SEATING: NB Trimming

By: Ian Porter


Nick Barrese has gone out on his own applying his skill to a new seating venture

SEATING: NB Trimming
Werribee Zoo is among the first bus operators – albeit inside an open range parkland – to take a bulk batch of NB Trimming seats

When Gordon Gekko returned the call of a young Wall Street broker looking to sell an investment idea, the young man exclaimed "I have the whale on the line".

It’s a phrase that might have passed Nick Barrese’s lips about a year ago when he signed a licence agreement with Europe’s fifth-largest bus seat manufacturer Ster.

It says a lot about Barrese’s powers of persuasion and credibility that Ster would even talk to him, let alone enter a commercial arrangement that puts Ster’s Asia-Pacific presence in the hands of a relative unknown.

Of course, Barrese is known around the Victorian industry as one of the best bus trimmers and refurbishers in the trade.

He worked at industry leader McConnell Seats while building up his garage-based trimming business, NB Trimming. He counts among his clients well-known names like Dyson Group, Volgren, Driver Group and Firefly Express.

But he had never supplied a new seat to a new bus.

Determined to expand his trimming operation, Barrese decided to move into seat supply and launched a thorough global examination of the business to assess his options.

It was during this process his gaze fell upon the Polish seat manufacturer, which has exactly the seat Barrese was looking for.

Focussing initially on the route bus sector, Barrese wasn’t interested in seat belts, just a straightforward product suitable for low-floor commuter vehicles.

But, while he had all the predictable criteria in his head -- cost, availability, flexibility, how easy is it to trim, assemble and install -- there was another, darker factor underpinning his quest for a better seat.

It had to be able to handle vandalism and graffiti well.

While NB Passenger Seating has selected four of the Ster products for its local range, only the premium MX seat offers an anti-graffiti and anti-vandalism factor which could yield significant maintenance savings over the life of the bus.

"The flagship seat is the MX. It costs 20 percent more, but you can’t get it anywhere else," Barrese says.

"This seat offers an income stream, low maintenance, low ongoing costs and minimises downtime because of the way it is put together," he adds.

Like all the Ster seats, the MX is made of cast aluminium and plastic, Barrese says, claiming a 100kg weight advantage per bus over traditional steel-framed and plastic moulded seats. This offers obvious fuel savings over a 15 or 20 year life span for the bus.

In addition, he says the MX offers bus operators the opportunity to open a new revenue stream because it can have a plastic pocket forming the back panel of the seat which can accept advertising.

"Advertising on the back of seats is growing," Barrese says. "When the operators start to embrace [seatback advertising] and realise its potential, then this particular seat is the only seat that will give them that option."

And if you can’t sell the space this month or year, you can slip in a stainless steel panel, or a selection of woodgrain panels or even a translucent plastic panel if you don’t want the advertising option.

WHO’S NEW IN THE ZOO

NB Passenger Seating has already made some early sales since it launched the Ster range at the Melbourne Maintenance Conference and Bus Expo last July.

Route bus operator Dyson Group has had seven buses fitted with the Ster MX seat while the Werribee Zoo’s vehicle supplier, Rambler, has specified 960 seats for its buses and trailers, all with translucent orange seat backs and no foam or textile cover.

"They wanted it so they could all be hosed down because of all the dust and dirt the travellers bring when they got on and off," Barrese says.

"The interior is brown so that, with the orange translucent seats, it’s like the colors of the African savanna."

Barrese says Dyson was attracted by the easy maintenance and the anti-vandalism design. These aspects become attractive to operators because the MX seat comes apart easily without having to be removed from the bus.

This makes maintenance quicker and cheaper, savings that will add up over the long haul.

"The seat dismantles really quickly. They have slide locks under the bench. It slides out. It all takes seconds," Barrese says.

Once the bench slides forward, the seat back is released, giving access to the vandalised panel or to the advertising, which is held in a clear plastic pocket in the seat back.

"All the fixtures are hidden behind the aluminium casting that is the seat frame. The pocket just slides in and then you put the plastic top on the seat," he says.

