Vehicle conversion is a creative as well as a technical business, taking a customer’s idea or individual requirement and turning it into a safe, durable and productive reality. From dedicated racking designs, to secondary power provision, van converters need to have a wide range of skills at their disposal to meet customer needs. However, few companies have been asked to create a mobile barber’s shop before.
For Staffordshire conversion specialist Bri-Stor Systems, not only was that a genuine request, but visitors to this year’s Commercial Vehicle Show at the NEC will be able to experience the finished vehicle in use. Commissioned by mobile barbering company Trim-It, and featured on a recent Channel 4 documentary, Bri-Stor is building up to 100 of the Citroën Relay barber vans, for use around the country.
Bri-Stor offers a complete conversion service, from a clean sheet of paper design, through prototyping and crash testing, to the finished vehicle. This includes taking vehicles direct from the manufacturer and carrying out pre-delivery inspections and DVLA registration, to allow the finished van to go directly to the end user.
To achieve this, there are three companies within the group, all working together on a busy 14ha site near the village of Hixon, Staffordshire. Alpha Manufacturing is a precision sheet metal business, operating in a range of industries. Alpha produces all of the cut and folded sheet material for Bri-Stor in-house, ensuring total quality control and on-time delivery.
From Alpha, the racking components move to Atlas Powder Coating, which provides the high-quality automotive finish required to ensure the durability and corrosion resistance that customers demand. All racking components are powder coated in a choice of five main colours, though the company can provide any RAL colour if required. Bri-Stor also has a hand-painting booth and a Line-X coating bay, for individual builds.
The company boasts an in-house graphics department too, called Hex Signs & Graphics, capable of meeting all of the branding, safety signage, livery and wrapping needs of its customers.
In business for more than 38 years, Bri-Stor completes around 8,000 vehicle conversions each year. The company managed to keep its doors open for all but three weeks in 2020, maintaining its entire workforce, while implementing Covid-compliant measures.
Much of its work is with major fleets; Bri-Stor is currently providing racking and livery for 3,000 Vivaro-e vans for British Gas, for example. Electric vehicles have started coming through the facility in growing numbers and 96% of Bri-Stor’s staff have now completed the necessary training to work on EVs safely.
The company also works for the AA, Network Rail, Murphy, the RAC, Openreach and many others. It even has a de-fleet capability for some of its larger customers, along with kitting-out and handover facilities, that can include putting tools into the new vans ready for the engineer to simply drive away.
That said, smaller fleets and individual customers are equally welcome and they get exactly the same level of service. Indeed, with individual requirements they benefit from the expertise that is required for larger fleet customers, just in lower numbers.
“We do get a lot of big fleets, but we have smaller customers too,” said sales manager Jack Draper.
“We’re trying to branch out more, to keep our big fleet work, but to get more of the SME market too. We can do smaller volumes and all customers are treated exactly the same.”
One feature that fleets of all sizes have welcomed is Bri-Stor’s digital customer portal. Customers can log on through Bri-Stor’s website to a digital section that is dedicated solely to their vehicles. The page provides vehicle documentation for every conversion, including parts supplied to the vehicle and replacement graphic designs for each van.
There are driver guides available and the portal provides ‘how-to’ and handover videos for drivers that can’t take delivery of the vehicle in person. Bri-Stor also puts easy-to-find QR codes within each vehicle, that take the driver to the videos directly through a smartphone.
“Almost all of our customers use the portal, everything is done online these days,” said marketing executive, Victoria Taylor.
One important thing that is not done remotely, is investing in the business, both in terms of its facilities and in its staff. Even during the last year, Bri-Stor will have re-invested around £2 million in the manufacturing business and the company is considering expanding the site further, to make space for more than its current limit of around 2,000 vans.
More importantly, the company is investing in people. With a full apprentice training centre on site, Bri-Stor takes on around 15 apprentices a year and manages to retain 92% of those skilled workers once fully trained. Apprentices are not just employed in the workshops though, the company will also put 11 higher apprentices onto university and college courses this year in IT, accounts, purchasing, marketing and engineering disciplines. It’s little wonder that the company has staff that have been with the firm for more than 30 years.
Whatever the investment that is being made internally, Bri-Stor cannot help but be affected by external influences. As with every other sector of the LCV business, actually getting hold of vans is becoming increasingly difficult, as manufacturers struggle to keep up with demand. Bri-Stor has already seen some fleets push conversion work back, due to lack of vehicles, which will have an effect on its production figures this year.
“The first quarter of next year has already exploded, if we can get the vehicles,” said Draper.
Yet, the forward-looking company is already using this opportunity to look at new products and services. Expect to see a number of interesting initiatives on Bri-Stor’s stand at this year’s CV Show in September. You might even be able to get a haircut while you are there.