Imagine sending your vans to a converter and discovering that, rather than doing a professional job, the converter has turned them into potential death traps, with the risk of the users being electrocuted due to poor wiring and failure to fit residual current devices (RCDs).
This was the situation a van fleet operator recently found itself in. It was alerted to the problems when another converter, Bott, saw the vans.
It is just one of many examples of poor conversions – some carried out by operators themselves – which Bott sales director Stephen Turner has encountered.
Poor conversions can occur because small convertors or fleet operators have budget constraints and are looking to cut corners or because they simply don’t have the necessary knowledge.
Modern conversions have been made more complex by changes in engine management systems and the fitment of AdBlue tanks to meet Euro 6 emissions standards, which have all added weight to the base vehicle.
Converters also have to be mindful of the electrical system and compatibility with stop-start technology. Added to that are health and safety considerations, such as making sure there are no sharp edges. And that’s not to mention the challenges that whole vehicle type approval brought in 2013.
Converters also need to adhere to a manufacturer’s body equipment mounting manual or fitting guidelines. If they don’t, it could have implications for the warranty.
“It’s something the manufacturers are really focusing on at the moment. They want you to follow the instructions to the letter,” Turner says.
“We have to make sure we’re connecting things to the right part of the vehicle, that we’re not drilling in areas that we shouldn’t when we’re attaching things. If you’re powering up something electrically in the vehicle you have to ask ‘can that base vehicle cope with the start-up current?’ You have to be very careful.”
Bott has its own dedicated compliance team which works closely with its design engineers and electrical engineers to ensure that what is proposed to the customer is compliant with the manufacturer’s guidelines.
The company insists that if something electrical is put into the vehicle then RCDs are included. It also has systems in place to help remind customers when their electrical equipment needs PAT testing and that there will be service intervals for things like generators and compressors.
“In days gone by we’d convert a vehicle, wave it out the door and say to the customer ‘I hope everything works and you come back and see us in three, four, five years’ time when you’re about it change it’,” Turner says.
“The way of the world has changed. It’s in our interests to understand what happens to that vehicle and how it is being used over those three, four or five years.”
If the usage of the vehicle changes during its duty cycle and the customer starts carrying new tools and components, the weight limits on the vehicle might change, for example, and it may be necessary to make amendments to the conversion.
It’s also important to consider the base vehicle from the outset. Less experienced fleet operators may make the mistake of ordering their vehicle and then considering the conversion.
“We’ve had examples where we’ve had to say to a customer you’ve ordered the wrong base vehicle specification because what you’re expecting to be able to do with that vehicle can’t be done with the new regulations, it won’t be compliant with the enhancement scheme or it may be out of scope of the body equipment mounting manual instruction or the manufacturer fitting guidelines,” Turner says.
Whole vehicle type approval, and the subsequent N1/N2 Enhancement Scheme, which Bott and fellow converters supported trade associations in lobbying the Government over, has helped raise awareness about the need to operate a complaint van fleet.
It has been a key factor in Bott’s recent growth. Last year it achieved growth of 35% compared to 2015 and its turnover was £40 million, double that of 2013. Growth since 2013 has been coupled with investment – Bott’s conversion centre in Leicestershire had a £1.1 million extension in 2015, taking it from 5.5 acres to more than 11 acres.
Retaining “a significant amount of contracts” (Bott’s current retention rate is 90% and its customer base includes a wide range of industry sectors and both private and public sector fleets) as well as “keeping pace with the increase in van registrations”, which has brought more opportunities for conversions, have also been driven growth, according to Turner.
More recently, tougher sentencing guidelines for employers convicted under corporate manslaughter and health and safety legislation, which were introduced in February 2016, have “focused the attention of a significant number of van operators”.
“We’ve managed to win contracts with organisations where perhaps they felt there was no real need for a professional conversion but they are more worried about the ramifications if they’re seen not to be following industry best practice,” Turner says.
He has seen more transport and fleet managers raise the issue with their health and safety managers and directors as a result of the sentencing guidelines. However, more needs to be done to educate SMEs about the potential risks to the organisation if one of their drivers causes a fatality or serious accident.
“The racking we produce is crash tested, it’s safe in the event of a collision, it stays in place whereas traditional wooden systems or something that has been made by an engineer in his own workshop would tend to break and come apart in a vehicle,” Turner says.
