SEATING: Industry outlook

By: Randall Johnston

Australia’s leading seating suppliers discuss the future outlook of the industry

SEATING: Industry outlook
Styleride has two factories in Australia, with about 50 staff spread across these two sites

Two of the big names in the Australian bus and coach seating market agree the future is looking bright, with the fall in the Aussie dollar and growth of domestic tourism.

With both manufacturers busy preparing for the two-adults-or-three-children seat revolution, now is an exciting time to be involved in an industry that thrives off innovation, new ideas and an uncanny ability to move with the times.

Major players in the supply of bus seats — Transport Seating and Styleride — have their eyes firmly focused on the huge opportunities that exist, as people become more and more reliant on public transport in their everyday lives.

Work smarter
Transport Seating is preparing itself for a major influx of work, just as soon as the legislation around the two-adults-or-three-children seat is complete, according to managing director Rod Ferguson.

He says despite the cooling of demand from the mining sector, he sees huge potential on the horizon, as operators look for the flexibility with their seating, so they can operate as school buses or to transport adults.

"There’s going to be plenty of work, we’re just getting ready to handle the work load," he says.

"The two and three seating is flavour of the month, so we are getting ready to supply New South Wales with these and other states."

Ferguson says they are supplying seating to a lot of other countries outside Australia and says he is confident this international demand will continue to grow.

The government regulations have not affected him much, except for the two and three rule which has opened up a world of opportunity.

"It’s not a problem for us, we just move with the times as best we can," Ferguson says.

The biggest consideration of any operator looking for seating is always price, but operators are becoming increasingly specific about what they want when it comes to seating.

"They want seats that are easy and cheap to maintain, but the main thing they want is the best price possible," he says.

Ferguson is feeling more confident about the state of the industry than he was at this time last year.

"It’s going to be really good times ahead. I can see a lot of work out there," he says.

The growth in the offshore market is a factor that has got him especially excited and simultaneously presents a challenge and an opportunity.

"We are doing a lot of offshore buses and a lot of high-speed ferries," he says.

He says imported completely built-up units (CBU) do not present a threat to his business, but quite the contrary as he now has arrangements in place for seats to be installed overseas if needs be.

"I’ve already got some of mine tied up, with my seats already in them," he says.

Ferguson’s strategy in the face of increasing global competition has been simple but effective.

"You just have to work smarter," he says. "We are now designing seats for another factory under license.

"So I design the seats and get royalties for sales worldwide."

Ferguson says increasing road congestion is encouraging more people to use public transport.

"You can see it happening," Ferguson says.

"Domestic tourism seems to be building too."

The majority of Transport Seating’s clients are schools and day charter operators.

"We’re not doing a lot of the long distance," he says.

"Schools and day charters, we’ve been doing that for over 30 years."

He says the cooling of the mining boom has had an effect, but it was ‘still there’ and Ferguson is still supplying mining companies both here and in Indonesia.

Seating companies have increasingly looked to overseas to source their components in order to keep labour costs down and to remain competitive, while maintaining the best quality possible.

"I decided in 1996, there was no way I was going to employ 35 workers again," Ferguson says.

Calm before the storm

Another major Australasian seating supplier also paints a pretty picture for the road ahead, with changes sweeping the industry suppliers have had to adapt and fast.

Styleride director Noel Dabelstein knows he is about to be extremely busy, just as soon as operators take the postponing of their school bus purchases off hold.

"We are just waiting for tenders to be released at the moment, hopefully that will happen very soon," he says.

"There will be a lot of buses released soon, people have postponed their school bus purchases [to ensure their fleet meets all the new legal requirements]."

He expects demand for the new two and three seating to be very high.

"The seats for school buses are a major change — accommodating the three kids with seatbelts," Dabelstein says.

As soon as the middle child seat is approved, it should be all systems go.

Styleride is well-placed to adapt to supply seating that could accommodate two adults or three children with seatbelts.

"We have built predominately seatbelt-equipped seats since 1996," he says.

While a one size fits all approach can never be taken by the bus seating suppliers, he says there are some common requests among operators.

"It does vary from operator to operator, but a lot are looking for low-weight seats, and they do want ease of maintenance," Dabelstein says.

"They want it to be easy to change seatbelts and, of course, the want the best price.
Styleride source components from all around the globe and have two factories in Australia, with about 50 staff spread across these two sites.

The recent devaluation in local currency was good news for tourism and seating suppliers should stand to benefit from this, Dabelstein says.

"The fall in the Australian dollar means tourism operators are expecting an increase in [international] visitors," he says.

"We have seen increased demand from coach operators and an increased focus on plushness and comfort."

Dabelstein is also feeling more optimistic about the state of the Australian bus seating industry than this time last year.

"There is more congestion on our roads and so more demand for public transport and more tourism than ever before," he says.

His strategy to stay ahead of the pack in the face of increasing competition is to ‘do what we do even better’.

He says "we scour the world for the best price and quality components".

"You have to be flexible and custom make your seats to fit the customers’ requirements.
He says the majority of Styleride’s business revolves around school buses, charter buses and luxury coach-lines.

"Supplying seating for school buses is probably our biggest one," Dabelstein says.

The decrease in demand from the mining sector has had minimal impact, he says.

"I would have to say it has had some impact, because we did do a lot of mining vehicles, but that was always going to be a short-term thing."

Even when demand for new seats tends to fluctuate, demand for reconditioning was usually fairly steady, Dabelstein says.

It seems that while the move towards sourcing components from overseas had been a gradual one, it has become necessary in order for these businesses to remain competitive.

"We used to have seven people welding, now we have four — you need to adapt," he says.

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