Ajax Couriers: You have to think big when you are small

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Compliance and best practice are words frequently used in fleet circles and it’s often the bigger players which lead the way when it comes to setting an example on how thing should be done. 

Small businesses that operate just a few vehicles often don’t see themselves as a ‘fleet’ and can fail to realise that both the Corporate Manslaughter Act and health and safety legislation apply to them. 

With a fleet of just 10 vehicles (nine vans and one pool car) it might therefore be easy to regard Ajax Couriers as just another ‘white van man’ operation, but the reality is quite the opposite.

Derek Golding, director of fleet operations at Ajax Couriers, has more than 30 years’ experience in fleet, with transport manager roles in the Army and at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office before he joined Ajax in 2010. 

In the past year he has helped Ajax achieve both the Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme’s (FORS) Bronze and the Freight Transport Association’s (FTA) Van Excellence accreditation – the first business to do so through the FTA’s new Small Fleet Programme, designed for businesses that operate 10 vans or fewer.

It was a slow journey to success for Golding though. While the company was experiencing growth, an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach was required, meaning he spent most of his time on the road, doing deliveries, and had to manage the fleet remotely. Golding explains: “Things had to change. One of our biggest customers started asking us for FORS and others were following suit. We decided these accreditations were best for the company, worked out what we needed to do to get them and put the plan into action.

“Accreditations are good because people see them on our vehicles and it makes us look more professional. It shows we are actually there for the customers.

“We’re not the cheapest company around, but they know they are going to get a quality service from us. Seeing accreditations reinforces that. It shows we are serious about our work.”

It took Golding eight months to get the fleet FORS accredited and then another six months for Van Excellence.

“It was a lot of hard work as there was nothing in place. I was in the office for whole days writing processes, uploading information, making forms up and chasing drivers.

“But we’ve just renewed with FORS and it only took a couple of weeks. If you’re maintaining it properly then it should be easy. When Van Excellence comes up again I think it will be even quicker. 

“Plus my life is a lot easier now, everything is automated or has a set process. If I go away and come back all I have to do is check on the system,” Golding says.

As an existing FTA member, the company was invited to join the Van Excellence Small Fleet Programme. The FTA also offered Golding the chance to trial FleetCheck fleet management software, which has resulted in FleetCheck becoming the approved system for Van Excellence.

Golding says: “FleetCheck has made my side of the operation easier because it tells me when a vehicle is coming up for MOT, insurance, tax and servicing. I can look at it and see when a licence needs checking or a driver’s eyesight check is due – it is definitely making my life a lot simpler.

“A lot of it is about making sure that for everything we do there is a form that I’ve signed and the driver has signed to say it’s been done.

“I used to do eyesight checks, for example, but I never got the driver to sign to say it had happened. I knew his eyesight was fine – but I had no evidence that I’d done it. I just had to make a form and do it properly.

“The main challenge was getting the drivers in; some I might only see once a month. They were happy to do it though, provided they weren’t losing money. The key was to time it when there was a lull in the work or if they were on a job in the area.”

The Corporate Manslaughter Act, which places responsibility with a business if one of its at-work drivers causes a death or serious injury that could have been prevented with proper procedures in place, was recently updated with tougher sentencing guidelines taking effect from February. 

A micro organisation (defined as a company with a turnover of up to £2 million) found guilty with a high level of culpability could face a fine of up to £800,000, while a small organisation (turnover of £2m to £10m) could be fined up to £2.8 million. 


Importance of compliance

This makes it more important than ever for a fleet operator to ensure it complies with regulations.

Golding says: “I think the Corporate Manslaughter Act is the biggest thing to push fleets towards compliance. We are only a small fleet, but it certainly made us stop and think. 

“We’ve clamped down even tighter now so hopefully others will be doing the same. There are quite a few cowboys out there – I see them every time I’m out driving.”

As fleet manager at a small business, Golding regularly gets involved in more than just managing the vehicles. 

He spends about 5% of his time out delivering parcels just like the rest of his drivers, giving him valuable insight into what they experience day-to-day.

“When we are really busy me and the co-founder of the business will jump in and do our share. 

“There’s a definite advantage to that. I can keep an eye on the vehicles and see the conditions my drivers have to face. I think it gives me a better perspective than if I were stuck in the office all day.”


Monitoring driver behaviour

When Golding isn’t on the road he keeps an eye on the fleet using TomTom Webfleet. It was introduced for its tracking capabilities but Golding soon saw the benefits of monitoring driver behaviour as well.

“We’ve had Webfleet for six years, I got it as soon as I started. We needed it because customers would phone up and ask how long the driver will be to the destination and we’d have to phone up the driver to ask because we had no way of tracking them,” he says. “Now we can give the customer an answer straight away – you just look at the screen and it tells you.”

Webfleet is making day-to-day management of the business much easier, allowing the operations team at Ajax Couriers to find the nearest driver and send the route via the system. 

Golding says: “It saves the business time, speeds up deliveries and reduces dead mileage.”

He adds: “We didn’t have resistance when we introduced Webfleet. The drivers liked it because they got the job on screen, pressed start and it directed them right there.”

When he started looking at speeding reports, Golding realised he could also reduce fuel consumption by letting the drivers know he was aware of their behaviour behind the wheel. 

The system allows the business to save between 20 and 30 miles of dead mileage on a trip and Golding has seen modest increases in average mpg across the fleet.

To comply with FORS, all of Ajax Couriers’ vans are Euro 5. The business did operate a 13-year-old vehicle but it was replaced as it was too old to meet the standard and had covered 340,000 miles.

Currently, the oldest vehicle on the fleet is from 2007 and the newest is from 2013. The core vehicles that get the most use are five 3.5-tonne vans – either Ford Transit or Vauxhall Movano models. Golding also has two short wheelbase Vauxhall Vivaros and a Vauxhall Combo. A Luton box-van is only used when necessary due to its higher fuel consumption.

The fleet, which is serviced regularly by a local garage, covers between 25,000 and 50,000 miles, on average, per vehicle per year. 

The business buys the vehicles and leases them to the drivers who are self-employed. 

For Golding, driver behaviour isn’t a major issue; the fleet has suffered no major accidents and some of the drivers have attended the FTA Driver CPC course.

A more pressing issue for the business is the road network. As a same-day courier company the business relies on the road network to move parcels about for its customers.

Golding explains: “We are seeing an increase in the amount of time it takes to deliver something. You used to get in and out of London in two or three hours but now we are losing a driver for four hours, sometimes five if it’s in the morning.

“The road infrastructure just isn’t suitable, especially in London; the same amount of vehicles are coming in and out but nothing is being done to work alongside the transport industry. 

“Pedestrian and cycle lanes are making it harder and harder for deliveries to be done in big cities. They all have restrictions on commercial vehicles. You can only deliver at certain times of the day or night.

“One of our bigger customers can’t take delivery until 10pm which means we have to find a driver who has had enough rest and who can do a job that late in London.”

The service Ajax Couriers offers means its drivers generally do one job at a time rather than carrying around lots of parcels. 

This means jobs are only assigned to a driver once they have completed the last one – taking the time pressure off.

“We pick up one person’s goods and deliver it, and then when they are finished we give them the next job. There’s no rushing around,” Golding says. “We deliver anything from one envelope up to a bunch of pallets. It’s usually something the customer needs urgently; that’s why they pay a premium for a same-day dedicated courier.”

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