Operator Profile - Solway Private Hire
How important are you to your local community? If you’re in a big city, chances are you’re just one of a number of operators – and your customers know they always have a choice.
But out in the more distant corners of the Kingdom, things are very different. And by distant, I mean distant. Silloth is the seaside town at the end of England. Twenty miles beyond Carlisle, via roads that are almost lanes, it sits on the Solway Firth. On the opposite bank of the estuary is Scotland.
In a town this remote, it comes as no surprise to find the local private hire operator is at the very heart of the community. Without Solway Private Hire, a lot of the daily goings-on would grind to a halt. Kids wouldn’t get to school. Pensioners wouldn’t get to the shops. Families would struggle to go on holiday.
But there’s more to it than that, says Solway Cars boss Glen Holder from his office in the town centre. “People just pop in for a chat!” he says cheerfully. “Locals and regular holidaymakers love the general banter!”
Silloth is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone. “It’s a lovely town, and the sunsets over the Solway can be stunning,” says Glen. Even holidaymakers who stay in local guest houses and caravan parks tend to be regulars who return each year. And Solway’s intense, but friendly, local focus is what made the company the outstanding Gold medal Community Award winner not once but twice in the Professional Driver QSi Awards of 2014 and 2015.
The QSi Logo proudly adorns the door, and the trophy sits on Glen’s desk. And we’d like to think it’ll help Solway build up an already strong reputation in Silloth, and the wide, rural area of north-west Cumbria that it covers – down to Workington to the south and Carlisle to the east.
Forget the internet and forget social media – word of mouth is how news travels up in Cumbria. And personal recommendations are winning business from all over the region for Solway. One growth area is airport runs. For holidaymakers, the nearest major airport is still Manchester – 140 miles away. “We sometimes drive 30 miles to pick them up too,” says Glen’s partner and co-director Debbie Wilson. “It’s two and a half hours there and back, and it’s getting popular.”
Solway operates a number of eight-seater minibuses and these are great for airport work, as there’s room for people and luggage – plus the cost spread over eight passengers becomes more manageable. And if the service is good, the people of Silloth show their appreciation. “One driver got a £40 tip – everyone chipped in a fiver!” says Debbie.
And if you thought Manchester was a long haul, one driver was recently tasked with taking a customer who didn’t like flying to his holiday destination – a cruise liner sailing from…Southampton!
It’s been a story of pretty rapid growth for Solway Private Hire. Glen and Debbie had previously run a plant hire business, but the opportunity came up in 2009 to buy a local family firm that operated a minibus and a couple of delivery vans. A couple of months later, they realised there wasn’t really a private hire operator in the town, so first car was added – a Vauxhall Vectra.
Since then, the fleet has grown to 30 vehicles, a mix of cars, minibuses and vans. Two new Vauxhall Vivaro minibuses have been added recently, and the current car fleet stands at 24 vehicles, mainly Ford Galaxys, which prove themselves to be as flexible and robust in the country as they do in the London for Addison Lee.
As well as airport work, the Galaxys are used extensively for local council jobs, especially transporting special needs children to schools in Carlisle. It’s almost a scheduled service – Glen and Debbie know when the cars will be arriving back in Silloth, as the same journeys are carried out daily. “We’ve built up a good reputation in that area, and parents ask for us to do the jobs,” says Debbie.
To illustrate the strong relationship, Debbie tells a story about a young disabled lad called Thomas, who Solway had been taking to school – and who has now won a place at University – very close to his school. The council won’t pay for this – but Thomas’s parents asked Solway to taking him to university every day. Glen and Debbie agreed to do it for the same discounted price that the council had been paying for the school runs.
“The parents trust us,” says Debbie. “We make sure their teenagers get home,” she says, telling the story of a lad who’d lost his wallet in Carlisle and couldn’t get back to Silloth. Solway simply went and got him, and settled up the bill the next day. Try doing that with your Uber driver!
A depot is maintained on Silloth docks, where cars are stored, serviced, cleaned and maintained. The workshop is run by a redoubtable mechanic simply known as “Scouse” – no prizes for guessing where he’s from - and cars are rarely off the road for long. Currently, he’s transforming a down-at-hell VW minibus bought on Ebay into a smart community transport vehicle. Nothing flash, but there’s no compromise on safety.
Quite a few of the drivers are female – which helps with the school work, and the lady drivers are also popular with elderly customers, which make up a high proportion of Silloth’s 2,700 residents. Indeed, many customers request a specific driver by name.
The cars are all company-owned, though. And now drivers are being employed in Workington – Solway even bought a little local three-vehicle firm in the town to help extend the coverage.
Solway Private Hire also runs a small fleet of delivery vans, which are operated on behalf of local companies – everything from school dinners to flowers to tractor parts are delivered.
And a pair of S-Type Jaguars are kept on strength as wedding cars, and Glen’s own Range-Rover gets pressed into service on this work too. And a typical Saturday might involve a delivery of spare car parts to a dealer, followed by a bride and groom collection from the local church. “That’s how it works up here.” Says Glen.
When a company is so central to a community, it becomes a bigger problem when something does go wrong – like a car breaking down, or being stuck in traffic. “We’ve always managed to build it back up,” says Glen.
Where to next for Solway? There’s extra land at the depot, and Solway is planning to expand into 16-seater minibus work. Glen and Debbie are taking a CPC – and that VW that Scouse is fixing up will be joined by more similar vehicles. “We’re getting demand for larger vehicles, especially for groups coming to the town to play a round of golf at Silloth Golf Club,” says Glen.
What makes Solway Private Hire different? During our conversation, there’s very little chat about business matters or cars – but a lot of talk about people – people who work for the company and people who travel in the cars. In a place where everyone knows you, it helps if you know them all too.