available.
Laura Finnigan , Marketing Manager of Arriva Bus and Coach commented, ‘You notice an immediate difference when dealing with Sharpes’, they clearly have a very high standard.’
I asked Trevor what it was that he liked about the Van Hool range and he said that the quality, price, customer service and financing options were excellent and that he had no plans to change manufacturer, ‘particularly now we have the full set!’. ‘We have nine Volvo B12B Alizees in our fleet and these are our workhorses, we have a vehicle for everyone.’
The latest addition to their fleet is a 2015 49 seat, Euro5, Van Hool Alicron DAF stock vehicle, which they have re-registered with an appropriate personalised plate (SH14 RPE). It is equipped to the Van Hool Executive specification.
Trevor is most proud of their 2015 Van Hool Astron TX17 with Paccar/DAF engine which is the only Euro6 coach in their fleet and says that this is his ‘best vehicle to date.’ The tri-axle is a fully executive ‘Sharpes’ specification with toilet, drinks servery, refrigerator, DVD-entertainment system, climate controlled air conditioning and 59 reclining seats with foot and arm rests.
I travelled to Belvoir Castle in the Van Hool TDX21 Altano Club Class coach which is sometimes used by the Notts County Ladies first team. This is an MAN-powered 60-seat executive coach with EEV engine. It has provision for a single fixed wheelchair in the lower saloon and twin staircases. Extras include tables, satellite television, power sockets and luxury leather seating with arm rests. Earlier this month Notts County Ladies participated in the first Ladies FA Cup final to be played at Wembley, losing by the only goal to Chelsea. Arriva has also supplied a TD921 Altano DAF corporate hospitality coach with an even higher specification used by the Notts County men’s first team.
The biggest vehicle in the fleet, which was also available to view, was the Van Hool Astromega TDX27 double decker. This DAF tri-axle is Euro5 and Sharpes’ have reconfigured it to 81 seats to allow for more leg room and a fixed single wheelchair. This has twin staircases and has also been specified to Sharpes’ full executive standards, which they refer to as ‘platinum service’ standard and includes reclining leather seats and bespoke kitchen. It is also worth noting that they also have a 2011 Van Hool TD927 Astromega, MAN double decker in the fleet.
Some of the fleet are also award winning. Sharpes have taken part in driver challenges at the UK Coach Rally, 2012 was a particularly successful year with three major awards won. They have exhibited for a number of years at Showbus, coming back with some impressive silverware for both their modern and heritage fleet, members of which include a 1973 AEC Reliance Plaxton Elite III once operated by Lamcote, a London Transport RT, a Van Hool Alizee and a 1971 Duple Viceroy bodied Ford R192 that has never been registered.
Having a fleet of over 50 vehicles and just one garage bay makes for a skilled and meticulously planned vehicle maintenance programme. They operate a four weekly maintenance cycle and employ four full time garage staff – two engineers, a technician and a body specialist. The quality of their vehicles is something that they are highly regarded for and they are proud to have VOSA green pass rate. As well as support from Arriva and Volvo at Bardon, they also have their own Vehicle Support van.. They don’t have a pit so all inspections and maintenance is done using a Somers Totalkare vehicle lift. Ideally they would like a four bay system, including one that would be allocated as a body shop and one designated as an approved ATF lane so that they could MOT their own vehicles and offer the service to other coach operators.
Introducing new systems and technology is something that Trevor sees Sharpes’ developing in the future. They currently don’t offer Wifi onboard any of their coaches as it hasn’t been client specified, but he expects that it will be something that they will have to invest in, in the future.
A lot of their contract work is school services, particularly for those outside of the designated catchment area. James is looking at ways they can reduce the amount of cash that the drivers are responsible for by setting up a ‘pass’ system, whereby students can have a weekly, monthly or annual ticket. This is something that has been driven by the parents and although James realises that it is unlikely that on these services the system could be completely cashless, as not everybody could afford or would want to pay in advance, operationally it would save a huge amount of time.
When pressed on his personal plans for the future, Trevor said that ‘I won’t ever retire,’ but would like to spend more leisure time with Joy travelling. Next year is their Golden Wedding anniversary and they have organised to take the family to two nights in Ypres and a further two nights in Disneyland Paris. Outside of travelling on their own excursions, Trevor and Joy enjoy cruising.
Asked about the future of coach travel, he commented that ‘it is often seen as second class travel’ and admitted that he doesn’t know how to change people’s perception without actually getting them on to a vehicle. If anyone who thought that had travelled on the Club Class Van Hool I was on, I genuinely believe that they would have changed their opinion. Trevor believes Internet Wholesalers have a lot to answer for and are destroying the reputation of many good operators by sending shoddy vehicles, IF they turn up at all. He added, ‘You can’t take experience and reputation away.’
On the subject of progress he is happy with how the operation is running and said ‘we will continue as we are, offering the best vehicles and the best service. We will work together and look at things on a day to day basis.’
Being a family run business is important to Trevor and he has already intimated that the Sharpe name will continue for another generation, as with five granddaughters, four grandsons (which I am assured are ‘bus mad’) and another on the way, The Sharpe name should continue for many years to come.