Monday, 6 August 2018

Making an impact

While I know that two posts in the same year represents a 100 per cent increase in my normal productivity levels on here, I thought it was time for an update. Many people seem to have been aware that things changed for me job-wise recently, but from the questions I've received it's clear that many people (of those who are kind enough to be interested) aren't too sure what it is I'm actually doing now, and even more don't know enough about my employer. So, let's start with where I am now, then fill in a bit of history and finally talk about some exciting stuff that's going on.

Since 1st June, I've been Head of Commercial for HCT Group. This is an organisation that has grown rapidly to become one of the biggest bus operators in the UK.  Not in the top five, but certainly within the top ten.  But because of the rate of growth, many people don't appreciate just how big we are and how much we do.

Here are some facts and figures:

  • Over 750 buses, transporting over 30 million passenger journeys each year
  • We operate twelve London bus routes as part of the TfL network, with three more coming along this autumn
  • We operate the public bus services in Jersey and Guernsey
  • We also have operations in Bristol, Manchester (as MCT), Leeds, Wakefield and Derbyshire
  • Most recently, we acquired Powells Bus and Coach in South Yorkshire
The Group originated as Hackney Community Transport in 1982, with a handful of minibuses providing essential community transport services around the borough that remains our home. However, there was a realisation that if the organisation was to survive and maximise its social impact, it would need to do more than rely on traditional forms of grant funding.

As a result, HCT started to bid for commercial contracts in the marketplace, using the profits to fund its social objectives. Led by our visionary CEO Dai Powell OBE (who started as a bus cleaner), this is a path that has seen the Group expand over a hundredfold in the ensuing quarter of a century, with further growth firmly on the agenda.

The key difference between us and other large operators is that we are a Social Enterprise - one of the biggest in the UK in fact, and certainly the biggest in the public transport sector.

However, just to nail one common misconception, that does not mean that we are not-for-profit.  

Quite the opposite in fact, we compete in the marketplace on the same terms as any other commercial business, and the profits that we generate from our commercial operations are essential to fund our social mission - activities such as the provision of Learning Centres to help the most disadvantaged in society access skills and learning; independent travel training to enable children with learning difficulties or disabilities to travel by themselves on public transport; and our  ongoing highly successful Drive On scheme, providing career opportunities to assist ex-offenders back into work.

We do still have some traditional 'not for profit' Section 19 community transport operations within our portfolio and these provide a vitally important part of our work, but they are a small part of the overall group, with the vast majority of our activities carried out commercially with standard o-licences.

Hackney Community Transport takes centre stage at a depot open day in April 2017. 
CEO Dai Powell OBE is the one on the right

The key difference to other business is that we are 'not for dividend'. The profits are not distributed to shareholders, but are instead used for reinvestment and directly to fund our social objectives.

Another interesting point is that the parent company HCT Group is a registered charity and as such the group is asset locked - there is no opportunity for anyone to sell the business and make off with wads of cash.

Given that all my professional experience prior to working with HCT Group was in the private sector, it has been fascinating to learn a completely different way of approaching business. While our management meetings comprise exactly the same rigorous analysis of revenue and costs as you would find in any other bus business, the first line on our weekly KPIs reports the number of people who have benefitted from our services, and any evaluation of potential new projects has to have a clear rationale of how our involvement will help to deliver social impact.

The showpiece event of our year is not the unveiling of our financial reports, but instead is the launch of our Social Impact Report - a document that sets out in detail how we have fulfilled our social mission in the past year, including not only the statistics showing the number of people who have benefitted from our work, but also real stories from people and organisations who find that they are able to participate much more fully in everyday life - whether it be for work, training, healthcare or social activities - as a result of the services we provide.

I'm sure that over time I'll touch on the work of the Group in a lot more detail, and I'm always willing to answer questions as I've found there are many misconceptions about what we do and how we work, and it saddens me that people don't appreciate how big we are and therefore how much good work we do.

In my day job however, I behave exactly as you would expect a Head of Commercial to work in any bus company...
  • Working with our Business Development Unit, looking for opportunities to grow, either through tendering for new contracts or looking for potential business acquisitions
  • Helping our local teams to understand the commercial performance of their various activities and considering ways to improve profitability and social impact
  • Looking for new sources of revenue
  • Ensuring that new contracts and acquisitions are implemented smoothly
  • Helping to improve our brand management and achieve consistently high standards of brand presentation
...and much much more besides.

I've barely been going two months so I'm still very much at the start of the journey with much of this stuff, but it's great fun and very exciting and needless to say I'm really enjoying getting stuck in.

My appointment in this role followed almost two years of working for the group on a self-employed consultancy basis.

I left my previous position as Group Development Director at Wellglade in June 2016.  It was my decision to leave - I'd reached a point where I didn't feel I could move forward - but I left having turned TM Travel from loss into sustained profit and (I believe) significantly improved the operational standards over my three year tenure, as well as contributing significantly to a number of exciting developments within trentbarton, many of which are detailed in previous posts on this blog.

