Tomorrow’s leaders learn from today’s at YBMN

The next generation was at the forefront at the Young Bus Managers Network Conference, held last week in Glasgow and attended by over 100 of the industry’s upcoming talent from across the land

The next generation of leaders again had the opportunity to harvest the wisdom of existing bus industry alumni last week at the autumn Young Bus Managers Network (YBMN) conference in Glasgow.

Delegates were treated to a tour of First’s 400-bus Caledonia depot

Naturally, there was a strong Scottish flavour among the speakers. Elsie Turbyne, MD of Xplore Dundee, was joined by Andrew Jarvis and Tom Bridge, MDs of Stagecoach’s East Scotland and West Scotland businesses respectively.

Meanwhile, Keith Watson, Alexander Dennis Customer Development Director, presented an overview of what ADL will be bringing to market soon.

Last week’s conference was the best-supported in the YBMN’s history, and while delegates from the five big groups were most prominent, there was also a fine turnout from smaller operators.

First’s leader speaks

Proceedings began with an after-dinner address from FirstGroup CEO Tim O’Toole. Mr O’Toole advised delegates that grasping opportunities – particularly those presented in adversity – is the key to progression, and that little faith should be placed in structured career planning.

“Grab opportunities that are unexpected. Sometimes, for a youngster, the greatest opportunity is the one that comes along when an organisation is in trouble. Managers towards the end of their careers may shy away, but you should not.”

The customer’s needs must always come first, ahead of matters such as scheduling and rostering conveniences, and flimsy excuses such as blaming high passenger numbers for service delivery problems are unacceptable, he says.

“Disney or UPS do not use volume as an excuse. The bus industry must change its priorities and see what our customers see, and that includes being fully aware of the effects of congestion on passengers’ experiences.

“The bus industry is under attack, both in the street and from government. We must be wholly conversant with what this means, and that includes reading Prof David Begg’s report into congestion and the Department for Transport’s bus usage figures.

Visit included Caledonia’s control room and employee learning facilities

“You must be flexible and curious, and that energy needs to be channelled towards the needs of the customer. If we can’t do that, we will be an industry of the past.”

Across the board

Mr O’Toole’s words are echoed by Stagecoach regional MDs Mr Bridge and Mr Jarvis.

Mr Bridge’s earlier career was spent in the south of England prior to moving north. He explains that, outside the south east, the bus industry faces difficulties principally as a result of stagnant high street activity.

YBMN Co-Patron Roger French points out that – like many evening passengers did after the advent of widespread TV ownership in the 1960s – many former bus users who no longer visit the high street are gone for good, and that just as they did 50 years ago, operators must find ways to replace them.

If new passengers are to be retained, they must feel valued. “We must provide a positive interaction between ourselves and passengers,” says Mr Bridge. There is an issue of low self-esteem among some staff, who see the opportunity to ‘fight back’, he adds, but sometimes managers are equally guilty of apathy, and it must be stamped out.

“Many managers adopt the attitude that complainants are up to no good, but we must remember that they do not take the time to complain for nothing. Among some managers, there is a feeling that issuing a refund is admitting defeat. Changing that culture is an ongoing fight, but it is extremely important that we do so.”

The age of the…

Another area where buses have chance to regain lost ground in the high street is by competing effectively with other modes for commuter traffic, says Mr Jarvis.

Stagecoach East Scotland is unusual in that it operates a high proportion of longer-distance routes, giving a profitable opportunity to provide vehicles of a luxurious specification. Some are coaches and, despite higher fares being charged, these services are still seen by customers as offering value for money.

But like Mr Bridge, Mr Jarvis says that the best vehicles have little value without an accompanying commitment to customer service and an attention to detail.

“We have a three-strong customer service team who answer tweets from 0700-1900hrs, and depots are able to issue tweets about disruption outside those hours.

“It is important to make sure that you deliver on your promises in every way. If your vehicles have charging points or wi-fi, make sure that it works.

“Mixed seat moquette is also not acceptable. It’s something simple, like recovering a few non-matching cushions, that can lift a whole vehicle interior.”

Mr Jarvis offers some other advice to the leaders of tomorrow. “Get out from behind your desk. Ride on your services, and your competitors’. Don’t be afraid to try new things, but do it properly. A woman cannot be half-pregnant, and you cannot run half a service.

“But if it doesn’t work, don’t be shy about withdrawing it, because we are all in business to make a profit.”

This is salient advice, because all speakers agree that the industry has little choice other than to try new ideas if it is to prosper. Uber, autonomous vehicles and online shopping are here to stay, and some high streets are in near-terminal decline.

But these changes are gradual, and so it will fall to the young managers of today to battle them head-on tomorrow. As a result, opportunities such as the YBMN conference will become ever-more important in the future.

routeONE comment

The YBMN conference once again provided tomorrow’s leaders with valuable insight. Besides sharing ideas with their peers, they were able to feed on the experiences of those who have already made their way to the top of the ladder.

Such individuals come little more senior than Tim O’Toole. The former freight railroader from America turned FirstGroup CEO delivered a fine after-dinner address containing much practical advice.

But first-hand operational experience is equally valuable, and the YBMN is alone in being able to provide real-life guidance, be it from the coalface or the corridors of power.