Over the past five years Chris Craggs has followed best practice at every opportunity to ensure McFarlane Telfer’s ever-expanding fleet continues to reach the highest standards
Five years ago Chris Craggs knew “next to nothing” about managing a fleet of light commercial vehicles but, today, as chief executive officer of McFarlane Telfer (McFT), he oversees what is considered to be one of the best run van operations in the country.
Maidenhead-based McFT became the first van operator in the UK to achieve Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme (FORS) silver accreditation and in the first half of this year it anticipates achieving the top gold standard.
The refrigeration and catering equipment maintenance company operates a 58-strong van fleet that has increased in size annually over the past five years as the business has expanded at more than 30% year-on-year.
“The ethos of the company is to do every job right to a high standard and not to cut corners and that must also apply to the fleet,” says Craggs, who founded the company 25 years ago.
FORS is a nationally operated fleet best practice accreditation scheme and McFT has embraced the standard and encourages its wider supply chain to follow its lead. The FORS standard sets best practice requirements for fleet operators in four key areas: management, vehicles, operations and drivers.
A FORS member for more than four years, Craggs says: “As our fleet grew, we quickly realised we had an obligation to other road users, and the best way to demonstrate that was to achieve ever higher levels of best practice. As well as reducing accidents and incidents, FORS lifts the game. The safety levels and the high standards of operation we aspire to are exemplified by FORS. We’re now gunning for FORS gold.”
McFT counts global multi-nationals and blue chip corporate clients, top education and healthcare establishments, retail outlets and sporting venues among its client base including: BBC, BMW, British Airways, Coca-Cola, Emirates, KPMG, Mercedes-Benz, National Trust, Rolls-Royce, Samsung, Siemens, Sony and Virgin Atlantic, as well as the Royal household.
“Our customers expect world class standards and that means meeting best practice, which was the precursor to the company’s involvement in FORS,” says Craggs.
Conscious the company fleet was expanding, he attended a health and safety seminar when he heard about FORS – then still known as the Freight Operator Recognition Scheme.
“Fleet management can seem a bit archaic and it can be difficult to find information sources and evidence of best practice, but FORS gave me a framework to enable me to look after vehicles and drivers and put policies and procedures in place,” says Craggs. “I had no history in fleet and neither did anyone else in the business, but I recognised that there was a responsibility on the business to take action.”
From that embryonic position, McFT used the FORS standard as the basis for implementing fleet and driver best practice across the van operation and Craggs has played a part in the organisation extending its focus from freight to the LCV sector.
Highlighting the potential knowledge gap and the lack of regulation in the LCV sector, McFT has gone on to help develop more specific guidance for van operators within the FORS standard and made recommendations to the FORS Governance and Standards Advisory Group.
An initiative undertaken by McFT in April last year saw its engineers swap their vans for a half-day on the road on bicycles.
Increasing the safety of vulnerable road users, such as cyclists, is a major issue nationally – and particularly in London. Craggs says: “We piloted a practical initiative with our technicians so they understood at first hand the potential risks faced by cyclists on the road and it is now something that is recognised within the FORS Standard.”
One of only a handful of UK employers that has achieved Investors in People Platinum status, Craggs argues that meeting the FORS standard highlights to other organisation and customers that McFT “conducts its business in the right way”.
While to the best of its knowledge FORS accreditation has not helped McFT win new business, Craggs says aligning with the standard has resulted in a direct correlation with saving money due to improved driver behaviour, notably in respect of more than 50% fewer incidents of speeding being flagged up by in-vehicle telemetry as well as improved van mpg being recorded (see panel overleaf).
Today McFT’s all-diesel van fleet is Renault-focused with 44 Trafic and 10 Kangoo models. A further four vans carrying other manufacturers’ badges are expected to be replaced with vehicles from the French marque in the near future.
With its fleet operated on four-year/120,000-mile cycles, McFT has switched from buying vans to funding through Renault Finance on an HP arrangement as the fleet has expanded.
Craggs explained: “It made more financial sense to use available funds to invest in the growth of the business rather than buy vehicles.”
A long-standing relationship with a local independent garage means it continues to service, maintain and repair the vans. McFT also defleets vans through the garage’s contacts.
“We have a good customer service arrangement with the garage which is important as we don’t want our vans off the road for longer than necessary,” Craggs says.
“Nevertheless, if work is required it is arranged to be undertaken immediately. It is critical that vehicle-related service, maintenance and repair work is completed immediately the requirement is identified.”
That said, McFT does retain a couple of “spare vans” in case a major vehicle repair is required, thus ensuring technicians remain mobile.
New vans arrive at the company’s headquarters where they are equipped with tracking and telematics technology and in-cab forward-facing cameras and are sign-written and racked out to McFT’s own specification.
One of the many ‘big lessons’ learned by Craggs as he got to grips with fleet management was the importance of having vans racked out to a professional standard.
He explains: “With a business background in fabrication, we thought we could rack vans ourselves, but we came to the conclusion that while there is an expense, there was no alternative to professional racking and kitting out of vehicles.”
Today all vehicles feature a bespoke design drawn up with technician involvement to deliver maximum efficiency when working on site.
The company’s ‘one-van, one-man’ operating policy has enabled McFT to use telematics data to compile driver performance league tables covering a number of key behaviour areas including speeding and fuel economy.
The tables, identifying drivers, are shown at monthly communication meetings attended by employees.
Craggs says: “When we started the programme three years ago there was some discomfort, but now everyone wants to see their position in the charts. Someone has got to be top and someone has got to be bottom, but what it has done is made drivers modify their behaviour on the road. We have all the data from the telematics devices; we show it to all the drivers and it self-regulates their behaviour.”
