Silver jubilee celebrations for innovative engineers GM
A business which started out by converting vans into mini-buses has diversified to become one of the top UK specialists in its field, as it marks its 25th year.
GM Coachwork, based in Trusham near Newton Abbot, is now one of the leading companies to adapt and modify vehicles for wheelchair users.
Established by David and Lyn Vooght in 1988, the business now employs a team of 80 full-time and 20 part-time engineers and workers, with turnover growth of 30% in the past three years alone.
Former Westland helicopter engineer Mr Vooght started out by converting panel vans into mini-buses, but within 12 months had carved out a niche in further modifying the vehicles for wheelchair access.
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With its services in high demand from local authorities, charities and social services, within five years the business had expanded its reach to offer van and car conversions for private vehicles.
As well as making cars accessible for wheelchair-using passengers, GM also converts vehicles for drivers who remain seated in their wheelchairs.
"It's a growing part of the business," said Mr Vooght. "The technology is challenging, but is probably the most rewarding, in terms of the service it provides. We are now in the top three UK companies for that service."
GM also further modifies vehicles to accommodate the special needs of its clients, incorporating bespoke engineering such as hand-controls for drivers who do not have the use of their legs.
With more and more people using mobility scooters, in-built lifts to enable them to be hoisted into a car-boot are also a growing part of GM's business.
It still converts vans into mini-buses and installs seats and windows so that Transits can be used by tradesmen for work and family-runs. It also has a sideline in converting other vehicles into campers.
Supporting the business in its growth has been Nigel Collins, a former Westland colleague of Mr Vooght's who joined from Airbus in Toulouse, where he worked in international sales and manufacturing.
Mr Collins introduced new efficiencies to GM, including intelligent engineering systems which have reduced some production times by 25%.
"We've had steady and continuous growth and profits since we launched the business," said Mr Vooght. "We've bucked the economic trend, in a market where, if you've got the products, there is growing demand.
"In terms of staff and skills, they are harder to come by and very valuable. Many of the guys have been with me for many years. You have to train internally – it's a sign of the times that there isn't that level of training there was 20 or 30 years ago.
"Many youngsters weren't encouraged to become engineers, while many engineering companies stopped the kind of apprenticeships that people of my age benefited from.
"Graduates are two-a-penny these days, but good mechanical engineers are much harder to come by. But things are improving a bit and the cycle is beginning to come back."
Indeed, Mr Vooght's 27-year old son Graham, a university graduate, now works full-time within the engineering side of the business.