Running a successful in-house workshop

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Van and truck manufacturers and their dealer networks are fond of arguing that it makes no sense for operators with their own workshops to continue to service their fleets in-house.

With the advent of Euro 6 and the greater use of on-board electronics, vehicles have become more complicated, they contend. That means more investment in diagnostics tools and technician training.

Why spend all that money when the franchised dealer just up the road has already done so?

Demolishing the workshop creates more opportunities for a transport fleet too, they add. It could give the business space to expand its warehouse or extend a factory production line. Alternatively, the land the workshop occupies could be sold off, giving the fleet a useful cash injection.

There is a strong counter-argument, however, and it is one espoused by Arthur Spriggs & Sons. Celebrating its centenary in 2018, the Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire-based transport company is busy setting up a chain of big, all-makes workshops under the Spriggs & Sons Commercials banner that will maintain third-party vehicles as well as the firm’s 180 trucks.

“We have one at Tewkesbury, we’re opening one at Hailsham, East Sussex, we aim to have one in West Sussex and we’ll have another in Rushden, Northamptonshire, as well,” says Perry Reeves, who runs the workshop operation. “I reckon we’ll have all of them in operation by the end of this year.”

Reeves spent many years working for Mercedes-Benz van and truck dealership Rossetts, which has outlets in Sussex and Hampshire.

There is no denying the scale of the 4.5-acre Tewkesbury set-up. It has 17 full-length bays, five inspection pits and two ATF (authorised testing facility) lanes.

Two MOT bays are used by the company’s own technicians to carry out Class 4, 5 and 7 tests, including tests on vans grossing at up to 3.5 tonnes. The site is open from 6am to midnight Monday to Friday – 24-hour opening is not far away says Reeves – and from 6am to mid-day on Saturdays and it holds a £360,000 stock of parts. 

“We always have two technicians on call 24/7 to deal with emergencies and we’re willing to work at weekends and at customer premises by arrangement,” he says.

Newly-acquired site

Other facilities include a tachograph calibration centre and Reeves was planning to have two new 28-tonne-capacity lifts installed at the time of writing. Until recently some 75% of the Spriggs fleet was based at the same premises but has now been transferred to another, newly-acquired, site nearby. 

Arthur Spriggs developed its in-house service and repair operation some years ago because it wanted greater control over how its vehicles were maintained and because it was by not happy with the quality of the work of some dealers. 

The move has been a success, with a consistent 100% MOT pass rate achieved.

“What we do is put all the trucks due for an MOT through the ATF bays ourselves first and identify and deal with any faults,” Reeves says. “Then when the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) tester arrives and puts the truck through the same process, it passes.”

However, taking this route has not been without its challenges, especially on recruiting technicians.

“At times it has been a nightmare, but it’s the commercial vehicle industry’s fault and we’re paying the price for it,” Reeves says. “For years we didn’t bother to train technicians and the result is that we’ve got guys in their twenties, guys in their fifties and a big gap in between.”

When it comes to attracting technicians the answer is to provide good working conditions, says Reeves, and a decent hourly rate of pay. “We concentrate on that rather than paying bonuses because I’ve yet to see a truck workshop bonus scheme that actually works,” he says. 

“The difficulty with such schemes is that the guys who do inspection work benefit because they can carry out lots of inspections during the working day and are therefore viewed as productive,” he continues. “However, the more highly-skilled diagnosticians don’t because they may have to spend an entire day diagnosing a single, complex, fault.”

So far as diagnostics are concerned, the 18 technicians at Spriggs rely heavily on all-makes tools and data sourced from independent supplier Texa. 

In addition the firm has become an authorised repairer for Mercedes-Benz, Fuso and Isuzu trucks so it can easily obtain the necessary diagnostics tools and information for all three makes. It also makes use of the Mercedes-Benz apprenticeship scheme.

Access is tricky

Commercial vehicle manufacturers are obliged to make service and repair information available to third-party repairers although it can sometimes be a little tricky to access. Technicians can go to their training courses, too, but there is a charge and then there’s the question of lost hours of work while in attendance.

Returning to diagnostics, the only areas on a truck that you cannot fully access if you are not a franchised dealer are those involving safety and security, Reeves observes. “You can’t do anything major to the ABS or ESP.” 

Workshop loading is planned up to three months ahead, with MOT test dates and statutory inspections all factored in.

Occasionally prospective customers will say they do not want Spriggs & Sons Commercials to handle their service and repair work because they view the Arthur Spriggs & Sons transport fleet as a competitor. It is rarely an issue, however, says Reeves, and the Spriggs vehicles are not prioritised over third parties. “They have to take their turn,” he observes. “No one gets bumped.”