At the time, it wasn't most amicable of partings. The details of why I felt it was the right time to go are not for sharing, but for the avoidance of any doubt, I have only positive things to say about Wellglade and its people. My three years there were a great experience and the ability to learn from iconic figures such as Brian King, Ian Morgan, Graham Sutton and Melvyn Hopwood was hugely rewarding.  I wish only the best of fortunes for my old colleagues and I hope they continue to go from strength to strength.

As it wasn't really a carefully prepared plan, I found myself facing a quiet summer and wasn't really too sure what I wanted to do next.  A significant part of me had never got over the circumstances of Velvet's ultimate demise and I felt burned out and was quite keen on the idea of getting out of the industry altogether.  

At around the same time however I'd got to know Rhys Hand. He'd built up a taxi business in the west country under the CityFox banner and was keen to develop and do more, and suggested that I might be able to help him. He'd given me enormous help sorting out the brand presentation in the latter days at TM and I was happy to reciprocate.

He hadn't had the smoothest of journeys up to that point, but I felt he had great drive and clear potential to become a great success with the right guidance and encouragement, and although I'm no longer formally involved I'd like to think that two years on, his business is in a much better place than it was, and will go on to do exciting things and attract attention for all the right reasons.

Don't worry - I wasn't let loose on any real passengers.
But after a summer of helping out with taxis in Bristol and driving buses at special events all over the south, I was raring to go again and Alex Warner - the industry's number one recruitment supremo and all round top bloke - came to me with a highly unexpected proposition.  Would I be interested in setting up a Special Educational Needs education transport contract in South West London?

It was totally outside my comfort zone.  I know nothing at all about the world of SEN transport.  But I love a challenge and due to an unforeseeable last minute hiccup, HCT Group needed someone rather urgently to oversee the implementation of their recently won contract to provide all the SEN and adult day care transport for the borough of Wandsworth.

What started as an eight week placement was extended to three months, then six months, then nine months, and in the end I never left. After handing Wandsworth over to the experienced and highly capable hands of London bus industry stalwart Jon Batchelor, I moved over to Walthamstow to implement the first TfL red bus operations at a recently opened depot just off the North Circular, with the start of the 385 and W19 routes quickly followed by the 397 and W11.

Walthamstow depot, the night before the start of W19.

Then I was off to Hackney, taking charge of the very heart of the Group - Hackney Community Transport - as maternity cover for a few months.  A year on from my first SEN experience at Wandsworth, I found myself reprising the same role just over the river, as the Group won the contract to provide SEN and adult day care services in Hammersmith and Fulham and it fell to me to introduce it.

As fast as one project ended, another one (or two or three) was appearing to replace it, and I was fortunate also to have forged good relationships with the Head Office team in Shoreditch so I found myself gradually being able to exert some influence over future developments, and eventually it led me to join the Group full time in my current role.

All of which means that just over two years after leaving South Yorkshire, I find myself back here again. The acquisition of Powells on 24th July brings me right back to a part of the country I know well.  But we haven't bought it because I want to run buses in South Yorkshire, any more than we've bought it because our CEO likes the name!

We've bought it because we see opportunities to develop a successful and thriving bus business and social enterprise, providing essential services in a part of the country where bus services are a key part of the fabric of everyday life, and are an essential tool in combatting social isolation and loneliness.

The business has been in the Powell family for three generations and is a very well known local brand. Most recently, Ian and Jane Powell - under the watchful eye of Ian's father John Powell (whose name remains on the sides of the coaches) have worked hard to create a business of which they can be rightly proud, but without any interest from the next generation of the family to take it on, and reaching a point in life where they want to enjoy the fruits of their endeavours, we are delighted to take over the reins.

We know we will need to spend some money to take the business to the next level. The process has already started with the uniform company measuring drivers for new uniforms; immediate plans underway to draft in some slightly newer vehicles and an advert out for a General Manager to oversee the day-to-day operations. Some things will stay the same though. The Powells name will remain and we will continue to operate from the same depot, leased from the Powell family.

While I'm there full time at the moment, making sure that integration into the group goes as smoothly as possible and gathering as much information and knowledge as possible from a very welcoming and positive team of staff there to help inform our future plans, over time my personal involvement will largely be from a distance - supporting, assisting and sometimes cajoling the local team. But this is probably my favourite part of the world and I'm delighted once again to be able to play a positive part in developing the public transport offer in South Yorkshire and surrounding areas.

Developing Powells is only one part of my job though, and with projects underway virtually everywhere in the Group (and even my long-awaited first visit to Jersey set for later this month) I'm looking forward to being able to help the Group go from strength to strength as we expand and improve our profile.


  1. Great to see one of your brilliantly written, honest and insightful blogs again. Good luck for the future and when First want to pull out of South Yorkshire.....

  2. Thank you for the generous feedback - much appreciated.

  3. Over a year now Phil. So the 100% has gone :)