A new business partnership has led to Torus' fleet manager Paul Williams building a future-proof fleet that is fit-for-purpose. John Maslen reports.
From the first moment you contact some companies you can tell they are fully committed to best practice.
This is the case with north-west-based housing group Torus, where a simple phone call is enough to show management is leading by example.
When a mobile phone is answered, a vehicle passenger says: “I am sorry, Paul is driving at the moment. Can I take a message for him?”
The call had been to the mobile phone of Paul Williams, the company’s fleet manager, who has been leading the business through a comprehensive update since Torus was formed by a partnership between long-standing housing associations Merseyside-based Helena Partnerships and Cheshire’s Golden Gates Housing Trust.
Williams worked with Helena for more than a decade before leading the integration of the two fleets to introduce a consistent best practice approach and single fleet policy.
This includes a safety-first rule on mobile phone use, with policies reinforced through leading by example.
When he returns to the office, Williams explains: “We have a strict no-use policy for mobile phones while driving. However, for hands-free, we say drivers can receive a call just to say they will call someone back, but they aren’t allowed to make calls while driving.
“The aim is to have zero touch as much as possible.”
Torus owns and manages around 22,000 homes and will deliver 1,800 new dwellings by 2020, with developments in Cheshire, Chester, St Helens, Warrington and West Lancashire.
It employs 850 staff, with an in-house contractor team of 350 people based in St Helens carrying out more than 30,000 repairs every year, supported by the 250-van fleet.
Creating a consistent fleet from the combination of two companies takes time and Williams recognises there will be different experiences of training, but he is determined to bring everyone up to the same standard.
He has already laid the foundations for success given the fleet has received Van Excellence operator accreditation from the Freight Transport Association (FTA), after a vigorous audit of its operating standards.
The Van Excellence scheme is aimed at raising compliance levels across the sector by setting high standards and sharing best practice, professionalising the industry and moving away from the traditional ‘white van man’ image.
Williams worked his way up to fleet management from apprentice mechanic and has more than 40 years’ experience in the industry.
He says: “We run quite a tight ship because of my experience in the industry, but Van Excellence has helped in several ways.
“Having rolled out the changes to the fleet, Van Excellence has been the icing on the cake, showing we are a good, safe, responsible fleet operator, based on independent assessment.
“It is also valuable for giving management confidence that the fleet operation is well run, so they have belief in the changes we propose.”
A further benefit is the reputational impact among customers and contractors following accreditation, which Haydn Hansford, managing director of Torus In House Contractor, says helps the business stand out as a “responsible and safe vehicle fleet operator”.
Following the merger, Williams carried out a fleet review, including a detailed analysis of requirements.
While cost-efficiency is important, it is also vital that vehicles are fit-for-purpose and the fleet is future-proofed against potential changes.
Williams adds: “With vans, you need to look at what goes in the box before you buy the box, with considerations covering weight and size, but also whether your fleet choices take account of future issues that might be faced.”
Bringing together the two fleets meant there were several brands, but Williams has consolidated them to Ford as sole commercial vehicle supplier.
Fleet efficiencies mean the number of vehicles has fallen slightly to the current figure of 250.
Williams says: “We did that by analysis. We put in the work to see what vehicles we need to take us forward.”
Whereas the Helena fleet was predominantly Ford, the Golden Gates one was mainly Renault.
Analysis of running costs, carrying capacity and a variety of other factors led to the decision to opt for Ford vans, including Transits and Customs.
Williams adds: “Key factors in our choices were safety and cost-effectiveness. Most importantly we looked at safety and obtaining certain specification for the vehicles we wanted.
“Ford is a one-stop for the fleet range. Whereas, with other brands, you may have had to choose higher specification models to obtain the equipment you need, with Ford it was much more flexible.”
Items specified for vehicles include auto stop-start.
The location of dealers close to the fleet’s operations was also a key factor, along with strong aftersales support.
Williams says: “Ford do a lot of fleet work and the aftersales support has a dedicated focus that some others can’t provide.”
The inside has been just as important as the outside in developing the new fleet, so Torus has worked with van conversion specialist Bott on developing its vehicles.
Williams says: “Bott has been a great partner. It has not only helped create a memorable look that reflects our group corporate identity, but
also a product that allows us to increase our van stocks via a sophisticated racking system.”
The fleet is outright purchase, so maintaining good residual values (RVs) is important, particularly as vehicles are run over substantial nine-year replacement cycles prompted by low annual mileage of around 8,000 miles.
“We have run Fords for more than 10 years and we look after them. Their general appearance is very good when we sell them and they have good RVs,” Williams adds.
The best way to protect residual values is to ensure drivers look after their vans on the road, so Williams has focused on safety and efficiency as two key pillars of the fleet.
He says: “We are open about what we expect of drivers. We have vehicle inspections once a month and an open-door policy for drivers.