Furthermore, the number of vehicle incidents has reduced as the number of vans operated has increased annually. Five years ago when the fleet numbered 24 vans, McFT recorded 12 vehicle incidents and last year with the fleet numbering 58 vans, incident numbers, typically low speed dings and dents, totalled 23. Over the past five years vans have been involved in a total of 74 incidents.
Driver fuel efficiency has also improved, although Craggs acknowledges that is more difficult to quantify as Renault vans featuring the latest fuel-efficient technology are introduced on to the fleet.
McFT spends around £4,000 a month on fuel with each van averaging 20,000-30,000 miles a year.
Critically, Craggs also highlights the importance of the company’s fleet projecting “the right image” and says: “It is absolutely important to me that McFT’s image is right and on the road that starts with driver behaviour.”
All new recruits undertake a one-day on-the-road driving assessment under the watchful eye of a FORS accredited trainer – only one driver currently has more than three points on their driving licence.
Bi-annual driving refresher courses are also held and, at least annually, drivers attend a thought-provoking road safety presentation typically delivered by a former police officer.
Craggs says: “The annual classroom exercise complements the in-vehicle assessments, the drivers’ handbook and the FORS framework in working to ensure our fleet follows best practice and minimises incidents, damage or injuries.
“The presentations focus on road safety because statistically, with our technicians driving, a road accident is the single likeliest cause of death or injury. It is clear from drivers’ feedback that they take note.
“We are asking our technicians to increase their risk of death and injury because of the requirement to drive, but we are trying to do that in a controlled way and better than anyone else.”
Asked what were the most significant fleet challenges McFT faces, Craggs says nothing keeps him awake at night, but adds: “The nightmare I have is that one of our drivers ploughs into a group of people on the roadside.
“We therefore must implement all the measures we can to ensure that never happens. Why would you not? There is no comfort in cutting corners.”
The interview with Craggs was conducted just weeks after fleets were urged by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) to review their duty of care systems and procedures following the manslaughter conviction of the owner of a haulage firm and the company’s unqualified mechanic after a defective tipper truck careered out of control killing four people in Bath in February 2015.
The day-to-day fleet operation – including Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) renewal, service, maintenance and repair booking, driver licence validation, vehicle defect checks, accident management, telematics data management and fuel management reporting – is overseen by McFT quality and compliance manager Louise Reynolds. She is assisted by office co-ordinator Keira Fitzgerald, while operations director Alistair Collins handles new vehicle acquisition and van disposal.
Craggs, who has a catering background, launched McFT as a business producing bespoke stainless steel fabrication for kitchens in major West End hotels in London.
In 1998, the company started to employ technicians offering “complete food service projects” to specific market sectors.
However, in 2010, on the back of the banking-sector inspired recession, McFT restructured to focus on the service and maintenance of kitchen equipment mostly in the south east. In 2014, following significant growth, the company expanded to offer a national service.
Craggs says: “Service and maintenance of refrigeration and catering equipment in corporate kitchens and other establishments is a far more robust business. Organisations can always delay a large capital refurbishment programme.”
The company fleet has expanded by around 60% since 2012 and McFT has seen its UK employee base over the same period increase from 27 to 85 people.
Furthermore, the company also has operations in the United Arab Emirates (26 employees) and Qatar (six employees) and has plans to open in Saudi Arabia.
Craggs says: “As the business expands so will the fleet. We added 13 vans to the fleet in 2016 and further expansion will take place in 2017 in addition to the replacement of older vehicles.”
Looking forward and fleet developments in 2017 will include piloting route optimisation that will see vehicle tracking linked to job scheduling to further drive both van and technician efficiency.
But, concludes Craggs: “Whatever comes along – rising fuel prices, tighter regulations, clean air zones, vehicle restrictions in London or anything else – we will manage the best we can and to our advantage and not cut corners.”
Motivation for operators of small van fleets to improve standards
HGV-like regulation of the light commercial vehicle sector has been frequently highlighted as a possibility amid concerns that van operators and drivers flout best practice and fail to meet compliance requirements, particularly in respect of overloaded and defective vehicles.
Regulation of the sector is not something that Chris Craggs would welcome, although he says he would not have any qualms if tough new rules were introduced for van operators. “We have set the business up to undertake all of our work, including operation of the fleet, in the right way according to best practice. If regulation was imposed then we would embrace it and toe the line,” he adds.
Separate to the FORS standard the Freight Transport Association operates the voluntary Van Excellence scheme. Craggs poses the question: “Why wouldn’t responsible fleets adopt best practice?”
Craggs highlights the fact that FORS has become a “must have” for many major HGV fleets, particularly in the construction sector, to have a chance of tendering for and ultimately winning contracts.
He says: “When McFT tenders for work we get quite extensive pre-qualification questionnaires, but none ask about our vehicle or driver management policy.
“If that changes and, as a result, businesses operating LCV fleets have to start to take ownership of their van operations then company image will be boosted, driver behaviour will improve and there will be fewer incidents involving vans on the roads.
“There must be a motivation for operators of small van fleets to improve operating standards and that has to be either by winning business or saving money. A correlation is difficult to prove, but while FORS accreditation has not secured new business for McFT, vehicles and drivers are better managed as we have adopted best practice. We are saving money and we are doing the right thing.”
He concludes: “It is a difficult message to get across to small fleets, but big business and organisations based in London and the provinces need to recognise they are responsible for the traffic they generate and the requirement for delivery drivers, service technicians, etc. They have a responsibility beyond their front door as to how goods and people arrive at their premises. Once that recognition happens then LCV fleets and van drivers will become better managed and standards will improve.”