UK Minicoaches – The kettle’s always on
It was almost exactly four years ago 21 June 2010 that UK Minicoaches was established at modern premises on Albion Street, Willenhall in the West Midlands. From the outset the operation concentrated on the 16-seat minicoach market, though other capacity vehicles have also been handled from time to time
Adrian Pedley and Gerald Whitehouse have plenty of experience in the sector as both had previously worked together at Holloway Commercials for many years prior to its demise in the adverse trading conditions of 2008-2010
The mantra behind the business is the same as at Holloway. ‘We want people to feel at home and comfortable when they visit,’ said Adrian. ‘There are a lot of businesses that feel they have to get a sale the first time they meet a potential customer or they will never get a sale. That’s their mentality. I believe the days of being pressured into a sale are on the way out and people are more likely to buy if they feel happy rather than under pressure.’ Adrian prefers to build a trust based relationship in which he knows what a customer is looking for and the customer knows that what he or she is offered will meet their needs.
Pretty much the first thing they ask you when you arrive is whether you want tea or coffee. The offices are smart and welcoming, and though Adrian often wears a suit the atmosphere is relaxed. On my latest visit we were sat outside in the sun around a picnic table.
As well as Adrian and Gerald you will almost certainly encounter Bigglesworth when you visit the Willenhall site. He is the company cat and although originally ferrel, he has made himself completely at home, so much so that he has had a small gap in the railings created for him and his own office constructed at the side of the site, leaving and entering as he pleases through his own flap. ‘He’s our rat catcher’ said Adrian. When I asked whether he was any good at it, he retorted, ‘well have you seen any?’
The one member of the team I didn’t see when I was there was Jan Wallis who looks after the books. Another former member of the Holloway team, she was away in Normandy helping veterans of the D-Day landings at the 70th anniversary commemorations.
A significant difference from their previous experience is that they now specialise in a more limited section of the market, avoiding the midi and larger mini sized vehicles. ‘We want to stick with minicoaches out of preference. The people who make up the market are known to us and know us. They know that if we are selling something we’ve checked it and if, for example, there is a problem with the brakes, we’ll have sorted it. We do know what we’re on about. Whilst it means the vehicle won’t be dirt cheap, it also means they shouldn’t get a major repair bill six weeks down the line.’
Adrian says that selling minicoaches is quite a specialised business. ‘Buyers tend to know what it is they are looking for. We get a lot of requests for a bit more luggage space than on a standard minibus,’ he said. ‘They want to be able to carry luggage, whether in a boot or, on smaller vehicles, towing a trailer.’ If the latter is the need, Gerry and Adrian will arrange for a tow bar to be fitted.
‘We mainly focus on 16 seaters because of the size of the yard. That’s what we specialise in,’ said Adrian. Other capacities are still handled, ‘if it falls within the minibus regulations. Nine seats would generally be as low as we go, but we do get asked about eight-seat VW Caravelles and Ford Tourneos and we will look at them.’
A great deal of stock tends to be Mercedes-Benz, mostly Sprinter based, although they still do very well with the Iveco Daily, especially the 45C model. Adrian says that people are less keen on the 40C model because it only has a 4.2-tonne capacity which can be borderline with 16 seats installed. The 40C also tends to have the 2.3-litre engine, ‘which isn’t as good as the 3.0-litre for carrying 16 plus luggage. Adrian added, ‘I like the 3.0-litre on a motorway: when you overtake a truck you don’t get any drag off it.’
In addition to selling their own vehicles, UK Minicoaches also sell on behalf of customers without having the vehicle on the premises. Adrian explains that they prefer to have minicoaches offered on a sale or return basis on site but, ‘if it’s working somewhere, I’ve no problem trying to find a buyer and doing a deal.’
He says that, ‘if people have a choice, they will opt for the Mercedes over the Iveco, purely because of the prestige of the badge. The price difference isn’t enough to swing it to the Daily now. I don’t actually think the Mercedes is that much better a product, although the adaptive brake sensors are a superb feature that should be on every passenger carrying vehicle.’ Adrian thinks TPMS for tyres should also be mandatory.
The company’s preferred broker is Anglo Scottish who handle the majority of the deals for which finance is required, but Adrian still finds that finance can be ‘a bit hit and miss’ for some customers because times are hard on both a business and a personal level. He commented, ‘The country has been through six years of turmoil so, inevitably, if the country suffers the people do too. A lot of operators have been through a lot. Some have experienced relationship issues that have caused a blip on their credit ratings and it has made it difficult for them.’
Current stock levels are lower than they normally would be, with only three vehicles on the premises when I called, though others are expected shortly and further vehicles are on offer through the website.
On site when I called were a 2009 Iveco Daily 45C15 with 146hp three-litre engine and six-speed manual gearbox, factory fitted power door and 16 passenger seats. It had been converted by Excel Conversions and is priced at £17,995. Alongside it was a 2007 LDV Maxus with 16+1 seats. A factory conversion, it had been taken in against a Daily and was offered at £5,995. Also present though it had been sold was a 2006 Sprinter with a Tawe conversion featuring 16 seats, a large boot, drop down monitors, DVD system and blown air, that had realised £16,995.
