Fleet business is booming for Clarks Vehicle Conversions, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and is witnessing innovations that are transforming panel vans into “commercial camper vans”. The Doncaster-based company’s growth is being underpinned by a resurgence in fleet demand for light commercial vehicle conversions as businesses grow ever-more confident that the economic recovery is here to stay.
Recently-appointed managing director Darren Lord also highlights an experienced and loyal workforce – known as “Clarkodians” – that “bleed the company” in terms of producing high quality, robust vehicle conversions.
Lord, who joined the company this year, admits he is still getting to know the business, which last year had a turnover of more than £5.6 million and converted more than 1,350 vehicles. A chartered accountant by profession and most recently managing director of fashion branding specialist Nilorn UK, Lord says: “My skills sets are processes, systems, organisational and growing businesses.
“Clarks recognised it was hugely successful and its reputation had been instrumental in its expansion, but the people leading the business had moved into management from the shopfloor. They acknowledged they knew how to build and convert vans, but needed help to further grow the business and the introduction of new skill sets.
“Since arriving here I have been inspired by the passion of the staff. They want to build fantastic vehicles. Their attention to detail and pride in their work is phenomenal,” he adds.
This year the company is forecasting turnover approaching £8m, with a two-year plan to reach £10m. The number of conversions will approach 2,000 in 2015, rising to 2,250- 2,500 in 2016.
“We have a great skill set within the team and I’m looking at how we can exploit that,” says Lord, who is witnessing the business moving from its traditional heartland of ‘messing’ vehicle conversions – now known as welfare vehicles – into expanding its racking business and more bespoke conversions for a wide variety of customers.
Two years ago, Clarks almost exclusively converted vehicles into welfare vans, but in the past 12 months fleets have opted to introduce new vehicles, having extended replacement cycles through the recession. That has seen a significant influx of van racking work being done, as well as the fitting of accessories from light bars to rear steps and weighing systems to cameras and sensors, additional seats being fitted to crew carriers and ‘light conversions’ including equipping vehicles with robust interior lining and flooring.
To cope with business demand, Clarks has increased its number of production bays from 18 to 20 this year, with potentially more in the pipeline. A compound that could previously hold 190 vehicles is being expanded to accommodate a further 100.
Over the coming months, the company, which employs 67 people, is recruiting another 20 fitters to add to the 26 it currently has, alongside 11 electrical fitters.
While the company’s focus is on the light commercial vehicle sector – from car-derived vans up to the largest panel vans across all makes and models – it does not rule out the conversion of larger vehicles, as well as a move into the refrigerated and non-refrigerated goods vehicle sectors.
Claiming to be one of the largest welfare vehicle converters in the UK and “mid-size” in terms of the whole conversion market, Lord says: “We have no immediate plans to move out of the sub-3.5 tonne sector because we are so busy, but never say never.
“We have the infrastructure in place and a full order book for the next three months, but we must keep that going and that may mean moving into converting larger vehicles. All things are possible. We are seeing specialist converters of larger vehicles moving into our market, so we can make the reverse move, particularly if there is customer demand.”
The company’s client list includes the likes of Northern Gas Networks – currently concluding an order for the racking out of 230 vans for the business – Network Rail, Balfour Beatty, GE Capital, Amey Fleet Services, Amalgamated Construction (AMCO) and Burnt Tree.
In the past two years, Clarks has upped its marketing with the recruitment of David and Melissa Healey as commercial manager and marketing manager respectively.
Lord says: “The Clarks name is becoming more recognised in the market and our customer base is broadening. Fleets are becoming more confident and, instead of sweating their assets further and holding off replacing vehicles, they are starting to invest and renew vans.”
At the recent Commercial Vehicle Show, Clarks debuted its new ‘drive-away’ welfare conversion for fleets requiring an off-the-peg conversion for less than £10,000. The average welfare vehicle conversion costs £13,000-£14,000, although in today’s market top-end conversions can cost £35,000.
Particularly designed for the rental market and for contractors frequently hiring and off-hiring rather than buying or long-term leasing vehicles, the new welfare vehicle costs £9,999.
In most cases the conversion will be available to drive-away within a week, fully loaded with standard messing facilities, a toilet and a wide range of accessories including health and safety must-haves like a first aid kit, eye wash station, side camera and Chapter 8 livery.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Clarks says its production facilities enable it to be as innovative as customers require and increasingly ‘creature comforts’ are becoming ever more vital for businesses in speccing welfare vehicles.
Ultimately, explained Lord, designing and equipping a vehicle is about payload and space and balancing that with a continuing desire by fleets to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and improve fuel economy, while always considering whole vehicle type approval compliance.
One of the characteristics of Clarks’ new seven-seat drive-away van is that it is 150kg lighter than its predecessor thanks to a newly designed layout by Clarks’ engineers that cut down on materials and swapped some of the parts used for lighter alternatives.
For one customer, Clarks designed a so-called ‘bed van’ equipped with beds, shower, toilet and cooking facilities and even plasma television screens converted from a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.
“Businesses want to look after their employees better when they are working away from home on sites. They are consistently looking to be more innovative and we can take a vehicle from an idea through design to build,” says Lord. “There is nothing that cannot be fitted into a vehicle.”
Case study: Carnell Support Services
One of Clarks’ most recent vehicle conversions is a welfare van designed to improve the safety of road workers on motorway lane closure sites.
The Road Workers’ Safety Forum (RoWSAF) claims that the average fatality rate for people maintaining the UK’s road network is one of the highest among employment sectors. As a result, it says there is an ongoing need for the industry to work together to reduce risks for road workers and continue to strive for zero harm year-on-year.
Carnell Support Services specialises in maintaining and supporting infrastructure and communications across the UK’s major trunk road network, with many of its staff working in challenging conditions.
The company approached Clarks to design a van layout that made it possible for operatives to move between the mid-cab and the rear of the van without having to leave the vehicle directly into the ‘safety zones’ next to live traffic.
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter welfare van has an internal partition wall with a door to separate the mid-cab from the rear so both areas are accessible without the need to leave the van.
Following development of the prototype, a second vehicle is going into build with the vehicles being used by a team of specialists at Carnell who look after drainage systems.
Operators will be able to move from the mid-cab, housing an office and welfare area, to the equipment and exit area at the rear. If required, operatives can also exit the vehicle via the rear doors into the middle of a lane closure, instead of against the safety zone next to live traffic.
The van also has purpose-built storage areas for Carnell’s specialist equipment and two different electrical outputs to power the survey equipment and an on-board computer.
Martin Parry, innovations and business development director at Carnell, says: “This is a major breakthrough in making lane closure sites safer, not only for our workforce but for road workers across the industry.”