Few are the people who have given 50 years’ service to the coach and bus industry. Among them is Bob Dunn. His career began with an apprenticeship with East Midlands operator Midland General in 1970. Half a century later, he is at the helm of Rotala’s operations in the North West – and still as keen as when he started out five decades ago.
Bob’s career trajectory began with buses before moving into a long spell built on the coach sector. It is now back in the theatre that it began, with Diamond Bus North West (DBNW) depots at Bolton and Eccles and the Preston Bus operation in his charge.
The latter operation – which became part of Rotala in 2011 – is a settled business. Bob became Managing Director there well before Rotala entered Greater Manchester and he is proud of the work that has been done at the one-time municipal fleet.
Along the M61, the picture is a little different. Bolton – which employs around 600 people – was purchased from First Bus in 2019. Its ongoing transition will see it become the central hub of Rotala’s business in the North West. Eccles joined the fray a little earlier, complementing a former depot in Atherton.
The more things change…
New and newer buses have flowed into Bolton since Rotala’s takeover. More are still to come. Focus and processes are changing steadily, and cultural shift remains a work in progress. That challenge is reminiscent of the early 1970s.
Back then, most of Midland General had recently become part of the National Bus Company’s Trent subsidiary. A young Bob Dunn – having completed his engineering apprenticeship at the top of the class nationally – took on the role of Garage Foreman at Matlock depot. Reliability there was poor and the workshop was busy.
“Matlock needed someone who could manage the engineering side and drive improvements, but who was also a leader and would put on their overalls and fix buses when needed,” he says.
There was apathy at Matlock. Engine failures were common in a certain type of bus.
Instead of investigating why, the company replaced them and waited for the next to happen. Bob – still in his mid-20s – examined the problem and found a solution: Install a baffle in the oil system. Failures stopped.
Dunn-Line is born in 1984
Pride – a word used often by Bob – was wanting among some staff at Matlock. That led him to the first of two stints with Skills Motorcoaches in Nottingham. Arthur Skill shared a lot of Bob’s beliefs. A role with an independent operator taught him a lot about the business aspect of running vehicles. External revenue flowed under his charge.
Bob’s Skills days bookended two months in Kenya with United Transport. In 1984 came the first steps towards what became Dunn-Line, with its fleet that peaked at 270 vehicles. Bob purchased Netherfield Coaches in Nottingham. It had 10 vehicles, Ministry problems and not much work.
“I worked night and day to build that business into what became Dunn-Line,” he explains. An excursion and holiday programme was launched and efforts were made to expand into new market segments. But it was buying one of the first Bova Futuras in the country that proved to be one of the shrewdest decisions.
“I was offered the coach after a finance company repossessed it. It changed the nature of the business and of what we did. That coach also worked night and day. It did us so much good.”
Recognising a need to move towards guaranteed income streams
Many years of growth followed. That took the business into areas from the North East to London and others in between.
A diversion into the taxi market came and went, but at the back of Bob’s mind was how a lot of Dunn-Line’s work was based on non-guaranteed income. That had to change.
Such a view was driven home in 2001. Foot and mouth disease and 9/11 contrived to hit the incoming tourism market hard. By now with 40 coaches in London, that left Bob sweating.
“At that time only around 33% of our revenue was either contracted or guaranteed. I worked out in early 2002 that we needed that figure to be 80%. It would take two years to reposition the business to achieve that, but we needed to be a contracted operator. Coach or bus, it didn’t matter.”
Repositioning a business back into profit with Flights purchase
A deal to purchase Flights Coaches of Birmingham went some way to delivering the shift towards guaranteed income. Contracts with National Express and other parties were novated, but most of Flights’ vehicles did not form part of the purchase. Dunn-Line’s own coaches took up those duties. A similar exercise followed in the North East. Positive cashflow returned.
Flights was then sold in late 2004. With that deal went Bob’s son Simon, who led the former Flights business under its new owner. The seeds of Rotala were sewn by that sale. Simon remains Chief Executive of Rotala today.
Bob’s priority then was to float Dunn-Line on the Alternative Investment Market. That was achieved with the help of his oldest son Scott. It was a challenging time. “We were busy making presentations to potential investors. They wanted to meet the head of the company that they were looking to invest in to see that I had the commitment to grow it,” he says.
Flotation was completed successfully but growth in the UK contracted market had become difficult.
Dunn-Line had by this time bought a handful of new buses built in Macedonia and others that were rebodies of existing chassis. Eastern Europe was thus a good place to find expansion. A deal was done to purchase a business in Poland.
In 2006, Veolia Transport came knocking. A sale went through. Dunn-Line was no longer the family business.
Bob remained with Veolia for a year before retiring. A property venture could be run largely remotely from Spain and via agents in the UK. With that – it seemed – Bob’s involvement in coaches and buses ended.
Back into the thick of things at Rotala for Bob Dunn
In the meantime, what had become Rotala was continuing to grow. After a short period away from the industry, Bob became an advisor to the group. In 2008 he was invited to join the Rotala board. At that time, the business had a base at Heathrow and a presence in both Birmingham and Bristol.
An opportunity then presented itself in Lancashire. Rotala purchased Preston Bus from Stagecoach and it became Bob’s responsibility. The group’s presence in the North West subsequently grew into Greater Manchester. Rotala is now Manchester’s second largest operator.
Taking on such a challenge – and Bob is clear that Bolton is an ongoing challenge, albeit one that is starting to deliver results – after a long career and a short period of semi-retirement may sound an odd move. But he is adamant that it was the right thing to do, both for himself and for Rotala.
“I am still as ambitious as I have ever been. It is sometimes difficult to find opportunities that fit in with my view of having pride in my work. But Preston, and now Bolton, are big opportunities.”
‘There’s a difference between old fashioned and experienced’
Much work is still to be done at Bolton. Delivery of new vehicles and a focus on lost mileage are helping the turnaround.
DBNW’s customer service function has seen an increase in resource and it is now responsible for staff that it was not before. Cleaners are an example of that.
Work is also ongoing to bring fresh managerial blood in. “It’s my job to give those employees direction and vision,” says Bob. “They are excited about what we can do here, but there is still a lot to get to grips with.”
In a hark back to his days in Matlock in the mid-1970s, there is also still work to be done on certain cultural aspects. That is where the benefit of experience comes in. But there is a subtle difference between leveraging knowledge gained decades ago and merely being from another era, he adds.
“Some people may think that I am old fashioned. I don’t believe that I am. I fundamentally believe in the principles of planning, organising, controlling, auditing and thinking about what you are spending. Those are the key tasks of a manager, regardless of whether it is 1972 or 2020.”
At 66 years of age, Bob has already promised his wife on multiple occasions that he will retire. His roots as a fitter have not been forgotten and lots of his planning for the future of Rotala’s operation in the North West centres on engineering. At Bolton that, too, is a work in progress. But even after 50 years in the coach and bus industry, Bob Dunn is still up for the challenge.