Van maker optimistic about the future

Dec 09 | 2011

Deputy Editor David Jordan makes a return visit to Vancraft to see how the company weathered the storm of the recession and returned to full order books.

I last met Vancraft’s directors Derek Avis and his son Nick back in 2006 when I visited the factory for the first time. On the face of it nothing seemed to have changed as I drove into the yard in Besthorpe, a village now bypassed by the busy A10 not far from Thetford.  Nick met me in reception and went off to put the kettle on while Derek and I chatted about how Vancraft had survived the recession and come out of it leaner and fitter as a result.

“We went through a pretty tough patch towards the end of 2008,” said Derek.  “People suddenly stopped buying vans and we had to take a close look at our overheads and how we could cut costs. We also took on work away from our traditional markets such as building curtain-sided trucks and even motor homes. Inevitably we had to make several people redundant and we finished up losing about half of our workforce.”

Nick brought in the tea and we talked about the impact the redundancies had made on the business. “Surprisingly little is the honest answer,” said Nick. “We all have to do things we didn’t do before, like me making the tea occasionally for example, but really it’s been a lot easier than we thought. It’s easy when times are good to get onto a situation where you’re carrying more staff than you really need. It’s only when things get tough you realise you can manage perfectly well with fewer people – I think that’s a lesson we’ve learned.” 

Thankfully the worst of the recession seems to be over for Vancraft and the order books are back to their normal healthy level. “We’ve seen a big increase in orders for large European removal vans,” said Derek. “I think the tide has turned for a lot of people who moved abroad a few years ago and they’ve decided to move back to the UK.”

Right on cue the reception bell rang announcing the arrival of Harry and John Appleyard from Britannia Appleyard & Sons in Rotherham making an inspection visit of their new Volvo FM Globetrotter being fitted out in the factory. Harry told me the impressive new vehicle was primarily for use in Europe, confirming the buoyancy of the continental removals market.

Vancraft’s reputation for craftsmanship was reflected in the standard of the vehicles being prepared on the shop floor, with great care being taken by the coachbuilders to make sure the highest standards are maintained. 

The company’s return to full order books has led to a recruiting drive for additional production staff, but finding the right calibre of people is proving very difficult. “We need to recruit a number of coachbuilders to bring our production team up to the level we need, but so far we’ve not been able to find people with the right skills,” said Derek. “It’s a bit surprising given the number of people out of work, but I guess it’s a sign of the times.”

Despite the current difficulty in finding skilled labour, Derek and Nick are quietly optimistic that the worst of the recession is over and the steady upturn in business will be maintained.  As with many other companies, the last few years have not been easy and Vancraft’s return to success has not been without pain.  However the company’s resilience and willingness to respond to a changing market has ensured its survival and maintained Vancraft’s position as one of the removals industry’s most respected van makers.

Photo: (left to right) David Appleyard, Harry Appleyard with Derek Avis during their visit to the Vancraft factory.