Chauffeur Profile - PCS
Manchester Airport, 11 o’clock in the morning. Outside the bustling Terminal 1, a strip of vacant parking lot is starting to fill up. Through the barrier comes a steady flow of Mercedes E-classes, all of them silver, with the flow interrupted by the occasional Viano or black S-Class.
By 11.30, the strip is full - every one of the 50 available spaces is filled with a car bearing the three-pointed star. And they’re still coming in, parking in line on the other side of the narrow car park. “We’ve got 63 pick-ups this morning,” says Steve Leather (pictured), who’s made the trip down the M56 from Runcorn to show Professional Driver the slick operation that’s unfolding before us.
This is how PCS runs its contract with Emirates Airlines – the 63 cars is each collecting business or first-class passengers arriving at Manchester from Dubai, and points beyond, on one of Emirates’ massive Airbus A380s. The drivers are waiting in a dedicated area, complete with reception desk, right next to the arrivals hall. From there, it’s a case of crossing the road, finding the right car and heading off to the final destination. It’s as slick as it gets – by 1 o’clock, only Steve’s car remains in the car park.
The customer experience at Manchester – at least for Emirates passengers – must be a pleasure, compared to the scrum at many of the London terminals. For PCS, Emirates is part of a major expansion strategy that has seen the company grow a fleet of 250 chauffeur cars – nearly all Mercedes, with a small number of Jaguars that are used for Government work. As well as the three daily Emirates arrivals at Manchester, PCS handles the airline’s flights through Birmingham, twice a day, and a single flight in and out of Newcastle.
Like most chauffeur companies, PCS started small. It was established with a single car 30 years ago by John Murphy, who remains as CEO today. It’s a family-run business, with John’s son and daughter both working for PCS. Turnover is around £6 million – it’s serious stuff.
“The business took a real leap forward about nine years ago when we won our first Emirates contract, out of Birmingham airport,” says Steve, a relatively recent recruit who has joined as national sales manager six months ago with a brief to keep the expansion on track. But he’s known John Murphy for 15 years – previously he worked for a bank, putting together finance packages for the PCS fleet.
Emirates’ expansion since 2005 has been spectacular – back then it had 77 jets. Now it has 218, many of them A380s – in total, Emirates has 140 A380s either in service or on order, around half of the total production run to date of the double-decker “superjumbo”. And PCS has been able to piggyback on this – picking up more and more flights – it currently handles six arrivals and departures a day, and Steve is eyeing more – perhaps even in London, where the Tristar and Carey handle its flights.
“As a business, we probably do 10,000 transfers a month – a mix of Emirates, business transfers, hospitality work, celebrity and government jobs,” says Steve. “Business is booming at the moment, and long may it continue.”
PCS’s business model is unusual. Cars are either bought or leased, but almost all the drivers are employees, a mix of full-time and part-time – with a few casual employees to handle peaks and troughs, usually in Spring and Autumn. A lot of drivers have been with the company for 13 or 14years, and John Murphy personally has a say on recruitment. “We very rarely sub-contract work out. By employing drivers we get uniformity – they dress appropriately, drive the same cars, and work our way.”
Head office is in Runcorn – around 20 staff work there, with reservations staff and controllers based there. They handle the Emirates business – usually getting notification the day before of the next day’s flights – allowing drivers to be allocated to specific jobs. Drivers are based in the north-east and midlands too, around 20 in Newcastle and 70 in Birmingham, and there are support offices at both airports.
Other drivers are based near other airports, such as Liverpool and Chester, to handle executive jet transfers. “We think it’s important to have rivers as close to regional airports. We’re not an on-demand service, but it keeps costs down to have drivers based nearby.
Runcorn also houses a service and repair facility, complete with tyre depot and company-owned emergency response vehicles should cars be involved in accidents or go “tech”. “We have dedicated, Mercedes-trained in-house people who look after our vehicles. We’re very self-sufficient,” says Steve.
Steve’s role is to keep the growth on track. “I’m looking at new sales opportunities, networking in the business community and talking to more airlines,” he says. “We’re looking to open up a London office soon, which we’re excited about. We do a lot of work in London already.” Transfers from the north-west to Gatwick is a growing area, as there’s currently no direct flight from Manchester to Gatwick, and travellers taking long-haul flights from Gatwick really don’t want to fly to Heathrow or take the train.
Steve wants to make the business more diverse – one area of interest is sporting work. PCS does jobs for both Manchester football clubs. “We tap into the major sponsors at the clubs, handling the corporate matchday hospitality requirements for the likes of Aon, Manchester United’s main shirt sponsor,” says Steve. “We’re also keen to get involved with the Grand Prix, and the Open Golf, which is in the north-west at Hoylake this year.”
Conferences and events are another growth area – Unilever is a major client, and events such as annual dinners are handled by PCS. An on-site events manager is provided for these jobs, co-ordinating cars for various venues. Last month PCS handled all the ground transport for a major 12-day event for Asda, involving cars and coaches, hired in from a friendly coach fiorm that has high-grade vehicles.
PCS has just bought a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter mini-coach, which has been kitted out as an executive 8-seater with wifi, tables and TV, and it is very popular with senior directors of football clubs – Swansea City is a regular customer. “We’re looking at getting another one as it’s proving very popular,” says Steve. Another, more basic Sprinter serves as a luggage van – it’s used for private jet pick-ups, taking luggage to the hotel while the passengers travel in cars.
Most of the Mercedes cars are E250 or E350 models, but a number of E300 Bluetec Hybrids are currently on test – Steve reckons PCS might switch to the hybrid if they prove popular, and the numbers add up. “It’ll be interesting to see what the savings will be,” he says. “We do a lot of motorway driving, buy the hybrid comes into its own when you come off the motorway. I’m really looking forward to seeing the results of the evaluation.” Around seven or eight new S-Classes are on strength. “It’s phenomenal,” says Steve.
Cars are turned around after two years or so. The last 11-plate cars will soon be de-fleeted. Unusually, Steve prefers the AMG-style sports grille that Mercedes has adopted across the entire E-Class range to the traditional grille with the gunsight badge. “I’ve never been a fan of the gunsight, though I can see the passenger appeal. But personally I think the more modern, sporty look is far better. I guess that makes me a radical!”
What’s the PCS difference? “Attention to detail,” says Steve. “We confirm our bookings 24 hours in advance. We ask how much luggage they’ve got. We pay attention to traffic jams and re-route the cars around them. We’re always there when we’re asked to be. The cars are immaculate, and the drivers are sociable and professional. And business clients get one simple invoice a month.”
Booking technology is based around the Catalina Software Freedom system, and drivers are all being issued with iPad Minis as their main contact tool, rather than the old “brick” PDAs. “John Murphy hasn’t been afraid to invest in technology,” says Steve.
One thing Steve is nervous about is the word “chauffeur”. He believes it might scare some clients away. “It gives the impression of an unsmiling man in a peaked cap, driving a Rolls-Royce,” he says. “But our drivers are nothing like that – most of them are ex-Police or ex-Forces. A lot of our clients prefer to jump in the front with the driver rather than ride in the back!”
Private business is a small part of the PCS business – sometimes a passenger who’d previously used Emirates calls us again, and we attended the National Wedding Fair with the new S-Class. “It’ll never be a big part of our business, but it might fill gaps at quieter times, such as in the summer,” says Steve.
“I don’t think there’s any limit to what we can do. If we took on another airline here that needed us to provide 60-70 cars, we’d adapt,” he says. Manchester Airport has room to grow, with airlines such as Saudi Arabian and Cathay Pacific starting to fly in. Manchester Airport is going to need a bigger executive car park.