"With the other seats that are built around a plastic shell that forms the seat back, when they get vandalised, you have to unbolt the seat, take it out of the bus, get the scratches filled and spray paint the panel.

"Then you have to put the seat back in the bus. And there’s all the fumes that go with the painting."

And the quick turnaround made possible by the easily switched panel in the back of the seat means buses spent a lot less time off the road.

Barrese says the labour savings in tackling vandalism are obvious. A maintenance engineer at one of the first companies to buy the MX seat told him that it costs around $33 for labour to switch a damaged seat back on the MX.

"And the bus can be back on the road straight away."

Indeed, drivers may be able to deal with a vandalised plastic pocket themselves. Just loosen the seat, slip the pocket out, turn it around and put it back in, tighten up the seat and it’s all done.

Advertisers may take a while to cotton on to the opportunity provided by the switchable seatback on the MX seat, but Barrese says operators will immediately recognise the attraction of being able to get rid of a vandalised seatback quickly, with no need to fill in scratches or repaint.

And vandalism is a constant issue for bus operators, according to Neil Dyson, Executive Director of route and charter operator The Dyson Group, which operates a fleet of more than 420 buses.

"Vandalism is very bad. It has escalated over the last couple of years and it’s a major cost item," Dyson says.

"We have always had it over the years but now it’s bad."

The company has been forced to put protective plastic film over its windows because glass etching is the current craze amongst vandals.

"Scratching the glass has become an epidemic".

He said operators in Perth are now putting metal mesh over bus windows in a bid to prevent vandalism.

"They also slash seats and they get these large-headed Textas and draw all over the roof and walls and seats and floor," Dyson says.

Dyson said his company has had to paint the floors down the back of its buses a dark color because solvents can’t get the marker pen drawings out. 

"And we’re forever painting. A lot of the interior has plastic fittings and the Texta soaks into the plastic and we can’t get it out so what we do now is just get in there with a little air brush gun and paint the roof and air-conditioning ducts and walls with vinyl paint, plastic paint," he says.

Drivers have tried to intervene, but they have been threatened with physical violence.

Dyson sometimes feels it would be easier just to give in and let the buses go to rack and ruin.

"But we’re not like that and I don’t think a lot of bus companies are. But it bloody costs you."

Dyson said the protective plastic film applied to the windows to prevent etching serves another, perhaps more valuable, service.

"The other major part of the vandalism issue is we are now getting rocks thrown through windows from outside. That is prevalent and a major worry because of the danger."

The film on the windows helps to prevent the glass from shattering, keeping it relatively intact.

"Someone, and I hate to say it, is very likely to get killed," Dyson said.

LOCAL COMPONENTS

Having a history in local manufacture and McConnell, Barrese has kept an eye on maximising local content with his new seat importing operation.

"The Ster seat comes to us in its rawest form. You get the frame, the squab and the seat," he says.

"We then get the pedestal made by a local manufacturer and the Ster frame and the pedestal are then powder coated locally. The upholstery is supplied by an Australian supplier, the foam by an Australian supplier, and then it’s all assembled here at the workshop."

"From a local content point of view, there is 65 percent Australian componentry in our seats.

"We have done that for a reason. We are importing the best part from Ster and quality-adding with Australian product."

Just how much Australian componentry is added depends on the bus operator.

As part of its efforts to reduce vandalism costs, Dyson has specified its seats with no foam, so that vandals won’t get a kick out of seeing foam expand through a slashed seat cover.

It might be a little harder than a regular seat – although the Ster seats are ergonomically shaped – but this should not be a big deal on a route bus where people are generally on and off in a relatively short period.

Barrese remains confident about the prospects for the Ster range of seats in Australia.

"The level of interest in the seats is exceptionally high. Closing the deal is a different story, but the interest is strong," he said.

"I think a lot of operators are just holding back waiting to see how it all pans out.

"You can see it’s a good seat and offers people a huge number of options.

"We just have to be patient and strategic instead of going hell for leather."

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