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OPINION: Victorian operator Scott Houlahan note the importance of local bus manufacturers

My name is Scott Houlahan and I operate a school bus contract in Bendigo Victoria.

The year 2015 will be significant to my wife Anita and my family as I will not only be operating for the past ten years as a single bus operator but I will receive my first new bus.

I currently operate a stock standard 1997 1418 Mercedes Benz, so the thought of updating was a long time waiting and daunting at the same time.

For some operators booking a slot, talking to sales reps for chassis, body or fully imported buses is like water under a bridge, but in my case it was a first time experience.

This is why I am writing on my experience, the first time single operator who will only be buying one bus not ten or twenty in one slot, so you have to be sure it’s the right one that suits you the ‘driver’, making sure that it will last the life span, conditions, the ups and downs, the ‘I need more information’, or ‘I have no idea what I want’ through to the ‘bells and whistles’.

This was no walk in the park for me. Public Transport Victoria (PTV) sent the letter out requesting my bus replacement for the start of or close to Term 1 2015, so it was official and I could start kicking a lot of tyres as the saying goes.

This was to be an experience of a lifetime. It was initially, but during the initial time I found out that some people ‘sales reps’ are just chasing numbers and didn’t give much time with the constant questions and requesting of additional information.

I have being an active member of the CFA (Country Fire Authority) for over 25 years and I was told in a CFA training course there is no stupid question and all questions will be answered, so I used this mythology to help me through this process.

There is a happy ending to this experience and a recommendation in my opinion, I won’t be naming names or the chassis suppliers in this article but I think they will know who they are.

After receiving my PTV letter, I starting heading down the road of well know chassis supplier, I had one chassis supplier in mind and sent an email straight away, I pushed send on the email and it had begun.

There reply was indeed fast and full of information, then came the options my god this lead to all different roads for me so more questions came.

And indeed there replies were fast, I was very impressed, and as you could imagine the more information that was available the more in-depth you become into the bus.

This was a major mile stone in a single operators career, in my case I was building a bus with a various possible bus lengths from a 12.5, 13.1 to the 14.5 meter bus, as I was trying to convince PTV a larger bus in my corridor would make more sense due to the student numbers.

So this was going back and forth for a while with PTV and the chassis supplier. And to their credit all questions were answered, well then what’s the problem I hear you ask?

With the suppliers, well it all went quiet and I felt I must have used up all my credit, I know I am only a single operator but this was a major purchase for me.

It just seemed its only one bus one sale one commission. There is light at the end of the rainbow, in this quiet time I was talking to an operator on my experience to date, he then suggested try Denning Coaches.

I emailed the ‘enquires’ link on their website and received a reply the next day from Michael Dempsey, this was the start of an experience I will never forget.

 I had a good idea now of what I wanted and again the various lengths of buses as I was still in talks with PTV, this wasn’t a problem at all on my third email which was in a two week period of my initial email I received a phone call from Michael say they will be delivering a bus to ‘Driver’ in Melbourne and if I was to be home on the Sunday they would call in.

Wow, this was the first ever experience I had, a body builder asking to bring and show their work.

I suggested I would meet in Seymour and make it easy but they said no way we will come to me. This was ticking all the boxes, I felt like I was buying ten buses.

In my time I have being a sub-contracted driver during the V/Line bus replacement programme and while in the layover area it was like the Elmore Field days all the types of buses you could imagine, I would make myself know to some of the drivers and there buses and ask questions and have a look through.

These drivers were priceless information they would tell how it is, what the good things are on the bus and what the bad areas were and what not to buy. So I have kicked a few tyres over the past five years.

The day had arrived on Sunday afternoon I was like a little boy waiting to see Santa, they say when you see something you know by first sight ‘that’s  it’ and so it was – the coach arrived and turned into my house and I said to my Dad (Bill Houlahan, who is also looking for a replacement)  “that’s It!”

Rob Gittins was the driver. I introduced myself and said I hope you don’t mind me asking you a lot of questions.

