Chairman’s spotlight on… Paul Clark, Founder & MD of Paul Clark Services
What does it take to build a successful business? It takes ambition, the ability to spot an opportunity, and the presence of mind to keep investing back into your people, product, and customer success.
When I met Paul Clark, I saw an entrepreneur who ticked all three boxes. His company, Paul Clark Services, has become the go-to partner for the UK’s biggest coach and bus companies, from Stagecoach to First Group and Arriva, maintaining and repairing these hard-wearing vehicles 364 days a year.
Last year, PCS celebrated 25 years in business – a testament to the enduring appeal and continued growth of this company.
When Paul started out, it was just him in a second-hand van. Today, PCS manages 125 engineers. “I come from a humble background and, if I’m honest, I never dreamed my company would become so successful,” he tells me. “It’s taken a lot of hard graft to get us here.”
He created the business when he was 29, after working in the industry for over a decade. “I started working on buses through an apprenticeship,” he explains. “First, I worked for a local bus and coach company. When I was 21 and had finished that apprenticeship, I started working at Thamesdown Transport, the local municipal bus company – I was their youngest skilled engineer.”
But Paul had big dreams. He rose to become assistant engineer manager but that’s where his prospects ended – “I couldn’t go any higher because there were no more openings,” he says. “That’s when I decided to give it a go on my own. I was single and had a small mortgage. If I was ever going to give it a shot, I knew that was my chance.”
Paul spotted a gap in the market for a self-employed engineer specialising in the bus and coach industry. There was a talent shortage in this sector and, if you had the experience and were happy to travel, the work was there. “The minute I started working for myself, the phone started to ring,” he says. “There were no websites back then, just word of mouth recommendations, but I was always busy.”
When the workload became too much for one man, Paul persuaded an old colleague, Michael Kerslake, to leave Thamesdown and join him as an equal partner in PCS. The business thrived, and more engineers came on board.
Over the years, Paul has deftly adapted the business to stay relevant to the modern trading environment. Whether it was diversifying into ambulances or moving into electric and hydrogen vehicles ahead of the market, he has consistently reinvested into PCS.
One of his smartest investments, he tells me, was BigChange. “We wanted to move away from our paper scheduling system,” he says. “BigChange has transformed the business. When our schedules were ready, we used to call and text every single engineer. Now that’s all automated, which saves so much time.
“Our customers love it too. We track all the information for each job, and I’ve been told we stand out from our competitors because of the detailed reporting we offer.”
There have been tough times over the years. “The biggest challenges arise when customers have financial difficulties,” he explains. “One company owed us £50,000 and went into administration – we never saw a penny.” The pandemic also took its toll: “For 12 weeks, buses stopped running,” he says. “Our engineers are mostly self-employed, so my job was to keep the guys from starving.”
The very talent shortage that helped Paul establish PCS has also become a challenge. “We bring on one apprentice a year and pay the highest rates to tempt engineers in.”
Paul has the three entrepreneurial qualities – ambition, vision, and resilience – in spades. Now, like me, he’s thinking about legacy, and helping create new leaders within his business.
“I’m 56 now, and my son is a second-year apprentice in the workshop,” he says. “I’ve started talking to the managers here about the future – perhaps a management buyout? My ambitions have shifted and evolved. It’s all about having a healthy business for my ambitious management team.”