BODIES: Coachworks 25 years

By: David Goeldner


As bus suppliers face tough conditions, sticking with them is a veteran of Australian coach building

BODIES: Coachworks 25 years
Evan and Scott Isaacs check minibuses for refurbishment

There has been a common link between three major bus body builders in Queensland’s noted bus and coach manufacturing hub in Brisbane’s southern suburbs, creating a legacy being passed to the next generation.

Coach Concepts, Coach Design, and Denning have each, at some stage, called upon their ‘neighbour’ Coachworks to help them out with bus body work. 

When Evan Isaacs created the forerunner to Coachworks in 1989, there was little to suggest that his enterprise would survive and thrive through a tumultuous period in Australian bus body building.

Thrive he did, building a business that has gone from strength to strength that took a backyard operation into a factory environment, which now employees 50 staff on a full time basis, operating from the old Denning bus manufacturing base at Acacia Ridge on Brisbane’s industrial south.

The Isaacs family has effectively played a significant supporting role in keeping the industry buoyant in southern Queensland, and with Evan eyeing retirement, son Scott has gradually taken on the responsibility of steering the business for at least the next 25 years.

"We have a good working relationship with the local manufacturers here because we provide their refinish services," Coachworks General Manager Scott Isaacs says.

"We do all the paintwork for Denning, Coach Design and Coach Concepts, so we see their vehicles coming through — and there’s a steady flow."

Prior to starting a coach repair business in 1989, Evan had been working as the service division manager for Denning’s parent company Jaguar Rover Australia (JRA), and coincidentally worked in the same Ingram Road, Acacia Ridge factory now occupied by his company Coachworks.

But back in the late 1980s, JRA decided to relocate the Denning business to the other side of Brisbane, so Evan decided it was time to make the move out on his own — and never looked back.

Evan started a bus repair shop at Browns Plains with business partner Dave Walsh, which ticked along nicely until Dave decided to leave the business leaving Evan and wife Sue as outright owners of what at the time was called Coachwork Queensland.

A few years passed at Browns Plains, getting steady orders for coach refurbishments to the extent that more space was needed as the business expanded.

As fate would have it, Evan was approached in 1992 by the owner of the former Denning factory at Ingram Road, now vacant, but already set up for another enterprising bus builder to move in. So Evan and his team found their way back to bus building ‘heartland’ at Acacia Ridge, with more room to grow.

Evan initially rented a handful of bays, but increased his tenancy as more orders and projects came in — working up a speciality in refurbishing articulated buses.

Given refurbishment often means a fresh coat of paint, Coachworks quickly gained a reputation as a specialist bus spray painter, adding an extra booth as they became the preferred subcontractor to coach builder Coach Design.

As Coach Design’s output increased, so too did Coachworks, taking on the overflow and doing the final touches to Coach Design’s product.

Although Coachworks in its 25 years has never built a bus badged under its own name, Evan, and now son Scott, have built plenty of buses for others under subcontracting arrangements.

Some notable projects included building the bodies for Motorcoach vehicles, where the frame and body would be trucked to Ingram Road, slotting into a bay for Coachworks to fit the body.

Another significant batch was building 32 school buses for Coach Concepts on Mercedes-Benz chassis.

The association with Coach Design also continued, building a vast array of vehicles, including midi-buses, four-wheel drive buses, and smaller coaches.

Scott Isaacs says the primary reason behind coach builders sending new body work to Coachworks is to give local manufacturers the opportunity to accept new bus orders, and have vehicles built without increasing staff at their own factories, or turning the work down.

"We have the shed space and people available. So we receive the drawings for the framework and build the vehicle under licence for them.

"We build jigs for the side frames and roofs to ensure the base structure is exact, and you will find each of the local builders use the same substrate, such as fibreglass panelling."

Scott says the opportunity to build for others — although not in their own right — has kept Coachworks up-to-date with current building trends.

"When we are refurbishing and modernising vehicles, we can apply those same contemporary styles."

When the bus body building subcontractor activity reached its peak about five years ago, Coachworks employed up to 74 staff, but has now settled back to a contingent of about 50 people.

Scott says having three ‘divisions’, manufacturing, refurbishment — including repair — and refinishing has meant key staff can be promoted within the business to leadership and management roles.

‘It meant we have kept good people on much longer than if we were just a repair shop," he says.

"Today out of our 50 staff, at least half have served the business for 10 years or longer."

He says having long-term staff also gives the business confidence to take on new projects.

"We have a strong team, and that’s probably our greatest asset."

Coachworks boast a highly trained team of coach and motor body builders, spray painters and auto-electricians. Although Coachworks does not primarily work on the chassis, it does nevertheless have two diesel mechanics in its ranks. Most mechanical work is in turn outsourced to a nearby mechanical specialist — M K Equipment.

MAKING A SPLASH

Although there are fewer projects to build buses under subcontracting arrangements, Coachworks is no less busy, continuing to work with local builders, including the newer incarnation of Denning, taking on much of its paint work for new vehicles.

With the addition of Coach Concepts entering southern Queensland bus building community in the mid-2000s, Coachworks increased its painting capacity, and now has three booths.

"A big part of our business has always been refinishing for other body builders," Scott explains.

"The paint shop represents about 30 per cent of our business — and it’s something we are particularly proud of.

"We have a good team of people in the paint shop."

Because the sheer size of a bus represents a large ‘canvass’ on which to apply paint, Coachworks usually has two spray painters at a time working on a bus, primarily to get the paint to flow evenly.

Of course, Coachworks has an ongoing need as a bus body repairer — the bulk of its work — to ‘touch up’ repaired panels with a lick of paint.

