Value Creation Masterclass: Woodall Nicholson, backed by Rutland Partners

Targeting multiple markets has enabled specialist vehicle designer and manufacturer Woodall Nicholson add considerable value to its business, says Jason Birt, Investment Director at Rutland Partners and John Randerson, Chief Technology Officer at Woodall Nicholson.

Woodall Nicholson is a specialist vehicle designer and manufacturer which makes ceremonial vehicles such as hearses, emergency service vehicles, ambulances, and accessible small-to-medium buses. Rutland invested in the business in March 2020.

When Rutland first invested in early 2020 what value creation opportunities did you identify?

Jason Birt, Rutland Partners: What we saw in Woodall Nicholson at the time was a business with market leading brands, differentiated products and a very strong management team; so it was a very good starting position for us. In terms of the value creation on top of that existing business, the most exciting piece was leveraging and further investing behind the technology and know-how across the group in areas such as electric vehicles and low floor access. There was knowledge held in certain divisions, but it wasn’t necessarily shared or used across the group. I think taking the best from each division, and applying it to each division in turn presented quite an exciting opportunity there.

What key changes have been made to the business since Rutland’s investment and how have these changes improved the business overall?

John Randerson, Woodall Nicholson: One of the key factors in Rutland joining us was that it crystallised the thought process within the organisation and enabled the formation of the technology division within Woodall Nicholson. We’ve now got products going across all sectors of the business, whereas, before, it was perhaps a little bit more fragmented. In the past year, we’ve done Europe’s first frontline dual crewed ambulance, which is in service with the West Midlands ambulance service, which has done fantastically well.

Overall, when you have a different group of people in dialogue with the business, it does tend to crystallise ideas, and we’ve leveraged that quite well in the last 12 months.

How has Rutland worked with the business to assist with these improvements?

Birt: What we like to do is gain a strong understanding of each portfolio company and spend plenty of time with each member of the team to build up a good working relationship. The aim there is primarily to be able to act fast, so that we fully understand the context and the market in which each business operates and the team that we’re working with. And then, when things change, as they inevitably do, we are able to react quickly and make fast decisions so that we don’t hold the team up in any way.

Where does green energy come into this and how are initiatives coming into fruition?

Randerson: Decarbonisation across the vehicle network, not just in the UK and Europe, but globally is a huge challenge that everybody’s facing at the moment. So, it’s fantastic that a reasonably sized UK engineering and manufacturing business such as Woodall Nicholson has already got a really good link with buying groups across multiple facets of the transport sector where we can actually look at how we can solve problems through our innovation and through leveraging our products to actually provide real world solutions.

Birt: As an investor, we try to understand how quickly initiatives could come into fruition. I think that’s the real differentiator here, as Woodall Nicholson works so closely with all of their supply partners that this pipeline is real and it’s deliverable. We’ve already seen that the range of green vehicles, which were talked about, have been delivered and that pipeline is growing[...]that’s a really exciting thing here. The ability to turn ideas into action quickly.

I understand that Woodall Nicholson also created a technology division this year. What does that entail?

Randerson: The prime focus of the technology division is to make sure that we leverage the innovation and the ideation within the business right the way across all of the manufacturing divisions, so that we’re leaving no stone unturned in offering credible zero emission or low floor or lightweight solutions to all of our customers.

What’s really important for me is the training of young people to come into Woodall Nicholson apprenticeships. I’m really proud to say that in a year that’s been dominated by Covid and all that that entailed, we’ve grown the number of people within the business; both graduates and experienced people. That’s something that goes hand in glove with a lot of this innovation. Every step of the way has been supported by Rutland as well.

How has working with a PE firm like Rutland been beneficial for the business overall?

Randerson: The key thing for me has been Rutland’s desire to move quickly and to leverage a thought process that benefits the business. With Rutland, we’ve been able to accelerate our growth strategies and push forward with a group of genuinely interested investors. They have allowed us to be creative in our thought processes and have been really been supportive of new ideas and what we want to do. Right the way through from an idea, to sense checking it, adding valued input and to push the green button to go. It’s been really good.

Birt: It’s been a lot of open and transparent communication, which isn’t always as easy when we’ve been acting in a more remote fashion over the last year. But, as I said, building a very good working relationship with the team pre-deal has continued, and we’ve got a very good open dialogue to facilitate those discussions.

What are your plans for the business going forward?

Birt: First and foremost, our plan is centered around capitalising on development and innovation on what’s already been done. John’s mentioned about a number of new vehicles that have been launched and there’s a lot of upside to be had from those developments, and not only that, but the next wave in the pipeline is just as interesting in terms of elements of hydrogen technology and green initiatives. We will continue to be involved and up to date with the business and hopefully provide some sort of fresh external insight from the outside looking in.