 His reply was you can ask as many as you want, you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

The coach was a pleasure to view and Rob was more than happy to go through the front to the back while answering all of my questions and concerns.

The way Rob conducted himself it was as if I was being presented my bus – I know what you’re thinking, this is sales talk. No, this was a genuine person proud of the product on show.

Rob works alongside Michael as the Engineers’ and design men and knows the coach inside out.

During Robs time at my place there was not one time he looked at his watch thinking I should be on my way to Melbourne, this was a credit to him and made me feel important.

The time came and I was very impressed with the final product I took a lot of pictures and went over my notes.

It was time to make a decision. Dad was in the same positions as me but he wanted to view another body builder, the following week so he did but the day before the visit the body builder called me and said how many buses is your father looking at?

As it was only dad interested in it as I had changed my thoughts and decided on the day of the viewing I was to go Denning Coaches so my reply to the question was ‘one’,   there was a pause and then he replied ‘I’ll  look forward in meeting your dad’.

That day I emailed Michael Dempsey from Denning Coaches and made my flight booking to visit there production line and to my amazement he replied on Sunday afternoon, and saying he will pick us up.

On dad’s return he called and said book him as well as he wasn’t happy with the finish of the other body to compare to Denning’s Coach.

So our journey to Brisbane was booked yet no further info or an email or even a phone check from the other chassis sales rep, but during this time another operator informed the chassis sales rep what my intentions was, the rep then called me. 

He stated he would fly up the same day and give us a call in the afternoon of our visit to Denning Coaches and take us to the other body builders and show some of the buses his chassis are being built on.

I informed Michael Dempsey of what was to happen as I thought it was the right thing to do and Michael’s reply was “no worries let me know where and I’ll take you there when we finished.”

Our tour of the Denning Coaches production line was in one word ‘professional’.

The staff in the production line are amazing. There was a sense of “pride of their craftsmanship” as they took Pride in their work and the moral while walking around was amazing. 

It was like they owned that part of the coach they were creating. This increased my sense of confidence in the final product and its reliability.

Dad and I were treated like we were buying twenty buses not at any time were we rushed or no question was stupid.

After the production tour, which I totally recommend, we ventured to the board room where we were reunited with Rob Gittins again.

Both Michael Dempsey and Rob Gittins are the engineers/ draftsmen of the Denning Coaches there passion and vibe is amazing they take pride in the coach and adhere to their clients requests without hesitation. 

After going through the page by page of Bell and whistles we managed to fit in some lunch which was provided and appreciated.

Our next meeting was with an amazing Staff Member Maja Hamzic – her professionalism is outstanding.

Our dealing with Maja was fabric and interior, Maja’s advice and suggestions are priceless nothing was impossible.

I remember after we left and we were home and I sent an email to Maja asking a question, this was a Thursday afternoon.

After I finished my school run Friday afternoon I received a phone call from Maja on her private mobile phone saying it was her day off and she is be married on the Saturday but didn’t want me to think she forgot me and my emailed question, who does that?  Maja, you’re amazing.

After we finished in the board meeting with both Rob and Michael it was about 2pm, I still haven’t received a call from the chassis sales rep.

He said he was to take us to the other body builder, at this point I was disappointed and felt like I was instigative and just a number.

So if I felt like this in the lead up to a sale of a chassis where we lost communication, then promised to show other bodies on their chassis – what would the after sales and repair and possible grantees be like? So I said to Michael and Rob your building both our coaches. 

My experience with Denning Coaches is amazing. Michael Dempsey, Rob Gittins and Maja Hamzic are members that take pride in their work and treat the clients with Respect their production staff truly take Pride in their work and their moral is outstanding. 

If any other operator asked for my opinion without hesitation I would recommend Denning’s Coaches.

This is my opinion and my experience to date, I not naming the chassis supplies or body builders but if you’re reading this all I am saying is put yourself in our shoes as a single operator with a family and then give a large amount of money up front and see how you feel when treated like a number.

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