"It can be a logistical challenge moving many buses in and around the paint shop every day," Scott says.

DIVERSIFICATION

Never shirking an opportunity or a challenge, for some years Coachworks was immersed in motorhome conversions, having worked with Jacana motorhomes.

"When we did this it worked well," Scott says.

But the downside, as Scott explains, is that the tastes of motorhome buyers can be quite particular, and to build in a boutique manner — rather than in a batch processed manufacturing style — started to impinge on other projects, such as the quick turnaround required for an order of school buses, for example.

"We tend now to do a bit of refinishing for motorhome manufacturers, and will paint for them," he says.

While motorhome makers started to spring up around industrial parks across Australia, there was one project that became a Coachworks speciality — gooseneck trailers.

It stems from Evan Isaacs enthusiasm for quarter horses.

Evan has pursued the sport of cutting, as in ‘cutting a cow out of the herd’, which is an American horse sport, but popular in Australia.

He admits to ‘slowing up a bit’ these days, but still gets involved with training and practice, and attends cutting events in regional Australia.

It’s a sport that didn’t pass on to Scott, who preferred to play rugby league for the mighty Souths Magpies, and then later on to surf lifesaving.

But a love for a particular sport in Evan’s case, manifested into a business enterprise. So with a reputation backed by skill to build high quality, large conveyances, Evan designed and built his own gooseneck horse float, which caught the attention of the quarter horse community.

Demand for his horse floats increased, and soon the Ingram Road factory was part bus repair business, and part horse float manufacturer — the latter being more a ‘labour of love’.

The trailers got bigger and better, and for those at Coachworks assigned to build the floats, including Scott Isaacs himself as a recently qualified body builder, there wasn’t a more pleasurable activity — but it couldn’t be sustained.

"It was rewarding to all of us building these trailers, but we were too busy elsewhere in the factory to put the right among of staffing on this project," Scott says.

Horse trailer building wound down in the early 2000s, and as testimony to how well made they were, Evan and Scott still hear stories of how their horse trailers were sold on the used trailer market for more than the original purchase price.

Evan kept the last trailer, an 8.5m unit for four horses with a small living area built into the front — and it gets used extensively a decade later.

What the horse float activity demonstrated was Coachworks ability to turn its hand to just about any large specialist vehicle requirement.

Evan decided that by not continuing with horse trailer building, staff could be freed up to focus on bus repair and refurbishment, which to this day remains Coachwork’s core business.

"We had too much diversification," Evan says.

"But we were very successful."

In recent years, Coachworks has found a niche modifying imported vehicles to the end-users specification — and fits perfectly within its core business model.

This could mean the addition of a bull bar, or buses specced to mining industry requirements.

With the influx of product from Asia, Evan and Scott have never seen such breadth of bus variety in the marketplace, and in their workshop.

"We’ve found that different brands of vehicles made in China are very similar in the way they are constructed," Scott says.

Frame inspections on Queensland school buses to extend service life to 25 years is another core activity, and has largely replaced large coach refurbishment work for which Coachworks staked its early reputation 25 years ago.

REFLECTIONS

Evan Isaacs is a humble man, and seems embarrassed to say there is enormous self-satisfaction in having started a business from almost zero and building it up to a significant and sizeable operation.

"It would be difficult to start this business now," he says.

Evan appears comfortable with handing the senior managerial responsibilities to Scott.

"I have always enjoyed this industry," Evan says.

Repair and service has been Even Isaac’s forte throughout his long career, following on from his role at the original Denning and essentially extending it to his own company Coachworks.

One unusual aspect of the Coachworks business, although in hindsight quite smart and in step with the trending model adopted by many large and successful bricks and mortar enterprises, is the preference not to own property in which to operate.

The Isaacs family made the decision not to buy a portion of the Ingram Road property, although at one stage it was offered for sale, but instead has stayed on as tenants on a long lease.

"We like the location, so we made the decision to stay here rather than pursue ownership elsewhere," Evan says.

"I justify myself when I see big companies like Bunnings choosing not to own [its] property," he says.

The leased property at Acacia Ridge would be hard to replicate elsewhere, with highset roller doors originally installed by the previous occupant, undercover space for 15 buses, and parking for 50 employees.

As family business accession gets underway between generations, Scott is facing the prospect of managing an aging workforce, with some staff looking to retire in the next few years.

Scott is acting early to manage the transition, keeping Coachworks in a strong position.

As for thoughts of retirement, Evan plans to stay involved in the business, saying he is well past retirement age, but has modified his role to provide the means for Scott to take the business forward.

It’s an honourable approach from a man deserving of the highest respect within the bus and coach industry.

There will be a celebration later in the year to mark Evan and Sue Isaacs’ 25th year in business, even with retirement on hold, at least for now.

As for why and how Coachworks has been so successful after all these years is still hard to describe, but it could be as simple as applying a tried and true business philosophy.

Evan sums it this way, after with the benefit of 25 years working hard at his craft: "In this sort of industry you are doing a lot of business for a few customers, so you’ve got to satisfy them to the best of your ability and there are not a lot of us — so you’ve got to do a good job."

INDUSTRY AWARDS

Evan Isaacs has been a quiet achiever of the bus and coach industry.

In 1997 Coachworks won ‘Coach of the Show’ at the Sydney Bus & Coach Show.

This was a project commissioned by Stan Biega, and the vehicle was a Volvo B12 / A B Denning Coach with body built by Coachworks.

In 2006 Evan Isaacs and Coachworks was awarded the Queensland Bus Industry Council’s ‘Supplier of the Year’.

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