Sunday, 15 September 2013

When one bus company just isn't enough...

I was walking through Sheffield City Centre with a good friend of mine, when her very streetwise five year old granddaughter Ruby stopped us in our tracks.  “Oh my god, did you see what that woman was wearing?” she announced, her face a mixture of disgust and astonishment, “red and purple just do not go together!”

I hope that’s not true, because my job is to make them go together!  As if running one bus company wasn't enough, I now have two!

My latest adventure started about two months ago, when I was appointed by Wellglade (best known as the parent company of trentbarton) to run their TM Travel subsidiary.

This is a part-time mission occupying about half my week, the other half continues to be devoted to Velvet.

So what possessed me to take a second job two hundred miles away from home?

I’d been looking for a fresh challenge for a while.  I love Velvet with all my heart, I bleed purple, and have no plans for the business to do anything other than grow and prosper.

But I have a fabulous management team who take care of the day-to-day service delivery, and they need space to do their jobs and develop themselves, both individually and as a team without me micro-managing every detail.

For my own part, I love change and hate routine, and my brain needs fresh stimulus all the time.  With Velvet approaching six years old (the company that wouldn’t last six months, I remember being told repeatedly at the time), it has already more than doubled the longest period I had spent in any one job previously.

I had therefore been on the lookout for some consultancy work on the side, or something similar.  The opportunity - when it came - was rather grander than I was expecting!  Two meetings a year apart and a couple of phone calls led me to a discussion with the Wellglade board at their Heanor offices, at which I was presented with the chance to be General Manager at TM Travel.

I must admit I jumped at it.  The downside with consultancy is that you can suggest and advise, but ultimately you can’t make anything happen, you’re relying on others to share your vision.  I crave responsibility, so the opportunity to run something of my own was too good to pass up.

And it is difficult to imagine a better opportunity anywhere in the UK bus industry.  As a parent company, Wellglade’s credentials are beyond question – an unrivalled track record of innovation and sound management.  As a board of directors, it is hard to think of three greater guides and mentors than Brian King, Ian Morgan and Graham Sutton.

Meanwhile TM Travel is a compact business that has been through a tough time since coming into Wellglade’s ownership.  Small enough to be manageable alongside my existing commitments, but big enough to be a meaningful player in South Yorkshire and the East Midlands, and with the board keen to see it play to its full potential, I couldn’t ask for a better opening.

In my first two months there, the scale of the opportunity has become clear.  For a start, the company is in better shape than many people acknowledge.

In the eyes of many industry commentators and enthusiasts, the company is seen as a complete basket case.

While these opinions clearly have some basis in the reality of the turmoil the company has experienced in recent years, such perceptions are rapidly becoming outdated and the truth is that the standard of service delivery is up there with the rest.

Not just our own monitoring, but also figures supplied by South Yorkshire PTE, show that our punctuality and reliability is generally in line with the big operators in the area, and with industry norms.  While the fleet age may be higher than we’d like, the standard of maintenance belies this, with a run of clear VOSA encounters leading to a green OCRS score and a MOT pass rate approaching 100 per cent.

Also in our favour is an incredibly positive and committed workforce.  Outside of Velvet, by far the best I’ve encountered.  Virtually everyone I’ve met wants the company to succeed and is brimming with ideas and suggestions on how to get there.  Yes there is work to be done to get the best out of the people and structure, but even in my short time there I’ve seen a real sense of people wanting to work together to move the company forward.

I’m under no illusions, there is a lot to do.  There are far too many rough edges operationally.  The financial performance is not where it should be, with too many marginal routes, and this has undermined any business case for fleet investment with the result that the fleet presentation is not great, with too many different liveries and hand-me-down vehicles that haven’t been properly integrated into the fleet.

Until we sort those issues out, and prove to the board that we have a company worthy of sustained investment, we will continue to hand ammunition to those who would talk us down.  But that is the challenge I’ve been put there to address, and it is exciting beyond measure.

Of course, commuting between Southampton and Sheffield is not for the faint hearted, and I simply wouldn’t do it if I thought it would damage Velvet.

But the team here know what they’re doing, and we’ve strengthened the management structure to make sure we’ve got all the bases covered.

After eighteen months in which we’ve struggled a bit following swingeing cuts in public sector funding in November 2011 and the associated loss of the C, we’ve suddenly hit a new groove and are powering forward with a vengeance.

The extension of Velvet A into Southampton last December has been steadily building in popularity and has firmly established itself at the core of our commercial offer.  The morning peak service into Southampton will be strengthened next month – filling the only real gap in service provision – and the new wave of college students and the highly popular extension of our young person fares to 5-19 year olds has opened up another new market.

To capitalise on the growth, we’ve bought five Volvo B10BLEs from Ensign, ex-Stagecoach North East, which are being refurbished as we speak.  Apart from one line which has to remain double deck due to lunchtime capacity constraints, these will sweep away the motley collection of Darts, DAFs and Solos that make our current offer on the A look rather disjointed.

More importantly, the B10BLE has a reputation for reliability and robust mechanical performance, as well as being smooth and comfortable for drivers and passengers.

Our aim is obviously to be able to afford much newer kit for the A in time, and if we can get three or four years of solid reliable performance from these buses while the patronage continues to grow, we will be well placed to make the business case in due course.

We have won the contract to take over the S1 route from First in Southampton in October, so we have extended our shopping spree to include two further Solos.  Having established a very good reputation with the customers in the area since taking over the S2 in 2010, this new contract is a great opportunity for us to extend our presence, while leaving our bigger cousins free to concentrate on their core commercial networks.

Completing our summer shopping has been a fifth low-floor DAF double decker from Dawson Rentals – Spectra T124 AUA - complementing our existing batch and allowing the withdrawal of our infamous orange Olympian – a bargain priced purchase that has served us very well but whose condition towards the end was directly at odds with the image we wished to present.

Indeed, we now only have three step entrance double deckers remaining, and realistically these will probably be fine for the college routes they serve until rather nearer the DDA deadline.

The other notable service expansion this summer has been our re-entry to the Ringwood – Southampton market that we tried briefly in 2008.  The issues that caused us to withdraw from the route at the time were more to do with the constraints on the timetable imposed by the associated contract for route 35, and we have been looking for a way back into the market ever since.

The opportunity has arisen with the acquisition of a school contract in the area that gives us a solid revenue base, and early signs are that the new improved 300 will quickly establish itself as a solid performer.

As if all that weren’t enough, the 67 has also had its share of the excitement with an improved Saturday service, and with the route showing growth we’re hopeful of more improvements to come.  And last but not least our Marwell route has really found its feet this summer, with regular driver Jeff getting into the spirit with his game hunter’s costume and toy animals strewn throughout the bus.

To say there is a lot going on would be an understatement, but it’s all positive and that’s exactly how I like it.  I work much better under pressure, and after a year and a half in which there are times when life in Eastleigh has seemed a bit mundane, the challenge of leading all these exciting new developments while shuttling 200 miles each way between two offices has me once again fired up with enthusiasm.

And that’s without even mentioning a certain modest interest in a local night club that has arrived completely out of the blue and means that my weekend nights are as action packed as the days in between.

It’s a good job I don’t really do sleep!