Driving retention

SFS has an enviable track record in retaining its contracts. Chris Elliott finds out how being flexible and adaptable, and keeping on top of technological innovations, ensures customers stay put.

Britain’s refuse collection vehicles (RCVs) have been on the front line during the coronavirus pandemic, maintaining a vital service for millions of households.

Keeping the RCVs on the road has been a key task too, not only for the nation’s local authorities, but for the waste industry fleet companies that supply them.

For councils that have chosen to contract hire their vehicles, rather than purchase them outright, a vehicle partner can be a real benefit in sharing the burden and keeping fleets – and, therefore, services – running smoothly. Nowhere is this better illustrated than at Northampton-based contract hire and fleet management company Specialist Fleet Services (SFS), which has long-standing relationships with local authorities across the UK and an enviable track record in customer retention.

Every local government tender that comes out is different, so every solution has to be different.

The company’s origins hark back to the 1990s, when the man at the helm, managing director Bob Sweetland, switched from a career in merchant banking to the vehicle-leasing scene.

Working in a bank’s leasing division, Sweetland gained knowledge about RCV contracts for local government, and was head-hunted by a new leasing business being set up in the UK by a Finnish bank. After a relationship with public services provider Serco, Specialist Fleet Services came into being, and a couple of changes of ownership now leave the company under the secure support of the Paragon Banking Group.

SFS has carved out an impressive market in contract hiring vehicles to local authorities, with about 30 councils on its books – and many of those customers have gone on to sign up for consecutive repeat contracts.

Exeter City Council is an SFS customer

Kettering Borough Council, for example, recently extended its deal with SFS to 2027 and, when this goes out to tender again, the council will have been a customer for 25 years. The same goes for Teignbridge, the business of which SFS won in 2002, plus Epsom & Ewell and Hinckley & Bosworth, both of which first came on board in 2005.

What can other fleet-hire firms learn from SFS’s success, not only in winning contracts, but also in retaining them?

‘Our core business is providing fleets of new, replacement vehicles to local authorities,’ says Sweetland. ‘We procure the vehicles to their specification, and provide them, generally, for a period of five to seven years, at a fixed price, which includes all maintenance, tyres, road fund licences, and so on.

‘Our ideal is to do the maintenance ourselves, because that’s the best way we can provide a really efficient service. We now have 10 workshops dotted around the country, most of which are based within a council depot. This means councils don’t have to worry about their fleet.

‘One of the key issues a lot of local authorities face is that they no longer have as much technical expertise in-house. So, they can say to us, we need 20 refuse vehicles available to go on the road every morning, and they know it’s our job to ensure that happens.’

The process must begin with a detailed assessment of the tender, Sweetland says. ‘Every local government tender that comes out is different, so every solution has to be different.

‘You have to be flexible and adaptable, and that’s why we’re successful where some of the bigger contract-hire companies aren’t. They tend to have their own standard product, which, of course, they do very cost-effectively. But, if you ask them to do something out of the box – a whole new solution – they are not always interested, because it doesn’t fit their business model.’

He cites SFS’s many years of experience in the industry, and the fact that it is owned by a bank, as key factors in its success. The bank gives the company financial stability, ownership of its assets, and removes the need for third-party lending. Sweetland also stresses the need for being totally up front with customers.

‘We’re very focused on delivering what we say we will at the tender stage,’ he says. ‘When a tender comes out, they are very comprehensive documents; we go through them in great detail and then have a “bid or no bid” discussion. If we don’t feel we can deliver what the customer wants, we won’t bid for it. If there are aspects that we can’t deliver, we will say so when we bid.

‘We’re honest, and we’ve lost business in the past for being honest, but we’d rather be up front.

‘When we ask customers why they renew with us, they say it’s because they know what they’re going to get. We don’t over-promise, and whatever we say we’re going to do, we do.’


Another useful tip for retaining contracts is to help customers keep on top of the latest technology. For example, SFS recently hosted a low-carbon emission vehicles event for local authorities – socially distanced – and showcased electric RCVs, vans and other equipment.

‘We already supply a number of electric vehicles, and we’re working closely with some of the manufacturers on the eRCVs that are starting to come to market,’ says Sweetland.

‘We’re approaching it cautiously, because we want to make sure that, when we deliver a vehicle to our customers, it’s sourced from a manufacturer that has done all the R&D on it, so you can be confident it’s going to work, and it’s going to last.’

He is proud of how well his staff, and the waste industry in general, have performed during the Covid-19 crisis.

‘We’ve kept all our workshops operating, and our head office has had a skeleton staff, with everyone else working from home – and we haven’t needed to furlough anyone. We’ve been busier than ever, as have our customers.’

This article first appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Circular.

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