‘Minimal assembly’ range
Recognising that costs can prohibit businesses from investing in a professional conversion, Bott has created its Smartvan range for small- to medium-sized vehicles, which Turner says is “affordable”, crash-tested, lightweight and requires “minimal assembly”.
“A potential customer could go on the website, put in either their vehicle registration or vehicle type and they will then have a pop-up visual of the vehicle and they can simply click on various optional modules and accessories and build up a specification,” Turner says. “When they’re happy with the design which they can see in 3D on their tablet or smartphone, they can click ‘order’ and within a week the equipment is sent out with an instruction manual or video for them to assemble themselves and put in their vehicle.”
It means somebody could fully convert a van for around £1,000-£1,500, dependent on the van’s size.
The range is proving particularly popular with sole traders and SME fleets, who, aside from the cost constraints, don’t necessarily have the time to drive to a conversion centre.
Bott offers four van racking systems:
- Modulo, which is designed to maximise space in small- to medium-sized vehicles and suits people who need to take items out of the van and carry them to their point of work (such as electricians).
- Uno, which was developed when the N1 and N2 enhancement scheme came out for those that want a professionally converted system but “don’t want the bells and whistles”.
- Vario, which is “highly functional” and is made up of a combination of steel, aluminium and plastic).
- Bespoke, which is for non-module related conversions or is a combination of the various product types brought into one solution.
Turner says vehicle conversion has changed from 10 to 15 years ago when the racking element made up 75% of the conversion. Now racking is only 35% of the whole job and Bott may fit roof racks, tow bars and telematics systems, as well as being involved in vehicle handover (it is developing a digital solution for handovers, which was demonstrated at this year’s Commercial Vehicle Show).
A little short of half (40%) of Bott’s fleet customers have telematics fitted at the point of conversion. Five years ago it was less than 5%.
Bott even has telematics in its own fleet of 30 cars, 30 vans (plus tractor units), and has seen savings of 15% on fuel and a 40% reduction in avoidable collisions since fitting the devices about four years ago.
The system was installed ahead of putting the fleet through the Freight Transport Association’s Van Excellence accreditation scheme. “Going through that experience ourselves opened our eyes to some of the challenges fleet managers have to consider,” Turner says.
Bott’s fleet is now managed by its head of purchasing and transport Graham Wright.
As an accredited operator, Bott sits on the Van Excellence Governance Group so it meets with other accredited fleets on a regular basis and is also a Van Excellence Gold Partner.
“We’re all working to a common goal,” Turner says. “We all want to improve road safety and to reduce accidents and deaths on the road. We want to have more efficient vans.”
He adds: “Through our Van Excellence Gold Partner status, working with other gold partners, we see it as a responsibility to the industry, not as a method of selling more products and services. That’s not what it’s about.”
Bott is encouraging its suppliers to raise their standards and is taking a more consultative approach with customers.
For example, one customer was concerned about its vehicles’ fuel consumption figures going up and asked Bott to reduce the amount of racking in order to save weight, and subsequently save fuel, but when Bott did its analysis with the customer it found the vehicle wasn’t carrying anything overweight and that the conversion was correct for the type of application.
“The more closely we looked at it, it became apparent there was a driver behavioural problem,” Turner says.
Bott then recommended the customer consider a telematics system.
This approach is part of Bott’s future growth plans.
“Our growth aspiration is to become more of a rounded, consultative organisation so we’re not just perceived as a traditional conversion company but that we can offer services as well as products,” Turner says.
Conversion would pay for itself within seven months
Bott demonstrated to one customer that a £1,000 professional conversion would pay for itself within seven months.
The customer is in the pest control industry and has a network of distributors that carry the brand name on the side of their vans. It wanted to standardise how the franchisees operated and improve efficiency.
Bott went out with a group of engineers for a week and recorded how many visits they made in a day, how long it took to find components, any damage done to components, and compliance with regard to storing chemicals.
It then converted a van for the same group of engineers for them to try for a week and recorded the same measurements.
The engineers averaged five visits a day with the professionally converted van (compared to three previously), with each visit having a call-out charge of £56, which meant an additional £112. Savings of around £200 were also identified from stock damage which would be prevented if the items were properly carried.
Bott also recommended having a specific cabinet to store chemicals safely.
“When we put the data together we calculated that they were keeping the vehicles for five years but if they spent £1,000 for a professional conversion the conversion would have paid for itself within seven months so they turned that into some marketing material, sent that out to the franchisees and they all went with the professional conversion,” Stephen Turner says.