"We say ‘you have the vehicle and we expect you to keep it in good condition and you must tell us if there is a problem’. Maintenance is key.”
A robust defect reporting system picks up repair requirements and also helps with preventative maintenance to avoid unexpected issues.
This is backed up by regular ‘toolbox talks’ on a quarterly basis together with newsletters and regular fleet updates.
Drivers receive training through three fleet team members who are qualified driving assessors. The trio works to ensure employees meet set standards.
Younger drivers, if they pass an initial assessment, must be accompanied for three months by a driving mentor, until they have proved they can consistently meet the required driving standard.
Williams says: “If we invest that time with them, we expect buy-in to maintaining a safe fleet.”
To assist with management of on-road assets, the team employs telematics, provided by Quartix, with a focus on using the data it provides for exception reporting.
Data can flag drivers who require additional training and also support a league table of poor performing drivers to encourage them to improve their on-road score.
“The aim is to use the data to benefit drivers and the business. We don’t sit and look at where people are all day, it just supports the management of a safe and efficient fleet,” Williams says.
A scheduling system also helps to allocate jobs to drivers efficiently, while telematics data has additional uses that support best practice, because planners can check telematics systems before making calls to engineers on the road, to ensure employees aren’t driving when they ring.
Williams says: “It is early days for the fleet, with a lot of drivers coming over who have not had the same training and we want to get everyone up to the same standard.”
Mark Cartwright, FTA head of vans, said: “The Van Excellence scheme is the most complete and robust measure of an organisation’s attitude towards the compliant, safe and efficient running of its fleet.
“Torus has shown that it takes its corporate responsibilities very seriously.”
Planning ahead in a changing fleet environment
Planning is a key part of a fleet manager’s job as companies try to adapt to changing operating conditions.
Paul Williams, fleet manager of Torus, has been running a long-term programme to investigate the benefits of electric vehicles (EVs) on the fleet.
In total Torus has six EVs, but the small number of vehicles has produced a large amount of insight over the past five years.
The company runs three Peugeot Ions and three Nissan Leafs, which cover 6,000-8,000 miles a year.
Williams says: “There isn’t much maintenance to EVs, just a few moving parts such as brakes, so there is very little wear and tear.
“They can be quite expensive to source, but in Peugeot’s case it offered them at very low cost as part of its launch programme. Now I am loathe to send them back.”
The EVs have a short-journey demographic around the Warrington area, with vehicles being used by neighbourhood officers.
Williams says: “They are really economical for us, particularly as we have solar panels on our buildings, which offset charging costs.”
Vehicles are leased, with the Peugeots provided by Alphabet with maintenance and the Nissans supplied by the manufacturer on non-maintenance contracts.
Having compared the two set-ups, Williams says choosing a maintenance contract is probably the best option as, to date, the costs have been around £100 a year.
However, although he is happy to consider leasing for future investments in electric vehicles, this won’t change the company’s outright purchase approach to commercial vehicles.
He says: “We have flexibility and control, so that would be a step too far.”
In addition to considering the long-term benefits of EVs, the renewal of the van fleet with new diesel engines has also sidestepped any problems with local authorities if they decide to ban older diesels in a bid to meet European emission standards.
Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham, and Southampton will launch clean air zones by 2020, in addition to London.
They could be joined by Sheffield and Middlesbrough, while Bath, Bristol, Coventry, Greater Manchester and Newcastle may also introduce schemes for heavier vehicles.
Team Torus delivers new-look fleet
Teamwork was an essential element in developing the look of the Torus commercial vehicle fleet, both inside and out.
In creating the new signage for the vans, Williams worked closely with both the internal marketing team and Bott, the vehicle conversion and solutions specialist, to develop a design.
Williams says: “This branding is going to be on our vans for the next five-to-10 years, so a lot of work went into getting it right, particularly ensuring the drawing actually worked on the van as well as on paper.”
The branding is applied to vehicles using vinyl wrapping, which can be removed easily when it comes to defleet.
When selecting the best racking system, the interaction between departments was even more extensive.
Williams brought together employees representing all the trades within the company to form a focus group as part of the selection process.
He says: “We needed to cater for several trades and skills and wanted to ensure that the investment in racking was future-proofed, so if the mix of trades changes, that can be covered by the fleet.”
Among the trades represented in the focus group were electricians, plumbers, gas fitters, joiners, bricklayers and plasterers.
The consultation led to two racking systems being specified that covered all the needs of the trades working within the business, including fittings to operate electric power tools from the vehicle.
Williams said: “A supplier with attention to detail was important, especially because you want the manufacturer to trust the quality of work involving electrical equipment in case there is a separate warranty claim. Bott are first class in ironing out any issues.”
Also, while there was an open internal debate, Williams oversaw the process to ensure there was an adequate balance between cost and practicality.
He adds: “I am the fleet manager, but the operatives have to live with the vehicle and it is very important that their views are heard.”