Consideration has been given in the past to offering brand new minibuses for sale but it has never gone beyond the looking stage. ‘We’ve been through the exercise and decided against it,’ said Wayne. ‘With used we have a broader scope. On new you’d be restricted to a smaller number of conversions. You couldn’t stock enough to meet everyone’s needs. This way, our stock is all different and there’s nearly always something available that will meet the needs of a customer. With used vehicles the majority of customers will compromise a little over vehicle layouts.’
Wayne added, ‘our motto for many years has been, ‘we try to work within everybody’s budget to meet everybody’s needs.’
Having operated for so long, Heatons have built up a formidable body of satisfied customers, many of whom have dealt with the company for years. Though new customers are welcomed all of the time, the vast majority of sales are to buyers that have bought from the business on previous occasions. Ironically, given the money spent on upgrading the premises, Wayne and Philip are finding that many existing customers, perhaps as many as half of them, no longer bother coming to Wigan when they want to buy something. Such is the relationship built up with Heatons over the years that they just ring with their requirements, some pictures of what best matches their needs are sent via e-mail, and delivery to their premises is arranged, wherever it is across the country.
Customers come from a variety of sectors. Apart from operators there are local charities, nursing homes, schools and the occasional private user. Some business is done with Community Transport operators, including deals in both the week I visited and the previous one. What they are looking for depends heavily on the level of funding they enjoy. Some are buying at a year old, others would buy eight year old buses if they could.
The intention is that dealing with Heatons should be as pleasurable experience as possible. ‘We’re quite relaxed. We try to treat people how we would want to be treated. There’s never any pressure,’ said Philip. ‘And if a problem should arise after we’ve sold a vehicle, our approach is to ask how they think we should sort it out.’
Wayne agreed, emphasising how important he considered it to do what you said you would do. If he says a vehicle will be ready for a certain time and date, it is. Delivery of minibuses is subcontracted to another company and he is pleased that they share the same service ethos as the team at Heatons.
Looking at the current state of the market, Wayne commented, ‘it is slower than the norm at the moment but having the extensive customer base that we have ensures we still maintain a steady flow of business.’
Much of the demand is to satisfy the immediate needs of operators that have just been awarded a contract. They hear they have been successful with a tender and come on the telephone to ask what is available within their price range. The same is true for vehicles of all sizes, say Wayne.
You might expect the imminent extension of the London LEZ’s scope to include minibuses would be resulting in additional updating and calls for compliant buses, but what concern has been expressed about enhanced emission credentials because of the zone has been geographically limited to the immediate vicinity of London. Illustrating the point, Wayne said, ‘last week we sold one to the Isle of Skye and two to a customer at Chamonix in France, neither of who were too concerned about the LEZ.’
Finance remains a big issue in the large vehicle market but Heatons are not encountering too many difficulties. ‘Either people have their own credit lines in place or we introduce them to someone. We use all of the leading finance companies. Most customers we’ve dealt with for a long time already have finance in place. We’re lucky we’re not dealing with the big stuff. That must be frightening but the availability of finance is not really inhibiting us,’ said Wayne.
Wayne has always been selective about the used vehicles he buys in and where he buys them from and this care has been heightened, and will become increasingly important, now that Whole Vehicle Type Approval is with us, bringing with it the need to ensure that all of the necessary approval paperwork is in place for each bus.
‘We are all geared up for it and couldn’t survive in the future without being. Some customers don’t appreciate the importance of having everything straight but we do,’ he said. ‘I can’t buy non-compliant vehicles because they would come straight back on me. As soon as a bus went for its local private hire test or an initial certificate of fitness test, it would be spotted and come straight back to me so there is no point in buying non-compliant vehicles. Who the converters are is a major consideration when we are buying vehicles.’
Looking around the yard there were conversions and coachbuilt bodies from the likes of Warnerbus, Stanford, UVG, Euromotive, O&H and Minibus Options, and there are also many other reputable names that Heatons are happy to offer, but at the same time there are some names that Wayne declined to mention that you are unlikely to see on a Heaton stock list.
Customers have the additional reassurance of knowing that every vehicle sold is supplied with a 12 month test certificate. This will either be Class V or PSV as appropriate, so in the unlikely event that there were to be a hitch with documentation it would be resolved before it became a problem for a customer.