Shortly to be available will be a new 16 passenger conversion of a 2009 Sprinter 311. For £23,995 this will offer: Prime M2 standard three-point belted seats trimmed in red moquette, the rear row of which will be mounted on tracking; luggage racks with blown air; reading lights; and show curtains. The conversion involves re-plating the vehicles at 3.85 tonnes, taking the original side door off and replacing it with Mercedes-Benz supplied panels inside and out, insulating with fire retardant soundproof matting, fitting bonded windows and trimming the floor in hard wearing easy to clean vinyl. Adding a tow bar would add £240 to the price.
On average, UK Minicoaches has sold around 60 vehicles annually, roughly five a month. The highest number of stock vehicles that has ever been held was 16, but these days the numbers are lower and to match the requirement the size of the yard rented has been reduced with agreement of the landlord, helping to keep outgoings manageable.
The biggest problem the company faces is in obtaining sufficient stock to meet the demand. Adrian explained the problem was that the downturn in 2008-2009 had meant that fewer new minicoaches were registered, and because of this there were less than previously available for resale. A side effect of their relative rarity is that they are commanding prices higher than they otherwise would.
It means that he is very interested in acquiring additional stock either outright or on a brokerage basis. Adrian commented, ‘If someone who has surplus vehicles is looking to buy new and wants to improve their bargaining position, it is well worth giving us a ring.’
Digital v analogue
‘We have concentrated on 2006-2007 vehicles that we have been able to sell at the right price,’ said Adrian. ‘Some people are specifically looking for analogue tachos because 10-15% of buyers are still determined to stay away from digital. They’re looking at pre May 2006. The majority have got over it. People are getting used to it because three years ago the percentage that didn’t want digital was probably still 50%.’
He feels that, ‘there’s a shift in the perception of the running implications of using digital tachographs. Now that the third generation of tachographs don’t round up the minutes, which can make half an hour’s difference in a week, there’s more acceptance of the advantages of going digital, in my perception.’
The best secondhand seller remains the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. Adrian explained, ‘The design always looks modern. The things you don’t see, like the electronic programmes, mean that it is probably the safest to drive. Since 2009, even features like Bluetooth have been standard, as have central locking on a remote, electric windows and all the gadgets you expect on a car. Mercedes-Benz tend to lead the field on equipment levels. They also hold their value well.’
‘The cost of a new Iveco went up considerably in a short period of time, so there is now less incentive to go for the Iveco than there was. Secondhand, the Sprinter is maintaining the previous price differential, which means the Daily doesn’t hold its value as well as it did. The Daily is still a lot of bus for the money though. There’s a lot of space in it, plenty of legroom, a good luggage capacity, great headroom and the width is enough for 2+1 with a generous aisle,’ said Adrian.
Of the Transit he said, ‘Transits are still doing surprisingly well. They have picked up the slack that the LDV left. For a basic minibus the Transit is one of the better ones. It’s more cost effective than the Sprinter, the seats are comfortable, the driving position is good, access isn’t quite as good as the Sprinter because it’s smaller, and availability is better. People know where they are with a Transit and the UK network is good with ready parts availability.’
Although the emphasis is on used, new vehicles have also been sourced for people, though this has tended to be in limited numbers because it has involved lead times of up to six months. A new arrangement with EVM that began in September last year has helped this situation as well as assisting in the generation of additional used stock to sell.
Adrian explained, ‘We have an informal agreement whereby we promote EVM’s new products and help sell their part exchanges. I’m happy to promote EVM minicoaches because it’s a good product. Our customers benefit in short lead times of approximately six weeks, and if required there is access to Mercedes-Benz finance.’
‘EVM offers a full range including the X-Clusive, Avantgarde, Elegance and Classic on the Sprinter. We could also offer their Shuttle and the Sprinter based Landjet, a luxury limousine type coach with eight seats mounted on the 519CDI, if required. With all of the models in their range EVM are happy to build a bespoke vehicle to your specification.’
It is important to Adrian and Gerald that what they sell is right, because their customers expect it. Adrian explained that any necessary work was not done on the premises, ‘We have two companies who handle all of our mechanical repairs. Any such repair is invoiced and the customer gets a copy so that he knows what has been done. We work with a professional paint shop locally who have industrial sized ovens. They do any external cosmetic work for us, generally where vinyl removal has damaged the paintwork. We don’t tend to have vehicles needing repairs. We also use a professional valeting company.’
Though the last four years have been difficult at times, Adrian believes things are getting better. ‘I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet but the signs are that the economy in general is improving. When it does, the Government will start spending in a limited way, it will roll through to local councils and operators will benefit, but it will be a slow process,’ said Adrian. He plans to increase stock levels and repeated his call for anyone with surplus vehicles to contact him.