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Vancraft turns 40

Jan 24, 2019
This year, Norfolk-based bodybuilder Vancraft celebrates its 40th birthday. Deputy Editor David Jordan visited the factory in Norfolk to meet its founder Derek Avis and his co-director, son Nick.

Nick and Derek Avis This wasn’t the first time I’d visited Vancraft. The previous occasion was in 2011 when the country was gripped by recession. Despite the difficult trading conditions at that time I remember Derek being optimistic about the future; thankfully his optimism was well placed, and the company and its loyal workforce continue to thrive, eight years later.

As I stepped out of the gloom of a damp December morning I was greeted with a beaming smile from Vanessa in reception.  The office was brightly lit, with new furniture and the smell of fresh paint. “We’ve just redecorated after the flood,” explained Vanessa - more of that later.

Derek came down to meet me and after being joined by his son and co-director Nick I asked him how it all began back in 1979.

Derek had been working as a truck salesman for the Arlington Motor Company in Enfield, selling Leyland and Bedford trucks to furniture manufacturers; furniture being a traditional industry in that area of London.  Derek was very successful, and his customers liked the personal way he did business.  But when a new sales director was appointed that was all to change.

“My new boss resented the relationships I had with my customers and the money I was making through commission. He decided to make my best customers ‘house accounts’ and told me I could take it or leave it – so I left it!”

Derek had built close business relationships with local bodybuilders during his time at Arlingtons and after teaming up with one of them succeeded in migrating 90% of his customers to the new company.

“We’d sell new vehicles to the furniture manufacturers and when they were a few years old we’d trade them in and sell them to the removals industry.  They didn’t mind if they had a few miles on the clock because they spent most of their time parked outside someone’s house.  That’s how I got into the removals industry,” said Derek.

The bubble burst for the traditional furniture trade when flat-packs came on the scene and Derek decided to concentrate on the removals side of the business, mainly building new bodies onto used chassis.  For a number of years Vancraft used sub-contractors to build its vehicles but in 1985 a small factory not far from the present one in Besthorpe Norfolk was acquired and all the work was taken in-house.  The company moved to its present site in 2000.

Vancraft is approved by the Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA) to self-approve its vehicles avoiding the need to have them inspected by the Agency prior to registration.

Now over 90% of Vancraft’s business is with the removals industry although some specialist vehicles for other purposes are also produced, as Nick explained.  “We built a special van for the Bold Dog motorcycle stunt team a little while ago and another for a company called Mad Venture, which takes adventure tourists overland from the UK to Australia.  We do pretty much anything if we can.  We like to say yes.”

Nick joined the family business twenty-three years ago when he was eighteen and after spending time working in all the departments, including two years in the factory building the bodies, is now a director.  “Working my way up, so to speak, helped me understand the business and see everything at first-hand.  I spent most of my time in those early years looking for better, more efficient ways of doing things and making sure we got the best deals from our suppliers,” said Nick. 

As with many family businesses Derek and Nick have an excellent relationship with their workforce. “Last July we had a flood following a torrential downpour that overwhelmed the drainage system and flooded the offices and factory,” said Nick.  “Without us having to ask, the guys turned out in their own time to help clear up the mess and get the factory back in operation.  We were back in production after four weeks, which was amazing after such a devastating incident.” Derek added, “Our customers were very supportive too despite their orders being delayed for a short time. I’d like to thank them for their good wishes and understanding during a very distressing time.”

During the last couple of years Derek and Nick have seen a change in the buying choices of customers as a result of the Clean Air Zones (CAZs) being introduce across the UK. “People are increasingly buying new Euro VI chassis rather than going for refurbs these days.  A few years ago only about 10% of our vehicles were new, but now it’s around 40%.  Recently we formed an alliance with a finance brokerage who are able to offer seven-year finance and that’s had a significant affect in reducing the monthly cost.  Now you can buy a Euro VI vehicle for almost the same monthly payment as a refurbed Euro V, so it can make sense to buy new and not have to worry about paying fees to enter the new CAZs.”

As I left the building I passed a number of new Vancraft trucks, fresh off the production line, some sign written with the names of prestigious moving companies and one even displaying the Royal Warrant.  Forty years on the Avis family’s enthusiasm for the business is clearly undiminished and the quality of the vehicles it produces are testament to the skills of its workforce. 

Congratulations to everyone at Vancraft. Here’s to the next forty years.


Photo: Nick and Derek Avis




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