In 1999, Paul Oakley was unemployed and wasn’t credit worthy. “I was 33 years old, I had a failing business that I basically walked out of and was sleeping on my friend’s sofa”. Then he met Michelle. “I got a job driving a van for WH Smith News for three nights a week; I was there for about 4 months when a contract offer came up”.
Paul couldn’t get credit to purchase a works van, so Michelle offered to put up the finance on his behalf. “I always made a promise to never let her down no matter what happened between us as we had only been together four months”. Paul tells us how it was hard work with such unsociable hours. He carried the contract work on for four years, and gained contracts with large companies- Tufnell’s, Toys r Us, Staples and B&Q to name a few. “I phoned a lot of them up myself and introduced my company, it just sort of built from there really and I ended up with a small fleet of 6 vans!”
However Paul tells us he did hit some rough patches. “I had some expensive issues with a couple of vans. I ended up spending a lot of money and long story short I had to bring a partner in- which lasted about 2 months!” Unfortunately, there was a clash of opinion when it came to the business- then named Colebrook Light Haulage, and Paul ultimately left with one van and one contract to start a new venture.
“I had this old Jaguar, and someone I knew had a Rolls-Royce that was recently written off. I ended up doing a deal, and acquired it for a fair price and had a friend help me with the body work”. This is the first step to Paul starting a business in Wedding cars. “I bought a stretch limo… and then I bought another stretch limo and things just naturally built from there really”. Paul explains how there was a huge boom in the demand for limos at the time, so business was doing well. However, it started to become stagnant- and demand started to dwindle. “I then said to Michelle- we need a party vehicle!”
Paul started looking online for something to spark his imagination, when he came across an American ambulance. “It was brilliant; it still had the stretcher in the back and everything”. Paul brought it home in 2005 and set about converting it in to a New York fire department style ambulance. “I’ve never trained, I was useless in school; I had no qualifications when I left at all but when I put my mind to something I’m determined not to fail”. Paul completely transformed the interior of the ambulance, to a modern, fun and unique party bus experience complete with a dancing pole. “I wish I hadn’t sold it, it was amazing!” The party bus was a huge hit, capable of holding groups of up to 8 people. “It was completely killing the limos. Nobody wanted them when the ambulance was on offer”.
“I was one of the first in the country to be doing what I was. It was risky, but because of the positive feedback I was getting- I just knew it would work”
As ever, Paul’s desire to progress was soon put into action again with his purchase of a coach to convert in to a super-size party coach. “At that point I was the only driver, so I was out doing every job. It was hard work; it’s just been crazy to look back on”.
Paul explains the ins and outs of being able to drive these vehicles- and the fact that he needed to apply for an operator’s licence. To ensure the standards of the new conversions he has to send them to Exeter DVSA where they carry out a full COIF (Certificate of initial fitness) “They will measure every single inch and tell me how many seats I can have. They certify it for its carrying capacity to ensure passenger safety”.
Alongside the party busses, Paul Oakley also offers coach services. In 2012, Oakley’s Coaches won the contracts for two school runs. “I had to rush out and get two more coaches! I employed a driver, and I was the other driver”. It didn’t really matter that Paul was out of the office at the time, Paul explains how he could afford to let the answer machine pick up the call for party busses “As we were the only ones offering this size party bus, you could be confident that you could return missed calls when you got back to the office”.
The industry in general was going up and up, we were so busy. There are a lot of party busses out there, but most are smaller and have karaoke machines. We were offering something different, something unique”.
Talking safety, Paul tells us how most of his money goes on maintenance. “You can’t cut corners on maintenance; my engineering manager loves it here because if something needs doing we do it! There is no compromise on passenger and vehicle safety” Paul tells us he wants his coaches to be as safe as possible, and he wants to be confident in the case of a visit from the DVSA, the driver and vehicle standards agency- run random spot checks on public service vehicles to ensure they are safe for use. “We have recently been inspected and they were very impressed with our set up and found no issues with the workings of the company , this is a huge compliment as they do look closely at all the systems and procedures and to not have any area where improvement is needed is rare indeed”
Paul shows us around his premises, and into the impressive workshop where all the in-house maintenance takes place. One of Oakley’s towering double Decker coaches is being worked on as we walk in and his experienced staff are busy underneath the coach. Paul wasn’t exaggerating when he said they were completely self sufficient and it is definitely impressive.
Oakley’s Coaches has gone from strength to strength, starting out as Paul himself- Oakley’s Coaches now have 14 employees and an impressive fleet of 20 vehicles. “I like to have spare vehicles, so we’re totally self sufficient. It’s nice to know that if something goes wrong then you’re covered. I’m always conscious of- not just the stress of a breakdown, but ensuring your customers receive the service they have a right to expect and do not leave with a negative experience of the company”.
It’s safe to say that the businesses success is down to the hard work and determination of Paul. He explains how he decided to train and become a CPC holder for transport manager- which means he holds the ability to schedule all planning routes, maintenance, driving hours and working times. “I didn’t want to rely on others managing my company “He officially passed in 2012 and has been a transport manager for the past 5 years. “I had a choice when my previous transport manager left, answer to somebody else or be completely self-sufficient so I just had to get through those exams!”
We ask Paul what the most rewarding aspect of his job is. The answer takes us by surprise to start with! “The most rewarding aspect is when we’re having a really busy day and something goes wrong. When all of your staff and all your vehicles are out on the road and something happens, the stress levels are astronomical to start with of course- but at the end of the day we sit there and we think- wow we got through it and didn’t let anyone down”.
“It’s hard work and at the end of the day this sort of industry is a way of life. A healthy business will just keep growing and that’s exactly what we’ve done”
Paul explains that the business is at a point now where they need more help. Whether this be purchasing more vehicles to reach demand, or hiring more employees and drivers. “Normally in August we’re really quiet because obviously the kids are off school- but we’ve been really busy! It’s good but tiring”.
Talking about future plans for the business, Paul explains how he would eventually like to take a step back and taper his involvement down. “My youngest son would love to be an apprentice in the workshops when he’s older just like his big brother who already works with us, so that’s something that has future potential. Michelle and I have talked about bringing someone in who we could train up and possibly take over as transport manager; I would still oversee the whole thing”.
To conclude, we ask Paul what the secret to his success is. “Probably commitment and hard work, I think that’s about it! I’m not a clever person, so determination or maybe stubbornness… I won’t allow myself to fail”. Paul and his family have sacrificed a lot to be where they are today, so for the business to fall by the wayside was simply not an option.
“You have to have the right person standing behind you and supporting you. Michelle has been my rock, and she is so organised! There came a point where I couldn’t cope on my own, so Michelle came in about 5 years ago to help with running the office. The DVSA visited on the day Michelle started actually- Just after she finished sorting out the mess that was my office- Says it all really! Michelle sat down with them and went through what systems they wanted to see improvements on and worked swiftly to put them all in place, I haven’t looked back”
“I made a promise to Michelle when she put up the finance for my first van; it’s kind of stuck with me. I’ve just kept going and I haven’t stopped yet”.