Putting it back together
“I’m thinking about items such as front nearside panels,” he says: parts that are commonly needed when a body is damaged in a collision.
“When we contact suppliers we’re regularly told that they don’t have them in stock and that they will have to be made to order, often as it turns out by a small-scale operation that does not produce in big quantities,” he continues. “That can mean a wait of two weeks or more and that’s just plain silly.”
As a consequence the vehicle cannot go back on the highway and start earning money for its owner as soon as it should. “Repairers are also put in a situation where they’ve got jobs piling up that cannot be completed because the parts needed haven’t arrived,” he says.
Johnson is astonished that suppliers should think that such a situation is acceptable and says that hauliers would not tolerate it for an instant. “If a truck is missing a repair part and it fails to arrive on an overnight delivery then they immediately start jumping up and down,” he says.
“Fortunately a lot of the work we do is for a major bus group which has its own in-house repair facilities – we get the overspill – and the people there understand the situation because they experience it too,” he adds.
David Simonds of Banham, Norfolk-based repair shop Full Circle agrees that it is often extremely hard to get parts, but doubts that the situation is any worse than it has been in the past. “It’s always been a nightmare,” he observes.
That is not to say that four- to six-week waits are acceptable.
“Customers have spent well over a quarter of a million pounds to buy a new coach yet we’ve had situations where we haven’t been able to get hold of a front frame in order to get it repaired after an accident for ages,” he says. “That level of performance by suppliers is little short of pathetic although I have to say that Plaxton is the exception.
“Its back-up is brilliant.”
If Britcom has to wait for a part for an inordinate length of time then if possible it will make it itself, a practice adopted by many other bodyshops. “We will certainly repair and re-laminate fibreglass panels wherever we can, but it is sometimes impossible because the damage is too extensive,” Johnson says.
At least parts prices do not appear to be rising across the board at present he says. “However they are less predictable than they were,” he contends.
By contrast, the wholesale cost of paint has soared he states. “I would estimate that it has risen by around 5 to 8 per cent annually over the past four or five years, partly as a consequence of the availability and the cost of the raw materials used, partly as a consequence of the need for manufacturers to comply with tougher legislation,” he observes.
“Paint prices have risen massively and it’s a job to pass them on,” says Simonds.
Passing increases on to customers is never easy Johnson agrees. “Margins are really tight, the cake isn’t getting any bigger and we have to remain competitive,” he says.
“Independent repairers have had a really tough time of it over the past couple of years but fortunately we’re part of a large group that happens to be the UK’s biggest exporter of second-hand trucks,” he continues. “It sends around 1,500 overseas annually.
“As a consequence there’s plenty of in-house repair and refurbishment work we can take on if the retail work goes quiet.
Britcom has plenty of retail work on at present however says Johnson.
It includes two major bus repairs, with two more in the pipeline, plus four coach repaints. “The coach operator told us that he wanted his vehicles looking right because it makes it easier for him to hire them out,” Johnson remarks.
The bus and coach jobs are being tackled alongside a wide variety of truck and plant repair and refurbishment work. “We can’t complain, and all in all I’m cautiously optimistic,” he says.
Dave Hutton, general manager, aftercare at Plaxton, says that while its repair and refurbishment operation is performing well given the current economic climate, there is no denying that margins have been squeezed. “The repair business is cut-throat, no question about it, and a lot of people are battling for what few refurbishment jobs there are,” he comments.
Plaxton is however managing to attract a decent amount of bus refurbishment work, he says. “Operators tend to send their buses in after five years – but only if the condition the vehicles are in means they don’t really have a choice –to have the seat and floor coverings replaced and any minor accident damage repaired prior to a repaint,” he says.
As far as coach refurbishment is concerned, Simonds believes that some operators who might otherwise have replaced their vehicles are having them spruced up instead to save expenditure and so they can keep running them for a few years longer.
“Some operators are hanging on to what they’ve got on the basis that it’s better the devil you know,” says Neale Daniels of Blackpool Coach Services. “If they buy a second-hand vehicle to replace it then they’ll probably have to get it repainted anyway so they may be just as well off refurbishing the one they already own.”
Steve Green, managing director of Brackley, Northants based trimmers Duoflex, believes that a number of operators are having their vehicles re-trimmed internally for the same reason: they do not want to go to the expense of buying new ones. “Some of them may also be improving the interiors of their coaches in the hope that they’ll benefit from work generated by the Olympics,” he adds.
Hutton agrees with Johnson and Simonds that parts can sometimes be hard to obtain. While Hutton and his colleagues can, not surprisingly, usually lay their hands on items for ADL group products rapidly, they are in the same boat as Johnson and other repairs as far as non-ADL vehicles are concerned.
“We have the ability to make some of these hard-to-obtain parts ourselves, but a lot of the time it isn’t cost-effective for us to do so,” Hutton says. “It might for instance cost us £200 to make a locker panel when it would cost us £100 to buy one.
“If we can’t get hold of it for weeks on end however and the customer is waiting for the vehicle then that’s sometimes what we have to do.”
Like Johnson, he does not believe that parts prices are rising to any significant extent. “They’re very much dictated by what the customer is prepared to pay,” he says.
“It is however true that the cost of paint is going up, but that doesn’t mean to say that you can pass on any increases to the customer: far from it. In fact if all you do is paint vehicles I doubt that you’ll be able to make a reasonable margin.”
Getting skilled repairers and painters is easier than it was though says Hutton. “Five years ago you couldn’t recruit them for love or money but they’ve been more freely available since the last recession,” he says.
Daniels believes however that there are fewer skilled people around than there used to be in what remains a specialised trade.
“We’re half-way between York and Hull, both of which are a 45-minute drive away, so it’s quite difficult to attract skilled people from either place,” says Johnson. As a consequence Britcom is growing its own talent.
“We’ve got three apprentices: two in their first year, and one in their third,” he says.
Hiring experienced coach trimmers is not easy either says Green. Furniture upholsters do not always adapt well to the work because the material used to cover bus and coach seats has to be stretched more tightly than the material on lounge furniture in order to make them easy and quick to clean and ensure they look neat.
“That said, some of the leather coach seat trim I’ve seen recently is loose and pleated,” he says. “I would have thought it would attract dirt, but apparently it’s a style that a lot of customers favour and makes vehicles easier to sell.”
“We’ve recruited two new employees and trained them ourselves,” says Neil Fowler, a director of Pickering, North Yorkshire-based Eastgate Coach Trimmers.
Moquette remains the seat trim of choice says Green but the patterns preferred have changed over the years. “It used to be the case that customers wanted either a grey or a brown centre stripe, but these days they’re looking for an all-over pattern, typically using reds and blues,” he says.
“Blue is certainly what they’re going for,” says Fowler.
“We’ve used e-leather on a few vehicles too,” Green continues. “It is easier to work with than standard leather and produces less waste.
“Cutting it isn’t quite the same as cutting moquette but it’s fairly similar, although one of its drawbacks is that it doesn’t actually smell of leather,” he adds.
“We have in fact been sent some stuff that we can use to put a leather smell into it. We haven’t used it yet but we’ll have to give it a try one day: if only out of curiosity.”