Fleet News

Vertas: Fleet department brings about change to improve child safety

Nigel Grainger was compelled to act when presented with a home-to-school transport challenge. It’s just one of his many new initiatives, reports Andrew Ryan

This is not a normal fleet. This is a long-term project,” Nigel Grainger says when asked to recall his early impressions of the Vertas operation.

That view was formed eight months ago following his appointment as the facilities management company’s head of fleet.

His evidence? Vertas runs a pool and allocated car fleet, not company cars, and had a number of operational quirks, such as fuel card invoicing to multiple departments which resulted in excess paperwork and admin.

Grainger has moved quickly to implement smoother processes and new initiatives, saving significant money, cutting CO2 emissions and increasing professionalism.

So far, he has changed fuel card provider, switched from multiple leasing companies to just one, cut rental costs, introduced a sophisticated pool car scheme and – arguably his biggest achievement – developed an innovative home-to-school transport model for pupils with special educational needs.

Despite making so many changes in a short period, Grainger is keen to point out that the Vertas fleet was not badly run before his appointment: it was fit for purpose, compliant and operated sufficiently well for the company to grow rapidly.

“I didn’t find any non-compliance, but with a skilled set of fleet eyes on it, the opportunities were there for significant improvements,” says Grainger.

He speaks from a position of strength having worked in a variety of roles within fleet for around 30 years. Immediately before joining Vertas he ran his own risk consultancy and is also a former member of trade body ACFO’s national council.

So why move back into fleet management? “There were a number of life-changers and I kind of missed getting my hands on the vehicles,” he says.

“Vertas was looking for a fleet manager, it had never had one before, and it was a huge opportunity for me and for the company.”

Ipswich-based Vertas (formerly Eastern Facilities Management Solutions) was formed from the Traded Services arm of Suffolk County Council in September 2011 as part of a divestment programme.

Owned solely by the local authority, it was set up to trade independently but they remain closely linked through the work Vertas undertakes on the council’s behalf. It specialises in a large range of building and facilities services including school, commercial and hospitality catering, cleaning grounds maintenance and design, energy management, mobile and static security, courier and postal, and equipment maintenance.

Growth in recent years has been rapid, and Vertas now has an annual turnover of £44 million, as well as around 2,300 employees across more than 400 sites.

This growth – and anticipated expansion – was one of the major reasons it decided to employ a specialised fleet manager.

“The board realised they were missing opportunities,” says Grainger. “Before I came, fleet had been managed by procurement mainly, and energy before that. Then they got somebody in from outside from one of their clients to help out and then I came along and grabbed hold of it.”

After assessing the fleet, Grainger immediately started introducing changes. 

“It’s the simple skills you pick up as a fleet manager,” he says. “You can look at things and go ‘that’s not right’, and with your experience you know you can do it better, so you work out how.”

He adds: “I am changing huge parts of the business, all of which are either providing better service, better cost or reduced emissions.”

Grainger’s first action was to reduce the number of vehicles being rented.

“Departments would hire vehicles as they needed them, so there was little or no control,” he says. “I wanted that control, so one of the first things I did was pull all the hire vehicles through my desk because I need to know what I’m hiring and why.”

Grainger discovered that Vertas had between 25 and 30 vans on long-term hire, but he has cut this to just four, resulting in “significant savings”.

Another change has been to switch fuel card suppliers. Under the old system, separate invoices were sent to eight different departments, leading to a significant amount of paperwork.

Under the new agreement with Shell, the company will now receive just one invoice, have an improved choice of filling stations and receive greater discounts on fuel.

While this was being done, Grainger was also working on his first major project: transforming the company’s pool car fleet. 

Vertas does not have any company cars, but instead operates 100 vans, 83 pool cars sited around its area of operations and 17 ‘allocated’ cars.

These 17 vehicles are for certain staff members to use but are always left on school sites near that employee’s home at the end of the working day. They are not allowed to take them home at night.

“When I joined, the pool car fleet had a complete mishmash of vehicles – a mix of Vauxhall Corsas, Astras, Škoda Fabias, Citroën Berlingos, Peugeot 208s etc. – from multiple suppliers, all on contract extensions, with little or no control over cleaning or maintenance,” says Grainger.

“You had to get the keys from security, find the car, check it over, fill it with fuel: it was just a mess.

