Keeping it in the Family
On meeting mum of three Jill Atherton, the last place you would expect to find her is driving a 13-metre-long coach, but that’s where she is most at home, writes Tracy Hargreaves
Jill is just one member of the family who runs Walton’s Coach Hire in Freckleton. Established in 1982, this small coach business was started by dad Peter. “My dad had been a coach driver for a company in Preston for many years, as well as a wagon driver, when someone said to him, ‘why don’t you drive your own coach?’ And the rest, as they say, is history.
He took out a loan to purchase his first vehicle, a minibus, but times were tough, as his wife Mary, had three small children at home and the coach business was still in its infancy. However, 37 years later the company is still going and thriving and now has 20 coaches, ranging from MPVs and double decker buses to state-of-the-art coaches.
Peter Walton, 70 and wife Mary 78, still play an active part in the business and are in the office every day. “Their life has been their business,” said daughter Jill, “and it’s something we’ve all grown up with. My dad is the face of the business (and still drives) and my mum is the brains behind the business, so it’s an ideal combination.
“Mum and dad insisted that we all got jobs before coming into the business so we could gain valuable outside experience. I worked for BAE Systems for two years and I was with Lancashire Police for four years, but I knew I wanted to come back into the business. I’d always been the one who went out on the coaches with my dad when I was younger and I could never see the business being sold to anyone else. I’ve now worked here for 16 years. Coaching is definitely in my blood.”
Jill started in the company as an office junior and worked her way up. “I took my PSV licence for coaches when I was six months pregnant. When I had my second and third son, they were born at the height of the season, so I still had to go to work and take the children into the office.”
Jill’s husband is also involved as he runs his own mechanics business and services all the vehicles as well as drives and so does her little sister, while mum manages the office.
“Today the industry is very cutthroat,” said Jill. It’s very competitive and there are a lot of new businesses setting up and under cutting people, which is not sustainable in the long run. A lot of our clients are repeat customers and some we have had for more than 20 years. We’ve already filled half our diary for next year.
“It is a very male dominated industry. I went to a trade dinner with my mum and we were the only women in the room. Our male colleagues are great, however it is still a novelty to see a woman driving a big bus and I do get some comments, but I get behind the wheel and I love it. It’s not like driving a car, you have to remember that in a coach you are sat in front of your wheels, not tackling bends can be tricky.”
Walton’s Coach Hire now employs 18 fulltime staff and two part time drivers, but Jill says there is a real shortage of drivers. “It’s not really a job that’s promoted in schools,” she said. “I recently spoke at a girls’ school on International Women’s Day to tell them that it’s not just a job for the boys and that there are lots of opportunities, not just driving, but if you become a transport manager you can travel the world. It’s about looking behind the business.” On top of driving Jill also looks after the HR side, health and safety, wages and bookings.
The company offers everything from private hire for groups to Christmas parties, day excursions, theatre trips, contract works for large companies, school trips, days at the races and even trips to the flower festival in Belgium or European Christmas markets and already has bookings well into 2021.
Its fleet is kept up to date and coaches are built from scratch, offering all the modern accessories, such as Wi-Fi, usb hubs, luxury seats, etc to make the customer journey as comfortable as possible.
So, what plans does Jill and the family have to keep the business going? “I think we are happy with the size of the company, but it still has potential. My eldest son has expressed an interest so we would be happy if he wanted to join us,” said Jill. “We want to continue offering a fantastic service, with a quality fleet and excellent customer satisfaction and that’s what makes us stand out from the crowd.”