4 January 2024
4 January 2024, Comments Comments Off on James Turner – Swift Group
James Turner - Swift Group

Swift set for a bright future

The last few years have proved very challenging for our industry, but Swift has strived to use the problems to its advantage

Words Terry Owen

We visited the Swift factory in East Yorkshire to interview Swift Group’s CEO, James Turner, supported by Marketing Director, Joanne Mitchell.

Aboutcamp BtoB: How has your business changed in recent years?
James Turner: Despite the obvious major issues around Covid and the subsequent supply chain problems, it also enabled us to accelerate planned changes, both in the production and office environments.
When employees were unable to come into work in 2020, we found that many office staff were able to work quite successfully from home. Then, once restrictions eased and people returned to the factory, we decided we could adopt a hybrid working model. This comprises core hours at the office, which are specific to the needs of each department, with the rest working from home. Productivity has proved to be very good and people are now happier as they have the flexibility to work around their children and other commitments.
We now have a hot desk set up where staff book a desk before coming into work. Other advantages of this are that they never know who they’re going to be sat next to and so staff integration has improved, and the hybrid model also fits with our sustainability drive, less trips saves on emissions. What’s more, flexible working also allows us to recruit from further away – we’ve even had people from overseas working for us.
Because fewer people are in the office at any one time, we’ve been able to significantly reduce the total office space and undertake a major refurbishment. We’ve decided that hybrid working is here to stay, and so the space freed up will be put to a good alternative use.

Aboutcamp BtoB: Have you found any downsides to hybrid working?
James Turner: One result of hybrid working is that people don’t get together as much as they used to and to counter this, we’ve introduced the Swift Active programme. It involves the running of a monthly activity for people to take part in. Examples include go-carting, five a side football, three peaks climb, golf, and so on.
We encourage employees to lead healthy lifestyles and have a health and wellbeing officer who organises the Swift Active programme and does much other work related to the wellbeing of employees. We also have an ambassador in a local boxer who is currently the English champion and encourages our sport and fitness activities.

Below: GRP (GFK) production facility; CNC Gantry Processing machine; Panel dividing saw


Aboutcamp BtoB: How has production changed?
James Turner: We used the Covid downtime to bring forward the installation of new high-tech machinery, the construction of new buildings and the refurbishment of old ones.
The goal has been to increase our on-site production capacity to cope with the anticipated demand. To this end, all our furniture, GRP (GFK) and laminated panels are made in specially dedicated areas of the site. These currently feed no less than eight product assembly lines with two more set to come on stream in March next year. We believe the GRP facility is one of the largest of its type in Europe.
In line with the enlarged activity, we expect to increase the number of employees from the current record high of 1350 and are building a new car park to accommodate them all.

Aboutcamp BtoB: Swift is known in the industry for its staff training academy, how does that work?
James Turner: The Swift Academy was launched in 2015 and it’s something we’re very proud of. It’s the baby of our Chief Operating Officer, Amy Archer, who kicked it off when she was deputy MD. The Academy offers employees the opportunity to join structured development schemes including bespoke internal training workshops and accredited programmes that lead to formal qualifications. Currently we have 114 apprentices in our programme, that’s about 8.5% of our total workforce.
During Covid we set up a step-in programme to recruit people from industries that were failing because of it, such as hospitality. This has worked really well with many deciding to stay with us.

Aboutcamp BtoB: Swift is also known for its long service awards, proudly presented at product preview events. What is the current situation?
James Turner: We are fortunate in having a very loyal workforce, many of whom stay with us year after year. Currently we have some 130 employees with more than 25 years’ service.

Below: Hard point location; Swift’s TV advert; 2023 apprentice intake


Aboutcamp BtoB: Unusually for an RV manufacturer you took out a TV advertising campaign earlier this year. What were the drivers for this and what was the result?
Joanne Mitchell: We wanted to reach a different and larger audience of potential buyers and the research we did said that the best and only way to do this quickly was through TV. We knew the exact demographic of people we wanted to reach and using SKY’s ability to serve adverts down to individual households, along with Channel 4 in the north of England, we reached 11.2 million people with our first burst of advertising. Utilising SKY’s attribution tool, we were then able to measure the exact impact of the campaign and the subsequent traffic to our website. For example, we know that it’s been successful in generating leads for our dealers. That’s why the campaign is on-air again for three weeks as we speak.

Aboutcamp BtoB: How do you handle customer care and after sales support queries?
Joanne Mitchell: We have a new online customer portal called My Swift Life and this is a great resource for customers to get information quickly and self-serve in many cases, also our customer care team has introduced a new software system called Zendesk. It manages Customer service more efficiently. When a customer generates an enquiry, whether by phone, email or social media, the software logs that enquiry into a ticketing system for allocation to the best person within the team to deal with it. It also allows the generation of KPI’s so we know how quickly we are dealing with queries and whether we have a first-time resolution or not.
Our agents can see all customer details in one view and then go online to connect with them in their preferred way. The software has helped us achieve a four-star rating for customer service with Trustpilot – something that’s unusual for our industry.

Aboutcamp BtoB: We’ve heard the old works canteen has gone, what can you tell us about that?
James Turner: We’ve replaced our old canteen with a totally new café style facility christened Hub Sixty-Four. It’s named after the year 1964, when Swift was founded. The café serves a selection of fresh foods at breakfast and lunch as well as being open to shift workers around the clock.
It’s a place where people can not only eat, but also have time away from the workplace for less formal meetings over a coffee or whatever. To promote its use, we ensure that the food available is cheaper than can be found outside the factory. It caused quite a stir when we opened it with the local MP cutting the ribbon, and the press in attendance.
The café has been a great success and is used by everybody. At £2m it was a significant investment for us but it’s proved invaluable from a staff recruitment and retention point of view.

Below: local MP opens the on-site café; Swift’s factory at Cottingham


Aboutcamp BtoB: What’s your assessment of the current market and future trends?
James Turner: The touring caravan market is seeing an underlying decline of around 5-6% each year. We expect this to continue for some time, albeit with excursions above and below the trendline. At some point we expect it to level out but it’s difficult to say when that will be. In the short term we expect some recovery towards the trendline.
The motorhome market is continuing to grow well and we think this will last for some years yet. Fortunately, we’re now beginning to see an easing of the chassis cab supply problems. Currently we build on Fiat and Ford but will keep our options open as the market evolves. The holiday home sector is growing slowly each year, although there is too much stock in the market just now. We therefore expect a period of correction before growth resumes.
Being involved in the three sectors enables us to flex our production facilities according to the individual demand at any one time and to better control our costs.

Aboutcamp BtoB: What impact do you think the move towards electric vehicles will have on our industry?
James Turner: I think we’re a long way off the mass production of BEV motorhomes but hybrid technology will take off first, as we are now seeing with towcars. It’s inevitable we’ll be led by the base vehicle manufacturers and what they have to offer. I don’t think our industry is big enough to have much effect on its own.

Aboutcamp BtoB: How long have you worked at Swift and how did you become CEO?
James Turner: I’ve worked for Swift for almost 30 years now. I started as a production engineer and worked my way through the ranks until I ended up running the operations side of the business here at Cottingham. In 2012 the chairman of the business, Peter Smith, invited me to become MD. Then, in October 2022, I became Chief Executive Officer.
I’d like to emphasise that what we have achieved would not have been possible without the loyal and skilled team of people here, who are making it all happen. This very much includes the production staff who turn out our products to very exacting standards.
In everything we do we set out to grow the business and we’ve been very successful in doing this. We see a really bright future!