How vehicle manufacturer Econ Engineering continues to evolve 

When Manufacturing Today last visited the operations of family business Econ Engineering, we spoke to Managing Director Jonathan Lupton, who revealed how the UK’s leading manufacturer of gritters, de-icers, snow ploughs, and highway maintenance vehicles has achieved five decades of successful operation.

Catching up again with Jonathan and new Operations Director Gareth Legg, we learn more about the past ten months at Econ. Sadly, the sudden loss of Jonathan’s brother, Andrew, in January 2022, who held the Sales Director position, identified the need for additional senior support at the top level. Given the close family feel and culture at Econ, finding the right person was essential, and here’s where the hand of fate stepped in – while Jonathan was in discussions with Crossroads Truck and Bus, the local Volvo franchise, regarding the chassis of a new Econ electric truck, he met Gareth.

“I officially joined Econ in August 2023, but I had been working before this with Jonathan in my capacity as MD of Crossroads. Having done some site visits in 2020, I even made an off the cuff comment to my family that I felt I could work at Econ – I was drawn to the family culture and ethos, and the smell of the machine shop reminded me of my metalwork lessons at school!”

Two-and-a-bit years later, Jonathan and Gareth were having a conversation about a new role. “Fundamentally what I love is that Econ brings in raw materials and builds a vehicle. There are so few companies that are true cradle-to-grave manufacturers, and I find this a new and exciting environment to be in. I have been in operations for over 20 years, but not in manufacturing, and I was ready for a new challenge.”

Having mentioned his previous career, Gareth started out in oil and gas, in which he held various positions around the globe, before returning to the UK and entering the world of transportation at First Bus, prior to his career at Crossroads. Recognizing the challenges of taking on the new role of Operations Director at a well-established business in an unfamiliar sector, he admits he is starting off in observation mode. “It’s really been a case of watching what’s going on and seeing what I think we could do better in the future, as there’s always room for improvement. It’s been a really interesting couple of months, as they work in such a different way to any of my previous roles.

“I have also been involved in looking at health and safety, and new software systems. Looking for efficiency gains and process changes is where my skills lie. Econ has grown massively over the past ten years, and so, for example, the software system is dated. Rather than wait five years for support from the provider to be withdrawn, we’re currently interviewing for new ERP providers. I’ve come from somewhere that could access data at a very granular level, and while we have all that detail here, it’s not all available in one system. Pulling it all into one place is going to be a sizeable implementation process, incorporating finance, manufacturing, servicing, and so on, and we must time the process correctly, given the seasonal nature of the hire side. There’s always a painful period of implementation on a project such as this, but it will be fantastic when it’s all working.

“Overall, I’m only dipping my toe into production and trying to learn a bit of everything as we go along, while currently influencing very little because they all know what they’re doing. I don’t want to start off as the new boy and make a wrong decision!”

Having been a part of the development of Econ’s new Electric Quick-Change Body (E-QCB) truck via his work at Volvo, Gareth goes on to give some further details about this project. With electric trucks being a major focus point for Volvo, the brand made a perfect partner for Econ, and the E-QCB has been created through Econ Engineering’s R&D team, and product specialists from Volvo Trucks UK & Ireland, and Crossroads.

“It is based on a Volvo chassis, and we’ve put three body options on it, to ensure that it has the capability to work 24/7, 365 days a year. There’s no getting away from the fact that electric vehicles are more expensive to purchase than their diesel counterparts – that’s just a fact. We must make sure that this investment is operationally viable, as an electric gritter that is parked up for six months would not justify the investment despite the carbon benefits to the operator. It is not economically viable.” Addressing this, Econ offers a caged tipping body and a highway maintenance tipping body, as well as a gritting option, and thanks to its innovative demountable bodywork, which uses hydraulic rams, it can switch from gritting to tipping in under 15 minutes.

Having launched at the Econ stand at the Cold Comfort 2023 Event in Harrogate in May, the E-QCB has been very well received across the country. “The demonstrator is being tested in real-world environments, where clients run it for a week and see what it can do,” says Gareth. “We need accurate data on its performance and the tests will be ongoing. We’re trying to push the boundaries with the electric side, and the information we’re getting back is very positive.”

Ensuring the E-QCB reaches its next destination has required valued support from the Volvo network, and even a favor or two from Gareth’s old colleagues at Crossroads. This sort of close supplier relationship is pivotal to the success of Econ, and Jonathan joins the conversation to discuss the importance of a partnership approach. “It’s a challenging market, with increasing costs, but we have some very good suppliers, and we try to create solid relationships and long-lasting partnerships.

“What I’ve seen is a recognition on both sides that we must work together. We all know that costs and prices have gone up, and labor is challenging, but we need to work with people that will support us and have the vision to grow with us as well.”

Referring to this people-led approach brings us to the topic of recruitment, and Jonathan acknowledges that future planning to mitigate the effects of an aging workforce is a priority. “We have a very proactive training program and are bringing apprentices into the business across a number of departments. We have a few generations of the same family who work here, which we’re keen to continue, and we’re seeing encouraging signs from young people who are actively looking to join Econ. You must be prepared to find, train, and work with the staff, which is half the battle and we’re doing pretty well on that front. Equally we are proud to have a large number of long serving staff, many in excess of 30 years, the longest currently being 45 years.”

Gareth also emphasizes the importance of the team at Econ, saying: “I think that any praise for performance is a reflection of the dedicated work of the entire team – in fact, I believe I work for the apprentices and the technicians. If I left tomorrow, the business would keep going but if the technicians go – there’s no business left! Therefore, I work for them. Maintaining a stable and growing work environment is the responsibility of my position, and if the company does well, we grow and employ more people, which is always the aim.”

While there are strategic plans for further development in the pipeline, as we head towards the end of 2023, winter is when Jonathan and Gareth and the team focus attention on helping their customers deal with the seasonal road conditions. This is aided by its new servicing depot in Sowerby, Thirsk, which was opened in April 2022. Econ’s winter hire fleet has grown exponentially over the past few years to over 1000 vehicles, and these gritters, which are leased to councils and highways authorities across the UK, are housed at the new site, and during the summer months, they are serviced and readied to return to clients in the autumn, ahead of winter setting in.

As investments in facilities and technology at Econ’s sites continue to deliver efficiency gains, and Gareth begins to develop his position, the next year for the business is filled with promise. By harnessing its ability to adapt and evolve to changing market conditions, developing its service and product range with customers’ needs in mind, and ensuring that a new generation of hard-working individuals are at the core, Econ’s traction in the market is sure to accelerate.