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April 17 2017
By Tim Deakin

Tim is the Senior Journalist at routeONE magazine is also the title’s chief test driver, with considerable vehicle knowledge

A business that’s on the up in Lincolnshire

Marks Transport Group, based a few miles outside Lincoln, doesn’t just operate minibuses. It converts them too, and the past five years have seen an almost constant development.

Two coachbuilt UNVI Vega GT-bodied Mercedes-Benz Sprinters are in the fleet

miniplus last visited Marks Passenger Services in 2012. Then, the business – based a few miles from Lincoln in Washingborough – was an organisation that not only operated minibuses, but converted them for its own use, too, under directors Mark and Jo Hueso.

Five years later, all of that is still true. But in the meantime, the conversion and operational arms have grown and others have been added, creating one of the most diverse businesses in the minibus sector. Development is planned to continue, with the company renamed Marks Transport Group.

“A lot of people are familiar with the business for its operational side, which now has 80 minibuses and a taxi fleet, but the minibus conversions that we carry out are less well known,” says Production Manager Adam Hughes.

The Marks Vehicle Conversions arm has ramped up production recently. It now has a purpose-built unit and works on a variety of products, from personal mobility vehicles to Ford Transits and Mercedes-Benz Sprinters.

“For our own use, we usually convert one vehicle per month to keep on top of fleet replacement. Total production at the moment is two or three per month, but we have the capacity to do more.

“That exists because we have invested in the business and in our staff. We have been training people and six months ago we recruited an experienced employee.” 

A growing fleet

The Marks Passenger Services arm incorporates the minibus fleet, and the Ford Transit is favoured. Some have been converted in-house from factory minibuses, but others are purchased and placed in service without modification.

Ford Transits are favoured for the minibus fleet, either factory-finished or converted

Two coachbuilt UNVI-bodied Sprinter minicoaches are also owned, but a midicoach – a Sitcar Marlin – has been sold.

“We don’t just do accessible work,” says Adam. “We offer transport of varying types. All lift-equipped minibuses are converted in-house, and we buy factory-finished vehicles because we have a use for them.” 

Low annual mileage

The minibuses are principally for school work, although private hire is also undertaken. As a result, they cover low annual mileages – a typical average is 20,000. Many stay with drivers between duties, only visiting Washingborough for inspection and maintenance, and during holidays.

A recent development is the introduction of a three-year fleet plan. “At that time we will look to replace the vehicle; at the moment, because we have some that are older than that, we’re concentrating on changing those,” says Adam.

“As a result, we have a number of used minibuses available for sale, and the workshop is busy with conversions.

“Three years is a good point at which to replace a vehicle. Ours have been looked after and the mileages on them are low. They are clean and there is a demand for them.”

Care is required with such a fleet strategy, he adds. Contracts are re-tendered and planning while keeping both that and orders in mind is not always easy; vehicles cannot sit around with nothing to do, but nevertheless, stock is always on order.

“Additionally, we always have spare vehicles on hand, although we have the lowest number of breakdowns in the county because of our maintenance standards. It’s a juggling act to have just enough spare capacity. Running a modern fleet helps in that respect.”

 EVs in the future?

The business is based in a largely rural part of Lincolnshire, but electrification is on the radar and may form part of long-term plans.

“We want to be among the first in the county to run a fleet of electric vehicles (EVs) and we are constantly monitoring that side of the market,” says Adam, who explains how this aspiration applies to the taxi arm also.

“At the moment, I see a compromise on passenger capacity, but discussions with manufacturers indicate that battery technology is coming on rapidly.

“We would benefit because we could buy EVs and operate them in our own fleet. That would give us the opportunity to see how they work. We could then look at building on them. If we can make them work, we will.”

At the moment, charging infrastructure in Lincolnshire would be a challenge. It’s also unlikely that drivers would park EVs at home.

Conversions going strong

The Transit and Vauxhall Movano are Marks Vehicle Conversions’ bread and butter, and in the Transit, it offers a comprehensive accessible specification. 

A seperate workshop for vehicle conversions has been established at Washingborough

“One Transit that we converted has a flat floor, and it will take up to five wheelchair users with all the seats removed,” says Adam. 

“We can also carry up to 15 passengers when they are fitted. Either an in-board or an underbody lift is available, with a retail price of around the £40,000 mark for a vehicle like that.

“We build on the Transit Trend, so it comes with a high level of specification, and if we were building a minibus like that on a Movano or a Peugeot Boxer, there would be a saving.”

The standard of its work has led to Marks Vehicle Conversions being accepted onto the tendering framework of a major local authority (LA). 

“We’re finding our feet in that market because we have a good product. We build what LAs want and at the right price, and we can also lease vehicles to them.  

“We have seen that some LAs want to pay a fixed sum per month that covers everything, which is a package that we can offer to them.”

Quality is king

Marks Vehicle Conversions is, says Adam, keen on price for the standard of minibuses offered, but where price is the buyer’s one and only concern, its choice of suppliers means that it cannot squeeze every last penny out of costs.

Three-year plan, recently introduced, will continue to keep the fleet modern and fresh

“Buyers who want the lowest price possible don’t choose vehicles with floors and lifts from AMF Bruns, and they don’t want air-conditioning, so that’s not a particular market that we are active in,” he explains.

“Our choice of suppliers is not because we want to make more money. It’s because we offer a good product that sits well with the business’ values. We are known for supplying quality minibuses that are backed up with excellent service.

“What we do sell is competitively priced. The Transit Trend that we build on is more expensive than the base model, but its residual values are higher. We remind buyers that a vehicle is an investment now that will pay back later.”

At the moment, sales are handled directly through Washingborough, but Adam says that if a third party in another area was interested in acting as a dealer, that is something that Marks Transport Group would be interested in discussing. 

Organic growth

Growth has come rapidly in Washingborough since miniplus last visited, but it has not been at the expense of principles, and nor will it be in the future.

“My priority is keeping the quality of the product and the service where it should be,” says Adam.

“If we are renowned for that then I am a happy man. That is also what Mark and Jo want, and it is something that we achieve by maintaining standards throughout the business.”

Adam is familiar with what happens if customer service is not up to scratch. On more than one occasion he has enquired with a vehicle supplier about availability of a small number of units, and never heard back.

As a result, Marks Transport Group’s business has gone elsewhere.

“I hope that our customers agree that they receive a high level of service from us.

“Repeat business is very important to me, and when we put our name to something, I want people to say ‘they were nice people to deal with’.”

Visitors to Washingborough will see that a lot of money has been invested in facilities there, just as it has been in the operational fleet.

Yes, this is an ambitious business that is determined to go places, as shown by its engagement with the LA tendering process to supply converted minibuses. But it is also very much a family business.

And, if it continues the rate of progress seen since 2012, the major players may need to look out.



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