PARTS: Parts Supply Solutions

By: David Goeldner


Grant Watson has been urged down a successful path with operator support

PARTS: Parts Supply Solutions
Fiona and Grant Watson at their Mitcham warehouse in Melbourne’s outer east

Grant Watson says he owes much to the bus industry.

Since entering the industry with the Grenda Corporation as an apprentice diesel mechanic in 1984, his loyalty to buses has been unshaken, although there have been a few ‘twists and turns’ along the way.

But with a career carved in bus repairing, bus inspecting, and bus parts sales — all as an employee of bus-aligned businesses — the time came nine years ago to take this experience and start his own enterprise.

That business — Parts Supply Solutions — would never have got off the ground, says Watson, if it had not been for the support pledged by a loyal band of Victorian-based bus operators and builders.

One noted Melbourne operator backing Watson into business was Firefly, giving part of its Maidstone depot storeroom to the fledgling parts supply outlet.

Kastoria’s Dominic Sita also helped, as did McHarrys and Bayside Coaches.

"Without this support it would have been hard to get off the ground," Watson says.

"They all said ‘go for it’."

And that he did, but it took a while getting there, and it wasn’t originally meant to be a bus industry career, with the young Grant Watson showing aptitude for law, economics and accounting in his high school years.

"I decided I wanted to be a truck driver," he says. "Everyone I spoke to said ‘why don’t you learn to fix them instead?’ so Lance Grenda gave me a job as an apprentice diesel mechanic."

Watson worked as part of Volgren for a few years before a switch to Peninsula Bus Lines, climbing up to workshop manager, then on to the Bus Association of Victoria (BusVic) initially as a road safety inspector, and eventually as manager of BusVic’s commercial supply division, Bus Sales.

Watson says his personal interest had always leant towards mechanical gear, rather than BusVic’s orientation towards bus body parts.

"I decided it would best to depart BAV and have a go at business myself," he says.

With wife Fiona, Watson borrowed heavily against the family home to set up Parts Supply Solutions.

"We started the business from scratch and it’s grown from the early days nine years ago," he says.

"It has been a fairly steady climb, and we’ve experienced growth every year, which has been fantastic."

And while Grant and Fiona consolidated the spare parts business in its first six years, expansion into an ancillary enterprise came along three years ago with electronic destination board company Hanover Displays.

The Australian subsidiary of the UK-based Hanover Displays was offered to the Watsons following the retirement of Peter Townsend, and a buy-out of local interests.

Grant Watson is now managing director of Hanover Displays, which services Australia, New Zealand and southern Asia. Fiona Watson is a company director.

The business adjunct into ‘desto boards’ has opened up opportunity, but also competition.

"Our main competitor in the sign business is Mobitec," says Watson.

"However our Parts Supply Solutions competition is vast and varied."

Watson says the key to success relates to size of the enterprise.

"We are small enough to adapt to changes in the market, but we are limited by our resources," he says.

Between owning and operating a parts supply business along with an electronic signage entity, the Watsons have their plate well and truly full, which means it can be ‘all hands on deck’ at a moment’s notice.

There’s no hierarchy at their Mitcham warehouse in Redland Drive in Melbourne’s eastern outskirts — everyone chips in. If a truck turns up and a pallet needs to be unloaded, either Grant or Fiona — both with the appropriate licences — are likely to jump on the fork lift and unload it.

There are two part-time assistants also in the business working in the warehouse, and the daily routine is never the same.

For example, Fiona Watson has turned her marketing and publishing talents into the production of a parts catalogue.

"We have about 2,500 part numbers in stock, but the catalogue gives you a snapshot of the type of products we carry," husband and business partner Grant says.

"We primarily deal with tier one suppliers, such as ZF, and we have about 200 transactions a week on the parts supply business," he says.

Biggest movers include consumable items such as brake pads, the things that wear out on a regular basis or need to be changed at service intervals. Just lately, a popular seller has turned out to be seat belts, and not just for buses.

"We look after a chain of ‘speed’ shops for cars as well," Watson says.

And while there are fewer sales transactions on the Hanover signs side, the nature of the ‘desto’ work is much larger, with annual revenue generated by each company — Parts Supply Solutions and Hanover — being similar.

"A destination board on a route service bus is a necessity, but on a coach it’s probably a luxury purchase — and many customers are happy to go that way," Watson says.

"But when you are selling parts to the after-market it’s a grudge purchase."

Watson says parts for a bus are generally needed quickly based on workshop pressures to get the vehicle back on the road.