Clancy Docwra also does almost all its own maintenance, according to transport manager John Blakeley. 

Located at Harefield, Middlesex (its head office), Dartford in Kent, Sunderland and Livingston in West Lothian, the construction company’s in-house workshops look after 135 trucks and more than 800 vans. The former are all Ivecos, the latter all Fords, and standardising on just the two clearly makes servicing a lot easier.

“We do servicing in-house so we can monitor the quality of the work closely and make sure we comply with everything the DVSA requires,” says Blakeley. 

Plans for the near future include bringing in the Freight Transport Association (FTA) to audit workshop activities and getting all drivers to report defects using an app on their smartphones during daily walk-around checks.

Clancy Docwra’s vehicles and construction plant are maintained separately. “However, we have a team of 30 mobile technicians who can work on both and deal with faults when vehicles are away from base,” he says.

Both Spriggs and Clancy Docwra are firm believers in irtec accreditation for their technicians. “It’s something the DVSA looks for so we went for it in 2016,” Blakeley observes.

Established by the IRTE (Institute of Road Transport Engineers) professional sector of the SOE (Society of Operations Engineers), irtec is a renewable, voluntary accreditation scheme that assesses the competence and safety of technicians who maintain and repair commercial vehicles.

Once an irtec licence is issued the technician is listed on a national register and bound by a code of conduct. The licence is valid for five years and the technician must be reassessed in order to renew it.

The reassuring presence of irtec technicians is likely to make third parties more willing to subcontract maintenance to the workshop concerned; always assuming, of course, the price is right. They may be even happier to do so if it has undergone IRTE workshop accreditation. 

Lasting for three years, such accreditation involves a day-long audit by FTA inspectors who examine everything from staff training records to equipment calibration certificates.

An approach some operators have pursued is to ask a franchised dealer to run their in-house workshop on their behalf while keeping a keen eye on the standards the dealer’s technicians are achieving.

No regrets

With 62 trucks, all of which are Mercedes-Benz, Somerset transport company Massey Wilcox embarked on such an arrangement back in the 1990s, says managing director, Robert Wilcox. He has never regretted it. 

The Chilcompton, Radstock, company’s workshop is rented by Mercedes-Benz dealership Rygor. Wilcox commits to buying new Mercedes-Benz trucks with repair and maintenance contracts and Rygor technicians service and repair them on site. They look after the fleet’s older Mercedes-Benz too – “we keep our trucks for seven years from new,” says Wilcox – and Rygor it allowed to take on third-party work as part of the deal.

It means Wilcox does not need to worry about recruiting technicians, paying them, getting them trained or investing in the equipment they need. Nor does he need to concern himself with the legislation governing workshop operations. 

He has the assurance that his trucks are serviced by Mercedes-Benz-trained technicians who fit genuine Mercedes-Benz parts. “Rygor keeps a big stock of spares on site and I’m hoping it will install an ATF eventually,” he says.

Wilcox doubts he is paying any more to keep his fleet on the road than rival hauliers who run their own workshops, and enjoys peace-of-mind into the bargain.

One potential drawback is that it would be difficult to switch from the Mercedes-Benz should Wilcox have a mind to. He doesn’t; he’s more than satisfied with the trucks he runs.

With 6,500 vehicles on its books, Salford Van Hire runs its own workshops at its sites in Manchester and Leeds. It does so to ensure quality standards are maintained and to keep costs under control, says operations director Nick Evers.

“If you want a dealer to come out and re-set a truck’s ignition switch then it will cost you at least £175 and some dealers will charge you as much as £250,” he points out. “Your own technicians can do the job and save you money.”

They can also react promptly when an amber warning light illuminates on the dashboard. All that may be required to clear the fault is for a technician to plug in his or her laptop.

“Some of the work, including diagnostics work, is still put out to dealers but we send guys out to audit their activities,” he continues. “On one occasion a dealer technician had signed off a body as okay when there was a severe crack in it.” The matter was immediately drawn to the dealer’s attention.

“Even when maintenance is outsourced, we still like to look at the vehicles ourselves when MOT test time comes round,” Evers says.

Third parties for brake testing

Clancy Docwra takes the same approach. Most fleets with in-house workshops need to sub-contract some tasks from time to time. “Although we’ve got three roller brake testers of our own plus Tapley meters we sometimes go to third parties for brake testing,” says Blakeley.