“I looked at the costs to see what we were spending and I looked at the emissions and thought we can do this much better.”

Grainger put a proposal to the board to reduce the number of pool vehicles from 114 to 83, that they would be supplied by one leasing company and be fitted with Zipcar’s Local Motion technology.

This allows employees to book the cars out either online or through an app, unlock and operate them by using their staff ID badges, and gives Grainger visibility on who is using the vehicle, when, and where they are.

“The cheapest option would have been for six different makes of car, so I had to present to the board and say ‘this is the cheapest option, but the problem is that the drivers are not car people, so they will jump in one make of car on a Monday, and on the Tuesday they may be in another and the controls will be the other way around’,” he says. 

“I wanted to go with one manufacturer because the controls are generally the same.”

Grainger was also looking for a partner who could offer hybrid technology as well as diesel and petrol to reduce CO2 emissions.

“The only manufacturer that could offer us a good hybrid across the range was Toyota, so we did a deal with them,” he adds.

The pool car scheme was launched on March 6 with a mix of Yaris, Auris and Rav4 models, and so far “in the main, everybody loves it”, says Grainger.

The initiative reduced the average CO2 emissions of the pool cars from 99g/km to 95g/km. The overall fleet average CO2 is now 132g/km, down from 143g/km when he joined the company.

This is the first part of a three-phase plan for the pool car fleet. The second will allow employees to rent the cars for personal use outside office hours, and the third will be for members of the public to use them.

As part of the initiative, Grainger has also taken on a member of staff whose role is to look after the pool cars, making sure they are clean and in good working order.

He has also recruited an administrator who will focus primarily on the next major fleet project: an innovative sole-provider travel solution for pupils with special educational needs attending the Priory School in Bury St Edmunds.

Currently, the children are transported to the special academy in around 40 vehicles operated by as many as 20 taxi providers, some of which are travelling more than 50 miles each morning.

The need to provide a more efficient and consolidated service to parents and the children was identified by the council in a review of the current arrangement.

As part of the process, Grainger visited the school to see how the system worked and it alarmed him. 

“I stood there one day to watch the children leave. The taxis started arriving at 2.30pm, blocking the access to the school,” he says.

“They would pull in and sit with their engines running until they could get into a parking bay. They would then enter the parking bay and someone from the school would ask the driver who they were picking up, then radio into the classroom to send ‘Child B’ out. 

“Child B would come out, get in the car and away they went.

“There were children walking around vehicles as they were reversing and I was a nervous wreck.”

Together with the council, Vertas has developed a bespoke package which will see the 40 taxis replaced by 15 Peugeot minibuses and two Auris cars.

The initiative goes live on May 22, and all the vehicles will be tracked, so school staff and parents can be kept up-to-date with where the pupils are and whether there are any hold-ups on the road, reducing the potential for worry.

“My job is to deliver the pupils to school in the morning in a mindset fit for learning and deliver them home at night in a mindset fit to be part of the family, which is a massive ask for some of these pupils,” says Grainger.

“The biggest thing for an autistic child is change. Even the slightest change can be a massive trauma for them. Under the existing system the taxi can change, the driver regularly changes, and the colour and make of the vehicle can change because it depends on which taxi is available to do the school run, which is a complete nightmare.

“Our vehicles will all look the same, the uniform will be the same. The driver may change, but it will be just the face and bodyshape that will be different. The rest will be consistent.”

Despite making considerable improvements to the fleet in the short time he has been with Vertas, Grainger has many more changes in the pipeline.

All vehicles will feature new liveries, data from the telematics which is already installed in the vehicles will be utilised further, while a fully-electric vehicle will also be introduced.

With the company set to expand rapidly in the future, he is looking to introduce company cars for around 20 employees, a salary sacrifice scheme, and an affinity scheme to give other employees access to discounted vehicles.

“We’re just about there on all of those, it’s just knocking the last couple of dominos over,” says Grainger.

“There are only so many of hours in the day, but I’m comfortable with what I’ve achieved so far: we’ve achieved a lot as a fleet and as a business.

“Do I want to do more? Yes. Are there things I want to get done tomorrow? God, yes. Are there things that I want to get done tomorrow that I know I’ll never manage to achieve by tomorrow? Absolutely, but it’s a question of priorities.”


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