"So if you can get it out quickly and you can get the right thing there the first time and minimise the downtime for the operator, you will ease their pain," he says.

"But if you get it wrong and the vehicle is sitting there off the road for another 24 hours, they don’t take it very well."

It seems Watson’s parts supply clients are kept happy — he usually has the ‘solution’.

WORKING ON THE RAILROAD

What Watson doesn’t appear to have is a way to ‘defeat’ the intense competition for destination boards, but has cast the net widely to think beyond traditional route bus service territory.

Just lately, Watson has been thinking trains, although the heart stays bus.

Through Hanover, Watson’s enterprise has recently spent some time in Indonesia supplying a sign system to Jakarta’s railway network.

"Each train is big business," he says.

"A bus may have up to three displays, but these trains have 48 each, internal as well as external."

Watson’s ‘rail experience’ has come through a lighter version in Yarra Trams in Melbourne, supplying signs to operator Keolis.

Watson says Jakarta was an interesting experience.

"We went over to scope the market, and by chance we met people building trains for TransJakarta, and I spoke to the operator’s bus people as well," he says.

Watson spent about a year from scoping to supply.

"They liked the fact we have a ten-year warranty, and service back-up — which includes an on-call technician from the UK."

Hanover displays technology for destination boards are notably LED-based (light emitting diode) rather than metallic ‘flip dot’ boards.

The debate perennially rages about which style of destination board is best, with Hanover and Mobitec stamping a point of difference, the former with LED while the latter extols the benefits of flip style. 

"But competition is healthy, it keeps us all honest," Watson says.

"It’s too easy to be complacent if you haven’t got someone breathing down your neck to remind you they are there. We know the competition and they know us."

LOOKING OUT FOR NEW PRODUCT – THE ASL 360

Watson is always looking out for new product which might be a fit for the enterprise, and not necessarily a spare part or a new style of electronic sign.

Through the Hanover UK connection, Watson has just taken on the ASL 360, a vehicle surround camera system introduced to the Australian bus industry at this year’s BusVic Maintenance Conference and Bus Expo.

Watson says the Melbourne trade show was the ideal venue to launch a new product.

"And we had a great response from the ad we ran in ABC magazine," he says.

Although not a Hanover product as such, Watson says ASL 360 will be marketed and distributed through the channels which currently exist in the global Hanover network.

The system ‘stiches’ together images from various 180 degree camera angles — up to 12 wide angle views — positioned from the roof of the bus monitoring the entire vehicle perimeter appearing as one ‘bird’s eye view’ image.

The ASL 360 software provides a topographical real time view, as if the camera was actually positioned several metres above the bus — when in fact each camera is fixed to the roof of the bus.

"I also see the system as relevant for route service to guard against rear door entrapment," Watson says.

"I remember from my time in fleet maintenance, door entrapment is a real issue, and my attraction to the system is with its safety implications, which is difficult to put a price on."

Door entrapment, accident damage from kerbs and hitting such roadside infrastructure as bus shelters — all guarded against with ASL 360 vision.

"The technology is patented, and there are competitors with similar products, but this is unique — and it’s accurate," Watson says.

"Nothing other than this can give you a topographical view which stitches the images together so that it’s useful around the full vehicle — this removes all the blind spots."

The existing system comes with four cameras, the ‘box with software’ and monitor.

Watson says three operators have so far expressed serious interest in the system, including Sid Fogg’s at Newcastle, Australia Wide Coaches in Sydney, and Tasmania Redline.

The system is also being demonstrated to Brisbane’s city council bus fleet engineers.

"I honestly believe that there will be other systems that will follow, and they won’t be as good," he says.

Watson says ASL recently installed a similar system on Alexander Dennis’ Enviro 400 buses in London, and the feedback has been positive.

ASL 360 stock arrives in October, and Sid Fogg’s Newcastle Knights Irizar i6 is planned to be one of the first vehicles fitted.

"I feel quite passionate about this system," says Watson.

INDUSTRY KUDOS DESERVED

As Grant and Fiona Watson look back on almost a decade in business, the dynamic duo from Mitcham has started receiving some unexpected industry kudos.

Parts Supply Solutions was recently named Tasmania’s Supplier of the Year, and the Watson’s also received a high commendation in Queensland at the QBIC conference in April.

"I love the bus industry," he says.

"This industry has been very kind to me — it’s given me everything I could possibly want.

"It’s put my kids through school, a roof over our heads, and it means I can work with my partner."

Watson says everyone knows everyone in the industry.

"And if it wasn’t for bus operators telling us to start this business, we wouldn’t have done it."

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