Over the years manufacturers have from time to time supplied trucks with a two-year repair and maintenance package as part of the deal, with dealer workshops handling the work. Sounds like an attractive offer. Unfortunately it does not always work out that way, according to Evers.

“The difficulty is the dealer may be tempted to do the minimum amount of work required to comply with the agreement,” he says. “What you then find when the agreement expires is that items such as gear linkages, kingpins and shackles are noticeably worn and will soon need replacing.”

When they are changed, the operator will get a bill from the dealership.

Fortunately Salford can use its buying power to obtain competitive workshop rates. “We enjoy a good relationship with manufacturers and their dealers,” says Evers.

“Trucks do not cost as much money to maintain as they used to but, when things do go wrong, they cost you big style,” he adds. “AdBlue systems, for example, are not foolproof and can be expensive to put right.”

Salford pays its technicians a slightly better hourly rate than local franchised dealers and there is scope to earn more by working extra hours and shifts. 

“In our experience there are plenty of technicians out there, but quality can be a problem,” Evers says. 

Salford runs its own apprenticeship scheme and retains six or seven of the 10 apprentices it puts through a four-year cycle. Those that leave often want to return.

Run a large in-house service and repair operation and you will need the right software package to manage it. A good example is Key2 from Jaama.

Web-based, it can be used to manage drivers and vehicles and is available with a workshop management module. Its touchscreen functionality does away with manual input and makes it easier to book in jobs, load the workshop and keep control of work-in-progress.

That has been the experience of Perth and Kinross Council which has saved 1.5 employees by deploying it.

“Detailed management reports enable staff to view each vehicle’s history at the touch of a button,” says fleet manager Bill Morton. “That not only provides a complete audit trail but gives us a focus on whole-life cost control enabling vehicle replacement cycles to be more tightly managed.”

The council uses Key2 to manage 90 vehicles covered by O-licence obligations as well as 330 light commercials and 120 cars across 14  sites. It allows Perth and Kinross to schedule six-weekly statutory inspections of trucks along with servicing and MOTs for all of its vehicles and to ensure compliance with LOLER (Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations), so far as tail-lifts and other handling aids are concerned.

Nearby Stirling Council and Falkirk Council have also introduced Key2 following Perth and Kinross’s lead.

Jaama is by no means the only supplier of workshop management packages, with r2c Online making progress in the sector with its r2c Online service network platform.

Users include Cumbria-based Tyson H Burridge which runs 36 trucks. It maintains them itself and also looks after vehicles belonging to third parties.

“About 70% of what we do is for third parties and we wanted something that would improve productivity and efficiency while creating tangible benefits that we could pass on to our customers,” says director Neil Robinson.

The r2c Online solution sees the company’s nine-strong team of technicians complete inspections using a touchscreen computer. The on-screen inspection sheet covers all legally-required service items and Tyson H Burridge can add other items as and when required.

An inspection is not completed until it has been authorised by the shift foreman. Once that happens it is immediately uploaded to the online system and third-party clients are told that this has happened by email. They can then log in and view the completed sheet which is filed in a digital archive.

“Our technicians are completing inspections quicker than they did with our previous paper-based set-up,” says Robinson. “The system has completely removed the need to file hard-copy inspection sheets which has massively reduced administration time and printing costs.”

Manage daily checks

Other r2c Online users include Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire-based Mick George, which runs some 260 trucks. It has used r2c Online to enable it to move away from the paper-based approach it used to rely on to manage maintenance and the daily checks completed by drivers. 

“Not only did that mean an unsustainable amount of time spent on administration but it opened the doors to spotting errors such as incorrectly-completed inspection sheets and missing documentation,” says transport manager Joe Gossage. “The time we’ve saved is now being spent on a more proactive approach to fleet maintenance.”

Another supplier of management packages is Freeway Fleet Systems. Fleets with workshops that handle both internal and external work can hold all the details of third-party vehicles as well as details of their own with Freeway. 

The package automatically emails customers to remind them when their vehicles are due for a statutory inspection or routine maintenance. 

Once the job is finished it produces an invoice using information from the job card and automatically updates the accounting software. There is no need for manual data input.

While having suitable management software is vital, even more vital is machinery, which does not come cheap. 

A roller brake tester alone can set you back up to £30,000. Invest in an ATF lane and you could be looking at an invoice for well in excess of £100,000.

It can be a valuable tool to attract third-party work but you are still reliant on the DVSA providing a tester; and some ATF operators say so many ATFs have now been appointed that making money out of one can be a challenge.

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